By Jane Heil Usyk
Well! It has been quite a week; several meetings, two demonstrations, petition signing, and who knows what next week.
Here is how it played out: on Monday, July 9th, I went to the senior center, Greenwich House, at 27 Barrow Street to see “The Big Knife,” one of the many excellent films that show every Monday and Wednesday, selected by Anthony Cilione, the director of the Barrow Street senior center. (I wrote in depth about Anthony’s filmic gifts in the November, 2016, issue of WestView News.) But just as the room was darkening, the guy next to me whispered, “Everyone is probably in shock, because we just found out about the center closing.” What??? “What are you talking about?” He said that last Thursday, after the 4th of July holiday, they announced to us that the center will close soon, that everyone here will have to go to Our Lady of Pompeii’s senior center for lunch and activities.
But that’s no good! First of all, their operation is in the basement and their elevator is inadequate; it requires an operator, who I, personally, have never seen and only fits one person at a time in it. I don’t even know if wheelchairs will fit.
So a lot of regulars will have to stop coming. Second, there are no walls in the basement of Pompeii, meaning there will be no more movies, no activities, nothing that requires its own space. Third, they do not have a complete kitchen at Pompeii, and they have all their meals delivered from outside, unlike Barrow Street, which has a full, working kitchen and excellent, large meals that come out of it.
Afterward, the person next to me verified that yes, there would be a meeting about the proposed closing that evening. So I went to it, and learned that Roy Leavitt, the director of Greenwich House, needed room for his and his staff’s offices, and he wants the fourth floor (the senior center) for his offices. Before this, he had offices on 27th Street, but either the rent went up there, or he just got the bright idea to save money by kicking out the seniors; anyway, he wants our floor. The rest of Greenwich House is occupied by tiny children, whose parents pay over twenty-thousand dollars a year to bring them to the preschool there.
You can see we are getting into the Trump-like, monetizing, Chicago school of neo-liberalism, cutthroat capitalism, Milton Friedman, no-charity, area here.
And Greenwich House is a charity! It’s a settlement house, with a distinguished history. Its mission is to “help individuals and families lead more fulfilling lives by offering social and health services, cultural and educational programs, and opportunities for civic involvement to New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds.”
Anyway, at the meeting last Monday, a few people were making rough signs for the demonstration on Tuesday at City Hall. They had quickly gotten a permit; there was no time to waste. It was such a rush job that we just made freehand signs; never mind rulers and lines and spacing. We just knocked out the signs: “Save our beautiful center,” “This is an attack on old people,” “Roy Leavitt’s got to go!”
On Tuesday, about a dozen of us went to City Hall with signs and demonstrated.
Corey Johnson swung by, and gave a spontaneous talk in which he encouraged us; he also got us cold water because it was a very hot day and he didn’t want anyone passing out, or worse. Jim Fouratt, the most experienced demonstrator among us, gave us talking points on why moving to Our Lady of Pompeii’s basement won’t work; why Roy Leavitt can find other places to set up offices; and why the Barrow Street location is ideal for seniors, and appropriate for us.
The next day, Wednesday, Roy Leavitt came to the senior center and spoke about what was going on and what his plan is. Before that, however, some of us demonstrated in front of the building; the reaction from passersby was encouraging.
At the meeting itself, a large and crowded meeting, many people silently held up signs making it clear that Leavitt was the enemy. “Shame!” many of the signs said. We thought of other places Leavitt could put his offices, but each place was inadequate, he said, for one reason or another.
This group knows its stuff, demonstration-wise. Each of us has had fifty or sixty years of practice. If you think about it, we have lost most of these fights: NYU’s master plan, St. Vincent’s Hospital, skyscrapers encroaching on the Village’s small streets, the newsstand at Thompson and Third… But some—such as Stonewall and gay rights, and opposition to the highway Robert Moses planned through Washington Square Park—we have won.
After that meeting, we planned a meeting on Friday to get better organized.
Among the attendees: Carol Collins, John Nowak, Loretta Halter, Tedi Brown. At that meeting, a call went out for a sympathetic lawyer; a communications director was named to contact the media; we looked at the list of the Board of Directors of Greenwich House to see if there was anyone we knew and could talk to. We started a petition to present to Leavitt, hopefully with a lot of signatures.
One more thing: at the meeting, somebody said there are only three nuns left on Washington Square North in the senior building there. “What will happen when the last nun dies?” Leavitt was asked. “We’ll buy the building,” was the swift response.
They can afford to buy a double-width building on Washington Square North, but they can’t afford to rent offices for Roy Leavitt and his staff? Something is very strange here.
UPDATE: At the very beginning of the very next week, the battle was over. Corey Johnson, head of the city council and the West Village’s representative, and Margaret Chin, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging and our slightly farther east representative, got the additional funding Leavitt needed for his offices, so the Barrow Street senior center will not have to give up their floor in the building, and can continue to exist. Whew, it sure helps to know the right people!
Jane Heil Usyk wrote articles for Vogue, Cosmo, Glamour, Family Circle, Playgirl, Hit Parader, and Fitness magazines. She wrote a book, “Silence, Storytelling, and Madness: Strategies of Resistance in Nuyorican and Other Latina Women’s Coming-of-Age Stories.” She worked at Vogue and Fitness Magazines, and taught at Touro College. She is writing a memoir.