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Shelter Island Profile: Barrie Silver | Strong, free and not without opinions

Barrie Silver was an only child, the adored daughter of two left-leaning intellectuals, when her 55-year-old father died of a sudden heart attack.

“It was beyond terrible,” she said.

The experience of having a parent die young changed her way of thinking about life. “I really live in the moment,” she said. “I think life changes in an instant.”

Born and raised in New York City, Barrie’s relationship with Shelter Island started when she was three years old, when her parents, New York City public school teachers, brought her to visit her father’s sisters. The aunts were weekenders who retired in Shorewood, across the street from where Barrie lives now.

She attended Erasmus Hall, a large public high school in Brooklyn. “My graduating class had almost as many people as live on Shelter Island in the winter,” she said.

She went to Syracuse University and then transferred to NYU’s University College, a small, liberal arts school that no longer exists, and graduated in 1964.

She went to work for the New York City Department of Probation in 1967 as an investigating probation officer, but had to leave the job when she married a judge in the same court system in 1971. She went on to work for the Model Cities Administration and the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Science. Her marriage ended in 1979.

Barrie was having lunch at her aunt’s house in Shorewood in the late 1970s when a neighbor stopped by to announce that his house was for sale, and insisted that Barrie come take a look.

“The house was so hideous, you can’t imagine,” she remembered. “But I looked at the view and fell in love the way you fall in love with a person.”

With no money in the wake of a bad divorce, Barrie found a partner to go in with her and pay half of the $386 monthly mortgage. “Even with that I had to get a part-time job,” she said.

She spent 25 years at the New York State Office of Court Administration, rising to chief records manager of the Unified Court System; a Marie Kondo of court documents, without the joy-sparking thing.

“Filing cabinets started falling on people, and some records had been kept in cardboard boxes on an open pier.” Barrie said. “We developed records management practices, and assigned retention periods.” In 2000, she took early retirement at age 55.

In 1998, Barrie spotted a friend on the street, Jimmy Kestenbaum, whom she hadn’t seen since high school. She yelled his name. He recognized her voice. They were together.

“He had a gift,” Barrie said. “Everybody who ever met him loved him. Sweet, caring and very funny.”

He had been married twice, and had two children.

Jimmy and Barrie lived in Battery Park City, where they witnessed the World Trade Center attack and couldn’t get into their apartment for three months. When Jimmy developed a brain tumor three years later, Barrie wondered if living in proximity to the site contributed to his illness. He died in 2008.

“I think I deal with crises by allowing myself to feel them,” she said. “I mourn, I deal with it, and then I try to start living.”

Barrie’s Shelter Island home was a solace. “After Jimmy died, I came here a lot,” she said. “I looked out the window, I drank a lot of vodka. And eventually I got better. I still grieve.”

Barrie had bought out her partner in the house, and, over many years and on a shoestring, refinanced and renovated the hideous house into a lovely home with the same great view that had captured her heart 40 years ago. “I put myself out there to get my house,” she said. “If anyone deserves to be on this island, it’s me.”

In 2013, she left her rent-stabilized apartment in the city to live full-time on the Island, where she found plenty to do, good friends and great neighbors. “Alyce Knight was an amazing woman and the best neighbor,” she said. “Father Peter just emanates goodness and joy.”

“I’m biforkal,” she said referring to her habit of visiting the North and South forks for movies, shopping and restaurants. She volunteers at the Historical Society where she helps out with Time Travelers, a summer youth program. She’s a member of the Garden Club and the Sunday Group, a political action organization. She attends concerts at the Perlman Music Program and Friends of Music. “I hear more music out here than I did in New York,” she said.

Barrie is a person with strong, freely expressed opinions about local institutions. She calls Mashomack, “a miraculous place” but thinks that Sylvester Manor could be wonderful, but isn’t accessible enough. “They charge for everything,” she said, “There is something elitist about it.”

During the local debate over regulation of short-term rentals, her willingness to express her opinion stridently put her in conflict with members of the community with different views.

“It was really an eye opener for me,” she said. “I’m against a law prohibiting rentals. I don’t say there is nothing on the other side, but I think it’s a solution in search of a problem.”

She recalled a particularly tense public meeting. “At a meeting to discuss the law, people knew what side I was on, and they screamed epithets at me,” she said. “Someone said to me, ‘If you have to rent, then you don’t belong on this Island.’ I sat there and cried for an hour. It doesn’t affect me because I don’t rent anymore, but I think it’s wrong. It offends my sense of right and wrong.”

Feeling the pressure of living on a fixed income for decades, Barrie is hoping to downsize, selling her home to conserve resources. “I don’t plan,” she said. “I seem to not be capable of it.”

She never saved money, she said, because she never thought she would live long enough to need it. “Life changes in a second and you never know when that moment will come. We all have to live in the moment and that’s what I do,” she said. “Now that I’m 20 years past my sell-by date, it’s very scary and very empowering.”


What do you always have with you? A cartouche with my mother’s name on it. And I don’t always wear it, but I don’t always do anything.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? Right here, with my view of Mabel’s Creek and South Ferry.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Antibes.

What exasperates you? People who like Trump.

When was the last time you were afraid? Going to the doctor.

Favorite movie? “Chariots of Fire.”

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Most respected elected official? Obama.