Like many lucky enough to do so, Urban Ellis retired when he was 65. His life until then had been job after job, career after profession — recruiter, salesman, J.C. Penney mail clerk, and even a nighttime Yellow Cab driver, carrying the nightly wanderers of New York City to and fro.
It was 1997 when Ellis decided it was time to live the good life. But by 2002, he shook off years of inactivity, rising to become a major provider for the place he had called home since 1958: Marble Hill.
In his tenure as director of the New Marble Hill Tenants and Civic Association — now the Marble Hill Tenants Association — Ellis revealed a love of education and a demand to help neighborhood youth by starting an interdisciplinary after-school program.
“Because of my life circumstances, I didn’t have the education I needed to be as successful as some of the people I met along the way,” Ellis told The Riverdale Press in 2010. “I wanted to find a way the kids here could at least have an option to do something great in their lives.”
Classes in journalism, art and dance became available at the Marble Hill Houses before Ellis moved the program to St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church on West 228th Street in 2009. By then, the program had expanded to include classes in trumpet, drums, piano and voice, and became a center for up to 50 young people in a year.
Quite the educational endeavor for a man who dropped out of high school. Twice.
“I didn’t think I needed an education,” Ellis once said. “And if it wasn’t for the breaks I got in life, I would have been possibly a bum.”
He eventually earned his GED from John F. Kennedy High School. In 2012, he partnered with Ruby Bermudez — assistant director of Manhattan College’s Optimal College Readiness Center — to bring its college prep programs to the school that had allowed him to graduate.
It wasn’t the only time Ellis partnered with Manhattan College. In 2009, Ellis and Corine Fitzpatrick, a grant writer for the center, successfully picked up $400,000 to support and even revitalize his after-school programs. Those efforts resulted in painted walls at both the Marble Hill Houses and St. Stephen’s church, as well as the purchase of new computers, and a stable and fast connection to the World Wide Web of the internet.
“He is so energetic and enthusiastic,” Fitzpatrick said in 2010. “He wanted to stand outside of the center in his building and hand out flyers to students when they walk home from school.”
His care for the young people in Marble Hill culminated in the creation of his “Stop the Drugs and Violence” newsletter. In a 2008 letter to the editor to The Press, Ellis shared how his newsletter was inspired by the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, revealing his heartfelt reaction toward the violence shown by police officers over the 2006 police shooting death of Sean Bell in Jamaica, that reminded many at the time of the 1999 Bronx killing of Amadou Diallo.
“There is an injustice when an innocent man, Sean Bell, is killed by those who should have been ready to protect him,” Ellis wrote.
The man who leads the Marble Hill Tenants Association now, Tony Edwards, said Ellis believed that what the neighborhood needed to maintain justice and community was education and a meeting place. For him, that place was St. Stephen’s.
“He was instrumental in bringing the community together,” Edwards said. “He helped the association by forming his after-school programs as a non-profit in the early days, and then he brought it all over to St. Stephen’s. He worked very well with Rev. Dixon.”
Ellis himself was a faithful parishioner at St. Stephen’s, for him a vital place since he first walked through its doors in 1956, arm-in-arm with his then-girlfriend Gloria Polanco. She became Gloria Ellis in 1958, and the two were baptized at the church three years later. The congregation, which celebrated its 195th anniversary earlier this year, gave Ellis and his family a place to care about — and Ellis made sure it stayed that way.
The church had been renovated in the 1950s, but naturally, 50 years later, it needed some more adjustments. Ellis reached out to then minister the Rev. Nathaniel Dixon, volunteering to head the church’s restoration committee. He set the initial goal at $5,000, but easily surpassed it to help replace the church’s shingle roof.
“He was a go-getter,” Edwards said. “The focus on community organization and coming together was really important to him.”
Ellis died on May 6. He was 88. The man who cared so deeply for Marble Hill, for the youth of his neighborhood, and the restoration of its beautiful structures, once graced The Press with some words of wisdom: “There’s always a way to make things happen if you are looking to do something for other people.”