Saving the Newark Senior Center
While TV pundits have declared the recession technically over, city coffers across California continue to shrink. In the city of Newark in southern Alameda County, things have recently gone from bad to worse. City manager John Becker says that 18 months ago, his small suburban city cut dozens of jobs. At the end of January in 2010, 36 more employees were laid off or lost hours, and all but the most essential city services were cut.
One of the casualties of Newark’s budget crunch is its decades-old senior center. On the outside, the center is a nondescript building in the shadow of a Morton Salt refinery. On the inside, it is a warm and welcoming home for people who, in many cases, have no other social outlet.
Reporter Shaleece Haas was there on the center’s closing day in 2010 and brings us this story.
At the Newark Senior Center, five men huddle around a card table playing Pinochle. Angel Torres plays his hand, then tucks into a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with maraschino cherries.Most of these men have been playing Pinochle together for years. Same table. Same cards. Same conversations. But today is a little different.
" I’m here enjoying myself for one of the last times in one of the best senior centers around." says Torres.
In just a few hours, the center will close its doors – indefinitely. To mark the occasion, more than 100 seniors have gathered in the dining hall, where volunteers have laid out plates of cake, potato salad and deviled eggs. They’re here to say goodbye to the center, which has become their home, and the staff, whom they consider family.
" Before I came here, I slept all the time," said 62-year old Jean Lovejoy. "And one day my grandson said, “We’ve got to get you out of the house. You’ve got to get out of bed.” I said, “But there’s nothing to get out of bed for,” and he brought me here and I found Kelly and Cheryl and Margarith and--let me tell you--this building will always mean a lot to me for that reason. This is my home and I love each and every one of you, and I want you to know that.
The Newark Senior Center has been around for two decades. And three years ago, no one could have predicted it would close. In 2007, the city spent $800,000 dollars expanding the building to make room for the nearly 150 seniors who visit it every day.
But these days, money is harder to come by. John Becker is Newark’s city manager. He says five years ago the city started suffering financially. The auto center lost dealerships, hotel rooms stayed vacant and the owner of the local mall filed for bankruptcy.
"I think we’re probably worse off than most cities. Everybody is hurting, but Newark actually has been hurting for the longest period of time. And then this latest recession has really put us near the edge."
In November, in an attempt to close their budget gap, the city tried to pass a utility tax to raise revenue. The measure failed by just 10 votes. So Newark was forced to lay off police, forego street maintenance, and let the grass in neighborhood parks die. Last month, Becker led a series of meetings to decide how the city was going to cut nearly 10% of its already tight budget.
"I would say that of all the things we discussed, from public safety to public works, the senior center attracted the most attention," said Becker. "And that’s why I would say that that was probably one of the most difficult decisions that the city council had to make."
So they didn’t make it. They decided they couldn’t shut the center down completely. Instead, they found the seniors a new home in an unlikely place, a place where no one’s heard of Pinochle.
The teen activity center, soon to be renamed something more generic, is less than one-third the size of the current senior center. And the foosball table, thumping music and Twilight movie posters give it a totally different vibe. But starting next Monday, the seniors will move in. They’ll have their Photoshop classes and Bingo games during the day, and then the teens will take over at 3 o’clock.
In the computer lab, 11-year-old Chris and his friends are updating their MySpace pages. I asked if he thought having the seniors move in would change the center.
" It’s okay, he said. "They’re going to be here after we go, so they don’t really spoil any of our time here."
Back at the senior center, Cheryl Galvez, the center administrator, is preparing for the move. She’ll join the seniors in the new location, but with a 25% reduction in hours. Galvez says she is grateful the seniors will have somewhere to go.
"I mean, at least it’s not completely shut down. But it’s going to be, it’s going to be different. And there’s people that come in and say, “I’m not going over there. I’m not going to.” And it’s so hard for us because we know what will happen if they don’t. Because it does mean so much to people. It’s the reason a lot of these people get out each day. It took 20 years to build this home. It’s not just going to be able to be picked up and moved. It won’t be the same."
When she’s finished here today and all the seniors have gone home, Galvez will prepare the building for what the city calls “mothballing.” The furniture and equipment will stay inside. The lights and heat will be turned off, and the doors will be locked. Then the senior center building will sit empty – until the city has the money to open it again.