New York’s community development world lost an inspiration last month with the passing of Leah Schneider. The petite but tenacious founder of the Manhattan Valley Development Corporation and other housing groups, known for her wicked wit and feisty persona, passed away on December 29. She was 87.
Schneider arrived in the United States in the 1930s, having fled anti-Semitism first in Poland, then Germany. She and her husband, Kurt, settled in Texas (where she worked for the NAACP) and later moved New York, where they carved out a home on the Upper West Side
In 1968, as abandoned buildings and drug dealers crowded the streets of her neighborhood, Schneider helped start Manhattan Valley. From there she was off and running. She founded West Side Federation for Senior Housing nine years later, and in 1983 became the executive director of the development corporation.
“Leah was just phenomenal, vibrant. She was valiant,” said Donna Gibbons, executive director of the group since the spring of 2000, when Schneider retired. “Someone that fought for justice in any form, and definitely a force in making sure that low income folk had a decent, safe place to live.”
During her years of service to the two housing groups, they created a total of about 2,400 apartments for low-income tenants, many of them with special needs. “Leah was very much a part of that,” said Laura Jervis, executive director of West Side Federation.
Revered within the community development world, Schneider was known for her strong will and unrelenting dedication. “She’d say, ‘Here’s what I need,’ and it was always very hard to say no to Leah,” recalled Marc Jahr, a vice president at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. That is clear today on the ground floor of a 68-unit building on West 108th Street, which LISC created with Manhattan Valley. “The easy thing would have been to just rent it out,” said Jahr. But Schneider insisted on including a child care center at the building. Years later, a Head Start facility stands there. “She was an affordable housing advocate, but her vision was much broader,” said Jahr. “She was a very strong woman, but she would do it with grace.”
For details on the memorial service, call 212-749-4410.