Volume 18 • Issue 25 | November 4 - 10, 2005

Unveiling the plaque outside the new senior center, Ng and Bloomberg were joined by from left, Councilmember Alan Gerson, State Committeewoman Virginia Kee, Don Hong, past president of Chinese-American Planning Council, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

With a new center, seniors finally have the floor

By Lincoln Anderson

To the pounding of a wooden kettledrum, clattering of cymbals and high stepping of traditional lion dancers, a new $7.3 million center for Chinatown seniors opened last Friday morning at Grand and Centre Sts.

With Chinatown’s growing senior population in need of programs and facilities, any new senior center would have been greeted with celebration. But the opening of this space was particularly sweet because it was such a long time in coming.

The new senior center, operated by Project Open Door of the Chinese-American Planning Council, is located in the basement of the tony Police Building co-op apartment building. A landmarked, beaux-arts-style building, it was New York City’s Police Headquarters from 1909-1973. When it was converted residentially, a deed restriction was imposed saying the basement had to be devoted to a cultural use. A drawn-out legal fight ensued during which the co-op board fought the plan for the senior center, charging, among other things, that hot food prepared on site would create odors that would waft up to the upscale apartments. Meanwhile, the seniors remained stuck in their inadequate, cramped space on Chrystie St.

In frustration, the determined seniors held rallies outside the building, chanting up at the windows, “Open your heart! Open the door! Let the seniors have the floor!”

The lawsuit was eventually settled, and after 12 years, when the center officially opened last week, it came before the start of the Year of the Monkey.

The saga played out over several mayors, and the fact was not lost on Project Open Door that it was under Mayor Mike Bloomberg that the space was at last secured and opened.

As Bloomberg entered the center for last week’s opening ceremony, at which hundreds of seniors and other guests were gathered in the blocklong cellar space, Po Ling Ng, Project Open Door’s longtime director, urged the crowd to applaud and give it their all.

“Everyone should give the big hand to our lovely mayor,” she said. “Harder! Harder! Harrrrder!” she exhorted.

“Ni ja hao,” said Bloomberg, in a traditional Chinese greeting, which translates to “everybody is good.” “It’s an honor to be on board for these seniors who have done so much for this city,” he said.

In what amounted to certainly one of the more enthusiastic endorsements the mayor must have yet received, the grateful center director called the mayor “handsome” and “our lovely Bloomberg” and said he deserves four more years in office.

Among the other elected officials on hand were Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Councilmember Alan Gerson and his predecessor, former Councilmember Kathryn Freed, now a judge, who helped craft the agreement allowing the project to move forward.

Silver predicted the center will soon outgrow even its new space.

“This is truly a model for all senior programs through the city,” he said.

“Now that they are here in this adequate space, they will do even more,” Fields said of Project Open Door.

“Wow, we did it,” said Gerson. “And now the Year of the Monkey will be even more prosperous because you have your new home…. To the residents of 240 Centre St., you could not have better neighbors.”

By moving from Chrystie St. to its new home, the center has increased from a space of 5,100 square feet to 19,000 square feet, able to accommodate hundreds more people. Hot meals will be cooked off site in the kitchen at the old Chrystie St. location, which was upgraded thanks to funds from Fields. The new center has an odor-purging system to ensure no food smells bother the upstairs residents. Also, acoustical tiles have been installed in the ceiling so that the seniors’ singing, dancing and music won’t disturb the neighbors. While the co-op’s entrance is on Centre St., the seniors use a Grand St. entrance.

After the speeches were over, Arthur Emil, the president of the co-op board, when asked about the lawsuit, said it was all in the past.

“It’s open. And that’s what counts,” he said of the center. “We, the residents, welcome them.”

Emil declined to divulge any names of the building’s high-powered residents.

“We’ve had a lot of celebrities — let’s put it that way,” he said.

Bloomberg then presided over the unveiling of a plaque outside the front door, while the lion dancers cavorted to more drumming and cymbal clashing. Borough President Fields fed a cabbage on a fishing pole to a lion, who broke it off with his mouth and then spit it back in scraps, a sign of nourishment and good luck.

Standing outside, getting ready to go back in to hear the Project Open Door chorus was Betania Chez, 79. Wearing a Project Open Door baseball cap and a knit shawl and holding a small American flag on a stick, she said through a Cantonese translator (Villager photographer Gary He) that she lives in Chinatown, is a retired seamstress, came to New York 37 years ago and has no family here. She said she likes to eat and hang out with friends at Project Open Door.



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