Lower East Siders fight for two senior centers

By David McCabe

Amid cheers of “Si, se puede,” seniors, school children, and local residents converged Tuesday on the Lillian Wald houses to protest the closing of two senior centers, one at the Jacob Riis houses and the other in the Wald complex, due to budget cuts.

Speakers, ranging from seniors who used the center on a daily basis to concerned East Villagers who lived nearby, asked Mayor Bloomberg to reconsider the proposed cuts and keep the Wald center open, even if he had to close the Riis center. They said that the services offered by the center, including meal service and an air conditioned space to spend hot summer days, were vital to the local elderly community.

“This is an issue of health, livelihood and basically survival,” said Ricky Colon, one of the organizers of the demonstration.

The protesters said that seniors couldn’t be expected to take a bus to another center about a mile away, a plan that has been proposed. They said that if the Wald and Riis centers were closed, there would be no senior centers left on the Lower East Side.

Many protesters argued that the seniors would become isolated and home-bound if the center closed.

“Where are we going after they close this center?” asked Samuel Manjual, who said that the center served an important social function within the elderly community.

The protest was also attended by a group of school children, including members of the P.S. 40 girls basketball team, who utilized the senior center to fundraise for a trip to basketball camp.

Aides to several local politicos were also present, with staffers from Councilwoman Rosie Mendez’s office, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh’s office and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office.

An aide from Mendez’s office, Lisa Kaplan, said she is fighting for the plan to keep one senior center open.

“The bottom line is that Rosie is an avid supporter of senior centers and she supports and visits them on a frequent basis,” Kaplan said.

Assemblyman Kavanagh said the cuts were originally in response to a statewide cut in Title X funding, which can go to senior centers, but that both houses of the New York State legislature had fully restored that funding.

“We’ve done our part to restore funding to senior centers and we think that especially given that we’ve taken that step, that neither of these closings are justified,” he added.

Mendez, Kavanagh and State Senator Daniel Squadron wrote a letter to Lilliam Barrios Paoli, the Commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA), urging her to keep the center open. In a letter obtained by Downtown Express, she wrote back that DFTA was closing 50 centers throughout New York City, and that both the Riis and Wald served “fewer than 30 meals per day on average,” one of the three criteria used by DFTA to determine which centers to close.

Many speakers were not seniors, but younger people who lived in the neighborhood or who had relatives in the complex. “The reason I put this together was that I saw the despair in our seniors and I thought it was important that the younger generation stand up for our seniors down here who never gave up. They never ran out of the community; they stayed here through all of the gentrification and they’re still here. Now they’re being asked to pay for the problems of the city on their backs again,” Colon said.

Angelita Salgado, the site manager of the center who is responsible for managing the numerous programs, said it is important for the seniors to meet in a group.

“We become one, we become a family.”