Where Culture Meets Community

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A couple’s decades-long effort to make a better neighborhood

By Christopher Moore

Sitting in his office at Symphony Space, Isaiah Sheffer looked back on 32 very active seasons.

“It could only have happened on the West Side,” he said.

In July, he officially moves from being artistic director to founding artistic director. The switch was celebrated June 7 with an event called “Isaiah Fest: An All-Star Salute to Isaiah Sheffer.”

The outgoing founding artistic director happens to be married to someone who knows a thing or two about being active in the community. Ethel Sheffer, a longtime member of Community Board 7, is a walking encyclopedia of city planning issues, someone who’s been involved in cleaning up the neighborhood and planning its future.

Isaiah Sheffer said his wife, Ethel, came up with the idea of creating Symphony Space in an old movie theater on Broadway and West 95th Street. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Both spoke separately and enthusiastically of the early days of Symphony Space—a notion that Isaiah said his wife came up with, since she was working with the organization Blocks for a Better Broadway.

“She suggested, ‘Why don’t you do something in the old movie theater at 95th and Broadway?” Isaiah Sheffer recalled. “So she’s responsible for the idea of Symphony Space.”

The Sheffers worked with the cofounder, Alan Miller, to create “Wall-to-Wall Bach,” a special event on January 7, 1978. Its success led to tears of happiness. “The part of me that wasn’t weeping was scheming—how do we take over this joint?” Sheffer said.

His wife remembers walking up and down Broadway, collecting $10 here and $15 there from merchants. She was “shilling” for a good cause, enlisting community support and eventually helping to give birth to a vibrant cultural institution.

For Ethel Sheffer, Symphony Space is just one venture in a long line of civic involvements. She’s become a key urban planner, serving as president of the New York metro chapter of the American Planning Association. In New York, she’s known for her critical work on the Riverside South development, which has involved everyone from Donald Trump to local West Side activists. Ethel Sheffer was also instrumental in the revitalization of Times Square, having worked with business improvement district leader Gretchen Dykstra on high-profile reports.

All along, she’s been an academic too. She taught political science at Barnard. At Brooklyn College, she was the director of a liberal arts program for law enforcement officers.

“A couple of my students were killed in the line of duty,” she said, reflecting on her community involvement in an interview at the Metro Diner. She’s currently an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Back in the 1970s, as many mentally ill people were released from institutions and wound up on city streets, the impact was felt on the West Side. Single Room Occupancy residences abounded.

“Like many people, I was confused and upset that there seemed to be many people in trouble,” Ethel Sheffer said.

Then she saw a woman relieving herself on the street.

“I was upset for the act and I was upset for her,” Ethel Sheffer said, explaining what drew her into a group that became Blocks for a Better Broadway, centered around the area from West 86th to 96th streets. Her community commitment was underway.

Ethel Sheffer does not shy away from tough calls.

“There’s always going to be the criticisms, the difficulties and the difference of perspective,” she said. “That’s part of the good stuff.”

She’s even been a political candidate, having been among those who ran unsuccessfully against Ronnie Eldridge in her first bid for City Council.

On Community Board 7, where she’s been among the most quotable of members, Sheffer proves one does not have to be a political officeholder to make a difference.

“I’m fairly straightforward,” she said, admitting that she’s “not soft and cuddly.” That does not mean that she’s unkind. “I think mean is awful,” she added.

Her husband, who grew up in Greenwich Village and is a Stuyvesant High School graduate, has been an artistic powerhouse. He’s the talented leader who has presided over several cultural institutions within a cultural institution: the “Selected Shorts,” readings of short stories by actors, which have become both a neighborhood hit and a national radio mainstay; the political “Follies” that he writes and performs;  “Bloomsday on Broadway,” a celebration of the work of James Joyce each June 16, which next year marks its 30th anniversary; and a range of other music, dance and film programming.

There were lessons in the early days, before those successes.

“We learned a lot about what not to do, like never have an accordion sextet,” he said. “That was kind of a funky night.”

He initially balked at the idea that became “Selected Shorts.” He thought back to the night when Kay Cattarulla, another instrumental figure and board member at Symphony Space, whispered to him about having a series where actors read short stories. “I said, with the great vision that made me a great man of the theater, ‘Nah, who would go to that?’” Isaiah Sheffer said.

Success is also connected to the neighborhood.

“It’s crucial. You could find a derelict movie theater in a lot of places,” he said.

Before Symphony Space opened, so many talented people nearby were waiting for a place to perform; “within five blocks” there were chamber musicians, actors and writers. The audience was there, too.

Although he said there is no better audience than the one in New York, Isaiah Sheffer these days tours with the “Selected Shorts” team around the nation. He’s just been to Missoula, Mont., Palm Beach, Fla., New Barrington, Mass., and New Haven, Conn.

For her part, Ethel Sheffer was born in New York, brought up in Brooklyn and landed on the Upper West Side during the 1960s. She loves sharing time on Cape Cod with her husband, but she cannot quite imagine leaving the neighborhood in any permanent way.

“You ask me could I leave New York?” she said. “The answer is no. Could I live somewhere else in New York? It’s doubtful.”

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