By Jonathan Sperling
A hot meal and the chance to socialize with friends are some of the benefits of living in Queens’ tight-knit communities.
But those opportunities were almost taken away from a group of Astoria seniors, if not for their advocacy, support from local leaders and a bit of funding in the city’s new $92.8 billion budget.
The Astoria Houses Senior Center on Astoria Boulevard was saved from closure earlier this week after the city threatened to shut it down due to low attendance and proposed budget cuts — one of 12 such facilities operated by the New York City Housing Authority threatened with closure.
Residents of the Astoria Houses, however, were not having it.
After learning that they would be forced to take a bus to the at-capacity Queensbridge Houses senior center in Long Island City — more than 1.5 miles south — just to get a hot meal and some arts and crafts, they sprang into action. Astoria Houses Tenants Association President Claudia Coger, with the help of the Astoria Houses’ local representatives and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, led the charge.
“They thought it was ridiculous. Some of them were a little petrified, ‘What were we going to do?’ I said, ‘Listen, whatever happens, we’re not going anywhere,’” Coger told the Eagle when asked about residents’ reactions to the proposed closure.
Coger was right. The recently settled Fiscal Year 2020 budget transfers control of the senior center from NYCHA to the city’s Department for the Aging.
“I knew too that the community people here would not be transported. They wouldn’t do that. If they would’ve closed it, they would’ve shut down the lives of a lot of people,” Coger added.
The proposed closure of the center was especially troubling due to the recent $500,000 worth of renovations it received under the Astoria Cove rezoning in 2014 for upgrades and expansion. The new facility — set to open in a few weeks, Councilmember Costa Constantinides told the Eagle — will give seniors more space to talk, play games and enjoy hot food.
During a celebration in front of the Astoria Houses on Thursday, Coger and other seniors praised God and thanked Constantinides for his support at the City Council level.
“It was going to be a real issue for our seniors, for getting a hot meal, for the socialization they deserved. We had fought so hard for them to get a renewed space here that looks like it finally going to open,” said Constantinides, who represents Astoria.
“We fought in budget negotiations to say this can’t happen. We have to ensure that this center stays open — not only stays open, but let’s be clear — that we get the things that were promised. Promises have to be kept,” he added.
Constantinides said the budget included an additional $500,000 for outdoor benches, flower beds and underground infrastructure for greenery and beautification around the senior center.
As Constantinides spoke, the group of seniors standing next to him gradually grew. They applauded after he mentioned that DFTA would take control of the center from NYCHA.
“It goes deeper than what you can see. We have people who have no relatives to look after them. They can at least come out of the house and get a hot meal and enjoy some arts and crafts and games,” Coger told the Eagle after the rally.
“We’re more than senior citizens, we’re family.”