The Baruch Houses contain at least one building designated by the city as a NORC, the sociologist’s acronym for a naturally occurring retirement community. Residents of the building, many of whom were relocated from their original homes during the urban renewal drive of the 1950s and ’60s, have come to depend on the services for older people — meals and bingo and exercise classes — that Grand Street offers. As Carmen Sotomayor, who is in her 70s, explained to me, a trip that used to take her five minutes when the path was open now takes 15, and she merely suffers with arthritis and doesn’t require the canes and wheelchairs her friends do. Another woman, Edna Gay, a tall 79-year-old, said her trip is now 30 minutes, and she is accustomed to going to Grand Street twice a day.
Since the gates went up, the senior center has lost about 30 regular patrons, Ines de la Nuez, who runs Grand Street’s programs for older people, said; she worries about the isolation that could afflict those who no longer come, and about the greater falloff that is inevitable during the winter. Grand Street provides early childhood services as well, and now mothers and their children, cut off from the most convenient route, must walk a polluted and shadeless stretch of Delancey Street, where the drug trade flourishes on one particular corner, to get where they are going.
What is the reason for all of this? A letter from the Masaryk Towers board of directors that went out to the community late last month said Masaryk has had problems with crime, vandalism, alcohol use, rowdiness and trash for years, “largely attributable to nonresidents.” Discussion about the gates had gone on for a decade, Mitch Magidson, Masaryk’s property manager, explained, but the complex had suffered financial problems for a long time. Maintenance increases over 16 months in 2011 and 2012, totaling 28 percent, eased some of those stresses, allowing for the resources to build the gates. Since they were installed, “the quality of life here has improved so dramatically that it’s unbelievable,” he told me.
The people who live in the Baruch and Gompers Houses have rallied and protested and complained. They have called for a boycott of the grocers and other retailers who occupy space on the ground floor of Masaryk Towers, asking residents to shop on Grand or Essex Streets instead. “Stand up or be trampled by the cesspool of hypocrisy, greed and treachery,” reads one sheet posted in several buildings in the neighborhood. It is signed, “From a tired old man.”
Settlement houses were created during the progressive era as a means of building an intimacy between the fortunate and the less so, an intimacy that hasn’t merely seemed to vanish, but whose vestiges now seem under attack.
At Grand Street one afternoon recently I met Lilah Mejia, a resident of Masaryk for over 20 years and a mother of six who has depended on the agency’s help. She can see both sides of the argument, and yet she is appalled at the sense of superiority demonstrated by her most immediate neighbors. “Who are we to say that all the scruff comes from the projects?” she asked me. “Developers are looking at us now like we’re prime meat. We all work hard. And we’re all being gentrified.”