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City to Shutter Seniors' Bingo, Dance and Hot Meal Haven After 40 Years

By Meredith Hoffman | October 12, 2012 8:30am | Updated on October 12, 2012 9:30am

WILLIAMSBURG — Donning his dapper black beret and sitting at a table full of friends, Emanuel Zirpoli prepared for the "best made soup in the city" followed by a game of cards. Just two days before his 93rd birthday, the former Navy ship welding inspector was lively and bright — but he scowled and grew grim at the thought of January.

"We come here every day to eat and play, I'm here 16 years," he said Thursday in Williamsburg's Swinging Sixties' Senior Center, slated to close at the beginning of 2013. "It's no good, them closing us. Tell the mayor to get off our backs!"

Zirpoli and dozens of other seniors say they have signed a petition and called 311 to protest the city's end to programming at their 40-year-old center — which has also housed Williamsburg Community Board 1 meetings for 25 years, members said.

But as the center's final hour approaches, even the most vivacious seniors are losing heart.

"This is dead in the water, we shouldn't be going out of here but we probably will," lamented Mike Liantonio, acting president of the Senior Board. "It's apathy of the powers that be...it's like once you're not contributing to the system anymore you're discarded."

The city's Department of Aging wrote to Williamsburg Community Board One that when Swinging Sixties closes in January the seniors can attend other centers in the neighborhood.

"The Department works closely with the program as well as nearby alternative centers to make the transition for the seniors as smooth as possible," Karen Taylor, a deputy assistant commissioner of the Department for the Aging's Bureau of Community Services, wrote to the Community Board chair Chris Olechowski.

Taylor noted that the Department would also provide transportation to the other centers if need be.

But for the members of Swinging Sixties, the only right answer is keeping their doors open.

"It's a second home," said Joseph Grillo, 69, who sat by Zirpoli Thursday morning. 

"It's terrible," chimed in Tillie [who declined to give her last name] about the center's closing. Tillie, 80, has worked 40 years at the center, first as its director and then assistant director, she said.

"We have lunches, social services, Medicaid, food stamps, bingo, dancing," she said, enumerating the daily offerings. "The neighborhood's changed, we used to have 200 people and now we have 95...but there's definitely still a need."

Not only must the Swinging Sixties' community soon disband, but the Williamsburg CB1 will soon have to find a new place to meet — and the future of the upstairs Small World Day Care Center is also uncertain, its director said.

"At this moment the plan is to stay open until June, but we really don't know what will happen," said Agnes DiGruccio, director of the 40-year-old program with 90 preschoolers, 70 after-school students and 32 staff. "I don't know what to tell parents."

And CB1 member Mike Chirichella, 47, who attended Small World as a child 37 years ago, said the whole building served a fundamental need for services and solidarity in Williamsburg.

"There will be no place for these kids and seniors to go," he said. 

A spokeswoman for the city's Department of Administration for Children's Services said that Small World, funded by the City Council, would definitely serve children until June, and that the city was leasing the building at 211 Ainslie St. until June as well.

She said she was unsure of the center's and building's fates after that date.