BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Referred to formally as “Robert” but known to legions of likeminded doers as “Bob,” the gangly, diehard Democrat whose unrelenting drive to form a more perfect union literally shaped the local landscape died in his West Chelsea home on December 7 at the age of 92.
Born in New Haven, CT on April 23, 1929, Robert S. Trentlyon’s results-oriented advocacy during his Chelsea years can be traced to his formative ones as the son of a lawyer father, musician mother, and suffragette grandmother. The class of 1950 Yale University graduate spent a short time at Berkeley, where he met his future wife, Betty, via their mutual interest in Students for Democratic Action. Betty passed away in March of this year from COVID. They are survived by son Jason and daughter Jessica.
A former publisher whose holdings at various times included The Westsider, Chelsea-Clinton News, and the Battery News (aka Downtown Express), his stewardship of those newspapers set the bar, and the tone, for how to operate a hyperlocal publication located within a city of eight million.
With an opening observation that hints at another aspect of his life you’ll hear more about soon, Constance L. Hays wrote, in a March 24, 1996 column in the New York Times:
Mr. Trentlyon, 66, founded the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club in 1958. He worked as a stockbroker until he bought The Chelsea-Clinton News in 1965. “When I first bought the paper, I thought, ‘Isn’t it nice that everyone’s going to like me,’ ” he recalled last week. “After three months, I thought, well, it’s more important to tell the truth than to have everybody like me.”. . . Mr. Trentlyon seems satisfied that he achieved a goal he set long ago: “to be a small-town publisher without ever having to leave Manhattan.”
News of Trentlyon’s death spread fast, as was the speed at which Chelsea Community News received responses from our outreach to his contemporaries in the worlds of publishing, politics, and the formation of park space along the Hudson River. All were understandably upset, although one respondent, who requested to remain unassociated from the following sentiment, noted that his death had been fortuitously timed to allow the deeply committed Democrat to see Donald J. Trump claim his rightful place in the One-Term-Presidents-Club. Too soon? Please, not if you knew Bob. He would have laughed at that one–and made haste with a comeback that was even funnier.
For our Trentlyon tribute, we’ve compiled those responses to our outreach, followed by a series of highly readable links that provide more backstory regarding Trentlyon’s recent ahead-of-the-curve activism as it relates to storm surge protection. For a more formal, and thoroughly satisfying chronological account of Trentlyon’s life, go no further until you’ve clicked on this link for The Village Sun editor Lincoln Anderson’s obit/tribute piece. If you have your own recollections of Bob and would like to see it added to this collection, email Chelsea Community News editor Scott Stiffler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For news of a spring memorial planned for Trentlyon, click here.
REMEMBERING ROBERT “BOB” TRENTLYON
Tom Fox, member, Hudson River Park Advisory Council | Bob was an initial founder of the Hudson River Park. As one of four citizen members of the West Side Task Force, Bob joined with Roberta Brandess Gratz and me to object to the Task Force recommendations unless they included public funding for a waterfront esplanade (which became the first element of the Hudson River Park). We were joined by Mayor Dinkins in an 11th hour confrontation with pro-development members who were trying to hold the Esplanade hostage to funding from new outboard development in the Hudson and fortunately, We prevailed, and the City and State took the first step towards creating the Park and agreed to fund the esplanade.
Bob represented his community well in the many years he worked with his colleagues to advocate for the Chelsea Waterside Park. But he also kept the big picture in mind and advocated for the creation of the entire park. He was a fine man, and a caring human—and a funny fellow if you appreciated his dry sense of humor. He will be missed, but his legend will live on forever in the Chelsea Waterside Park.
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman | Bob Trentlyon was a community leader far ahead of his time. He warned of the perils of sea level rise and the climate crisis long before it was part of the state and national agenda. Bob had tremendous love for everything Chelsea, the waterfront, and the Hudson River Park, culminating in his leadership in the creation of Chelsea Waterside Park—which is just one of the many local projects Bob led. Generations of NYC children and families, including mine, will benefit from his remarkable vision as a grassroots activist and local public intellectual. To top it all off, Bob was a fundamentally decent fellow and a sharp wit. Chelsea just won’t be the same without Bob.
Pamela Wolff, West Chelsea Resident | Bob Trentlyon was a force of nature, a visionary who seemed to be able to see decades into the future, and then take action to meet the challenge, whenever and whatever it was. I met Bob and Betty, (and Jessica and Jason) at the General Theological Seminary (GTS) Food Co-op, which was founded by students, and operated every Thursday night in the basement of the GTS administration building. That was in the 1970s. The co-op survived for 12 years.
That building is now replaced by the building on Ninth Ave. that was at the heart of the struggle that was the founding the Save Chelsea Historic District. It was Bob’s vision that recognized the opportunity to stop the massive overdevelopment proposed for the site. (He led us through the two and a half year battle to success.) This was not the first time Bob invented the wheel. He was a founding member of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, realizing the old club was mired in a kind of politics he couldn’t live with.
In an odd twist of fate, in the late ’80s I became the Managing Agent for the co-op Bob and Betty lived in, and so became a frequent visitor at his house. He first got me involved in more than food and playdates when he formed the Chelsea Waterside Park Association to fill the void left when Westway bit the dust. That was a 27-year project, for which he never lost heart, or focus. Some part of that park, or all of it, should bear his name.
He also dragged me into participating on the West Side Task Force, forerunner of the Hudson River Park, planning the creation of that Park. His most recent passion was his vision of what could be done to control the effects of global warming by slowing the tidal surges in the Hudson River caused by massive storms like Sandy. Like I said, a visionary.
New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried | Bob Trentlyon was a great community leader. I first met him in 1970 when he interviewed me about an endorsement by his newspaper in my first Assembly campaign, and he was a friend ever since. He was a constant advocate for Chelsea Waterside Park and countless other efforts to preserve and improve Chelsea. Bob was a model of a public-spirited New Yorker and a life well spent. My deepest condolences to [his children] Jason and Jessica.
Wendi Paster, Assembly Member Richard Gottfried’s Chief of Staff | I worked closely with Bob from day one on the Hudson River Park Act. He was always one of my “go to” people on everything related to Chelsea and the waterfront. His advocacy was persistent, yet gentle. My condolences to his family, friends, and all with whom he worked. He will be sorely missed.
Jeffrey LeFrancois, incoming Chair, Manhattan Community Board 4 | Bob is a Chelsea legend. And we’re finally celebrating the installation of comfort stations at Chelsea Waterside Park because of Bob’s perseverance. I looked to him in the early days of creating HK Dems as a founding member of that club, which like CRDC when Bob founded it, took out the machine. He was a dedicated Chelsea reformer. Bob will be missed but surely remembered because of all the good he did for Chelsea.”
Marla and Buddy Perkel, onetime downstairs neighbors of the Trentlyons | Betty and Bob moved into Chelsea Square North just a few weeks before we [Buddy and Marla, and daughter of two years, Diana] did. We had the ground floor, and the Trentlyons, the first floor. They just had Jason at that point. Our daughter Rachel arrived shortly thereafter—as did Jessica Trentlyon, a year or so later. It seems that we always knew them, from the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, of course, right on until we moved to Truro, Cape Cod, in 2002. That and the fact that our kids, during their childhood, were all good friends.
Bob was always a valued neighbor, active in everything, from publishing the Chelsea Clinton News in those days to belonging to the Chelsea [Reform] Democratic Club. We were all members, and believers in the Reform Democratic movement. Betty and Bob were, most of all, terrific neighbors, and we appreciated them being themselves during all of the years we spent together in Chelsea.
Bill Borock, President, Council of Chelsea Block Associations | He was a man for all seasons.
New York City Council Speaker (and District 3 rep) Corey Johnson | Bob was a legendary community activist who I will deeply miss. He will be remembered forever as founder of Chelsea Waterside Park, co-founder and first President of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, numerous leadership positions at Community Board 4, and former President of Save Chelsea. We recently broke ground to celebrate the expansion of Chelsea Waterside Park, I am very glad we were able to do this while Bob was still with us. The expansion will include a new comfort station, which Bob advocated for decades to make happen. I send my condolences to the Trentlyon family and everyone who worked alongside Bob to make our west side community the amazing place it is today.
Joanne Downes, West Chelsea resident | I will always remember Bob as a good-natured, friendly neighbor who was always committed to goals that made lives better for others and our community. I attended dozens, probably hundreds, of neighborhood meetings with Bob over the last 50 years. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his position on an issue, he always spoke and acted with honesty and integrity. Steve and I will miss him.
Zazel Lovin, President, Chelsea Waterside Park Association (Bob was a founder and longtime President) | Robert Trentlyon set a high bar for us all, for his devotion to neighborhood and city. He was always striving with bold ideas that he worked tirelessly to implement, and his legacy will live on.
Erik Bottcher, incoming New York City Councilmember, District 3 | I am so grateful that I was able to know, spend time with, and learn from Bob Trentlyon. We recently broke ground on a new phase of the Chelsea Waterside Park, a project that wouldn’t even exist without the vision and advocacy of Bob. We were lucky that Bob called Chelsea home and that he worked every day to make it the best neighborhood it could be. I will miss him dearly.
Lincoln Anderson, Editor, The Village Sun | Bob Trentlyon was definitely one of a kind. I admired his intellect, droll sense of humor, dedication to progressive causes and reform Democratic politics and his community activism. He gave me my first newspaper job in Manhattan, at the Westsider, and after I moved on to The Villager, he always supported me. I’m sure he’d be happy to see that I am continuing on now with The Village Sun.
I enjoyed listening to his stories of back when Chelsea was ruled by the dockworkers and Tammany Hall and his upstart Chelsea Reform Democratic Club was trying to make inroads. Later on, I reported on his advocacy for storm surge barriers in New York Harbor to address sea level rise. It was fitting that, ahead of the curve—and ahead of Sandy—Bob made himself an expert on what would become one of the most challenging issues of our times.
Francine Haselkorn, NYS Democratic Club 75 ad Executive Committee, Chelsea Reform Democratic Committee (CRDC) | In thinking about the life of Robert Trentlyon, I envision him as a man who worked on actualizing ideas from his imagination. Such is the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC) that arose from his seeing that the local democratic club was awful, and not representative of the progressive view he wanted for his neighborhood and beyond. So 60 odd years ago, he put in place a club with the values he lived. As a testament to him, CRDC still exists—a remarkable achievement—and a deep part of his legacy. Oh what a special man he was!
John J. Allen, Esq., Legislative Counsel for State Senate Democratic Leader Fred Ohrenstein, 1970-1994. | Ross Graham [former CB4 Chair and waterfront activist] was often on the phone with Bob when I was working in Senator Ohrenstein’s office during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. She and Bob worked closely for many years both within the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club and on the creation of the Hudson River Park. They were linked by their mutual passions for the club and the park and their activism on behalf of progressive causes. Interestingly, Bob and Ross were nearly the same age and they both passed away in the year 2021.
Albert Amateau, Reporter | Bob Trentlyon’s death earlier this month was a personal loss for me. He was my friend and, as the owner of weekly newspapers in Manhattan.my former employer. Bob took me on when I especially needed a job. He was struggling in the newspaper business himself at the time. Throughout it all, he was active in the Reform Democratic movement. Indeed, Bob came by his politics from birth. His mother was a Democratic Party “ward heeler,” as he put it, in New Haven. I once asked him about his father. He said, “We didn’t see much of him. He was a Republican.” Another of Bob’s passions was the creation of a riverfront park on Manhattan’s West Side. He was President of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association, which is still active. My deepest sympathy to his son Jason and daughter Jessica.
ARTICLES OF NOTE, REGARDING BOB’S ADVOCACY FOR STORM SURGE BARRIERS AND FLOOD PROTECTION
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