She sat there at one of the dining tables, deep in the grove of her embroidery. She seemed to be enjoying her craftsmanship. Speaking to no one and seemingly unperturbed by the noise all around her, Erina Fontana just kept on knitting the pompom. “I am not doing a good job of it,” she demurred. “Nope, it is not going to work out.” So she halted her needlework and began to chat with the lady sitting next to her.
Fontana, 78, had come to the Greenwich House Caring Community at Our Lady of Pompeii, a senior center on Bleecker Street in the West Village, a routine for her for the past four years. “I come here three days a week,” she said. “I like the people.”
Fontana, who was born uptown but raised on 35th Street, said she used to go to another center before she started coming to the Greenwich House. But that senior center on 5th Avenue would be closed. “I guess the city didn’t have enough money,” she said. “They closed it. So I came here.”
It takes Fontana a-10 minute walk from her apartment down the street to the Greenwich House. “Unless it is like torrential rain, big snow storms or it is too cold, I still walk to get to here,” she said, as she spread her hands over a copy of the amNewYork newspaper on her table.
The Greenwich House has become a home away from home for Fontana and many other senior citizens who grew up in the area. In the 2010 New York census report, Manhattan alone had over 100,000 seniors.
“You have to realize most of these people here know each other,” said Sandy Gabin, the center director of Greenwich House. “As we grow older,” Fontana said, “you can really, if you allow it, you can feel depressed. You can’t allow that to happen.” She says she comes to the Greenwich House for the opportunity of companionship the center gives. “You have places like this where you can meet people and make friends,” she said.
There are 58 senior community centers in Manhattan alone, the website for the Department for the Aging shows. And in July of this year, the aging department announced, in a press release, that $259.7 million would be available in the 2015 fiscal year to augment aging services in the city. Of the total funding, the release stated, $2.3 million would go towards building six additional community centers, $2.6 million for “case management services” and $3.3 million for “congregate and home delivered meals.”
But in June of 2010, the Bloomberg administration shut down 30 senior community centers, claiming budget shortfalls had forced its hand. Manhattan alone had 12 closures, the highest of the five boroughs. And in mid-2013, the New York City Housing Authority announced several senior center closings in response to the shortfall in federal funding due to sequestration. The closures met with stiff opposition and condemnation from a cross-section of the public. Advocates for seniors and elected officials in the areas affected by the closures continued to push for new funding for senior center services.
The increase in funding this year was perhaps also necessitated by the demographic change in the elderly as manifested in the 2010 New York census data. In 2010, the number of people who were 60 years and older in New York City was 1,407,635, showing an increment of 155,429 over the total of 1,252,206 in 2000. Of the five boroughs, the data shows Manhattan experienced a 19.7 percent spike in the number of older people, coming only behind Staten Island.
As the city gets grayer, the demand for services offered in senior centers like the Greenwich House, will continue to rise. “First of all, if a person ages and there are no family members around, they get isolated,” Greenwich House’s Gabin said. “Socialization is very important.”
She added: “A place like this is very important because you get a lot of information but most importantly you get a lot of human contact.” She said that on a daily basis, about 70 to 80 people visit this place, and the number can get bigger depending on what is going on at the center.
At lunch time, the crowd had started to grow. On the menu: hamburger, coleslaw, potato salad, juice and a piece of apple. But Fontana, a former file clerk and a great-grandmother of five, ate instead some salad she brought from home. “For a lot of people this is their meal,” she said. “For me, I cook at home, so I brought some salad,” she added, as she mixed it with some dressing.
Fontana says that apart from the friendships she is able to develop at the Greenwich House, she also likes the fact that she is able to take part in a number of physical exercises offered by the center. “We also have regular exercises like standing and sitting and meditating,” she said. “You have to realize we are seniors, we are not doing no somersaults,” she quipped. “You do what you can.”