Harry DiPrinzioInside the Frederick Douglass Senior Center.
Seniors at the Frederick Douglass Senior Center and the elected officials who represent them are not happy about its impending closure. As of June 28, the cozy space for community at this Upper West Side NYCHA development will shut down and members will be asked to visit another senior center several blocks north.
Senior center members have penned a petition and are gathering signatures to keep the center open. Elected officials have written a letter in protest.
“It’s everything. It’s our home away from home. You’re disrespecting the seniors. We should have been number one,” member and Douglass houses resident Mary Givens said, addressing Mayor de Blasio, whose budget proposal initiated the closure.
The Douglass center is one of 12 senior centers or clubs on NYCHA developments that will be closed this summer in an effort to trim the city’s budget. Another seven will be shifted to the Department for the Aging (DTFA), removing the management of senior centers and clubs from NYCHA’s responsibilities entirely.
The city has cited low participation and few services at the centers and clubs it chose to close and has promised to provide transportation to nearby senior centers within a three quarters of a mile.
Some centers set to close are also in need of serious repairs. At the Douglass center, ceiling leaks are persistent in multiple areas.
After meeting with DFTA and NYCHA last week, local elected officials penned a joint letter to DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortes-Vázquez noting the conditions and asking that the decision to close the center be reversed.
“The conditions need to be addressed and it is imperative that we either make the necessary improvements or look for alternative sites for the center within the Douglass Houses moving forward,” the letter said.
Center members penned a similar letter also asking to move the center within the 18-building NYCHA development.
“We also know that in the NYCHA/Frederick Douglass Houses there are other locations that can be utilized. We can move our center to keep our senior center in our community,” the members’ letter said.
The leaks have been persistent since she was hired five years ago, says Assistant Site Director Basilia Sliverio.
“NYCHA’s system is a mess,” Silverio says. She has reported the leaks with regularity and each time, a NYCHA repair person comes, deems the repairs outside their scope of work, and closes the work order.
Tenants at the Douglass Houses have sued NYCHA in the past for failing to make repairs in their apartments. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Lynne Patton spent a week in an apartment at the Douglass Houses in February and got stuck in an elevator. It was also reported that rats were rampant at the development.
“Many tenants can escape the terrible conditions within their apartments and go the the senior center. The closing doesn’t make any sense,” said Yanni Trittas, executive director for Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell.
In a statement, Raul Conteras, deputy press secretary for the mayor’s office, said that the Douglas Senior Center was closing because it is an underutilized site that provided limited programming compared to other facilities.
Conteras cited a figure showing daily average attendance at the Douglass Senior Center to be six individuals. Reports submitted to NYCHA and DFTA, reviewed by City Limits, suggest that in April, the Douglass Senior Center had 164 registered members and 76 additional individuals had received services.
According to the elected officials’ letter sent to DTFA however, it may be unreasonable to expect attendance to be much higher given the resources it has been given. The budget for the Frederick Douglass Center was $266,900 last year while the average allocation to senior centers citywide was $591,261: the center is simply smaller than others.
The sign on the door says that the Frederick Douglass Senior Center was opened in 1995. It sits in the ground floor unit of a building on Amsterdam Avenue at 102nd street—part of the complex that was built between 1958 and 1965, containing 2,193 units and 4,554 individuals.
When asked what they appreciated about the center, members cited the pool table, twice-weekly ceramics class and regular jewelry-making. The center also provides seniors with lunch and occasional trips, it hosts computer, yoga and Zumba classes and employees help members with their bills and other tasks.
Numerous seniors interviewed lamented the potential loss of community. “We need this center,” said Delores Bedford, 80 who has been coming since 2003.
“There’s no place to go. It’s real convenient for us to come here,” said Linda Wallace, who has lived in the Douglass Houses since 1977.
In 2015, NYCHA transferred the operation of the center to a private organization, West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH). Some members felt that changes that have occured since then have led to declining participation.
Meals, in particular, were an area of concern. Per DTFA policy, the center is supposed to supply free meals to seniors. A small contribution of $1.50 is asked, but not required.
Since transferring opratios to WSFSSH, meals are delivered from Red Oak, a WSFSSH center nearby, and Douglass center members are asked to request and pay for meals in advance. This discourages some people from doing so and requires seniors to plan their visits to the center in advance.
“The meals are the main draw,” said James Engian, a member who commutes to the Upper West Side from the Bronx because of the social network he has at the Frederick Douglass Center. “They’re deliberately keeping the numbers low.”
“Lots of people want lunch but don’t want to pay,” says Silverio. “Many times I’ve paid my own money for seniors who can’t afford it.”
Paul Freitag, executive director of WSFSSH re-iterated the official policy, saying seniors are not required to pay for meals in advance and that no one would be turned away if they didn’t pay. But Engian and Silverio say if people don’t pay in advance, sufficient meals are not delivered.
In a statement, Freitag expressed disappointment about the facility’s closure but said seniors would be welcomed at the nearby Red Oak facility.