The COVID-19 pandemic washed over the city and brought countless stories of death and despair for New York’s vulnerable — but it also robbed many seniors of much-needed social interaction.
Now, a group of elder southern Brooklynites are calling on the city to reopen the Fort Hamilton Senior Center that’s been closed for over a year, arguing that the facility’s hundreds of members can safely return after receiving a vaccine.
“There are seniors that need the camaraderie,” said Richard McLaughlin Sr., a resident of Dyker Heights and member of the Bay Ridge senior center. “Some rely on the center for socialization, there are always groups doing all sorts of activities there.”
As recreational centers were deemed nonessential at the onset of the pandemic and forced to close along with a majority of New York City businesses, some large city-owned centers — like the Fort Hamilton Senior Center — were instead used for the Learning Bridges program, which continues to provide child care for children of essential workers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced senior centers could resume in-person activities on June 14, but the June 1 announcement only applied to those operated by the city Department of Aging. Meanwhile, the Fort Hamilton Senior Center is operated by the Parks Department, and therefore was not included in the mayor’s announcement — leaving local politicians on the search to find out why.
“We want to know why not, there is not a good reason why this center should remain closed, it is a lifeline in the community,” said State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who has penned a letter with Councilmember Justin Brannan advocating for the reopening of the center.
The Fort Hamilton Senior Center serves a membership of approximately 700 seniors, according to Gounardes — many of whom have been reaching out to his office daily for several months advocating for the return of their beloved rec center.
“They have come into my office or they have called my office on a daily basis, all wanting to know why they can’t go back there,” he said.
McLaughlin, 90, describes the center on Fort Hamilton Parkway as a socialization hub for southern Brooklyn seniors that helps them stay active and have a sense of community, among a plethora of other benefits.
“It’s a mecca for seniors in the area,” he told Brooklyn Paper.
And more than just socialization, the center has often provided much-needed refuge for seniors as a cooling center during the summer seasons, something it still cannot be used for in its current state.
“We have had 90-plus [degree] days this week already,” Gounardes said. “That would have been a great place to send seniors who needed that help.”
Members are not allowed inside the senior center due to safety concerns with the children inside the building, but pols and seniors alike argue the handful of students served at the facility could easily be transitioned to another building as the city is opening back up again since the pandemic.
“That can be moved somewhere else,” Gounardes said of the childcare program. “There is no reason the center needs to be closed another three or four months, especially while everything is opening back up.”
Gounardes and Brannan wrote a letter to the mayor on June 9 calling for him to reject plans to use the center for the upcoming Summer Rising program, a free school-based day camp for city kids, and reopen the Fort Hamilton Senior Center similarly to the many other senior centers across the city.
“It is our understanding that the Center is now being considered for use by the Department of Education for its Summer Rising program; we ask you to reject this plan and instead reopen the Center to seniors,” the politicians wrote. “While we agree it was necessary to keep seniors safe at home during the peak of the pandemic and to accommodate our public school hybrid and remote students, the number of students currently being served at the site numbers in the low double digits.”
Seniors have also mobilized to advocate for the reopening of the center. In addition to the daily calls to their elected officials, they have compiled a petition including hundreds of signatures, attended community meetings and have even considered protesting outside of their elected officials’ offices, as was suggested at the Dyker Heights Civic Association’s June meeting.
And in concert with the seniors’ advocacy, Brannan pledged that the area’s politicians will continue the fight until the center is returned back to the seniors so they can get their old gang back together after a yearlong pandemic.
“After more than a year of loss and isolation, City Hall is preventing the Greatest Generation from seeing their friends again. It’s heartbreaking and we are going to fight for them,” Brannan said. “We cannot make our seniors wait any longer. After a year of following the rules, staying safe, and getting vaccinated, they deserve to be living their lives to the fullest.”