They may look frail, but they can still put up a fight. More than a dozen retirees blocked the entrance to Bushwick’s Roundtable for Senior Citizens Center on June 10, determined to keep the city from ousting the organization that has run it for thirty years.
The seniors showed up early that morning and sat patiently in a row of plastic chairs, waiting for representatives from the Department for the Aging (DFTA), who were slated to begin an inventory of city-owned furniture and equipment. When the city staffers arrived at the Gates Avenue center, the confrontation got heated, participants recall, and the cops were summoned.
“We feel like we are being mistreated,” said Ollie Bridges, 65, a retired schoolteacher who took part in the protest. “We have a right to know exactly what’s going on.”
DFTA maintains that it is simply following the city’s procurement rules, which require an open bidding process for senior services every six years. Roundtable and two other groups submitted proposals, explained DFTA spokesperson Christopher Miller, and a review committee evaluated them. Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, Inc., which operates five other senior centers in Brooklyn, was awarded the contract.
“Of the three proposals received, Ridgewood Bushwick’s scored the highest,” Miller said. He declined to name the third group or offer specifics on how the groups compared.
Reverend Kermitt Williams, executive director of Roundtable and pastor at nearby Agape Fellowship Church, is challenging the takeover. With the help of his son, Kenton, he’s rallied the seniors to defend the center. “This is like warfare,” he said on the morning of the protest, keeping an eye on a security monitor hooked up to a camera outside.
Williams admits Roundtable has a somewhat troubled past. When its founder, Christine Cutchin, stepped down as executive director in 2000, the agency slid into disarray. A board member was charged with embezzling funds; services and attendance deteriorated.
But that’s all changed, Williams says, since he took over, first as chair of the board in 2003 and executive director a year later. Aside from serving hot meals to roughly 100 seniors each day, the center now offers oil painting and yoga classes, Wednesday afternoon movies, and bus trips to Atlantic City and Mohegan Sun.
Given this turnaround and its long history in the community, Williams argues, Roundtable should have been given priority for the contract. Instead, he suspects that State Assemblymember Vito Lopez, who founded Ridgewood Bushwick in 1973, pushed for control.
“Almighty God did not make Mr. Lopez the overlord of this community,” Reverend Williams told the seniors after their baked-chicken lunch Tuesday afternoon. “This is about preserving the last African-American controlled community in Bushwick. Period.”
Assemblymember Lopez seemed perplexed by the allegations. “It’s outside my district so why would I want to cause a conflict?” he said. “But I am supportive of the quality of services provided by Ridgewood Bushwick… which has an outstanding track record.”
The seniors aren’t swayed. “We don’t need new management,” said Vivian Williams, 77, a retired sewing machine operator in a khaki baseball cap. “It couldn’t be any better.” If the program does change hands, the new staff may be in for a struggle. “They’re going to have to drag me out of here,” she said.