LOWER EAST SIDE — A local organization that offers programs for hundreds youth and seniors has been left scrambling to ensure safe access to its facility after a nearby housing complex abruptly barred public access to a heavily traveled walkway through its property.
For decades, seniors and students living near the East River have used a walkway on Rivington Street cutting through the Masaryk Towers complex to access the Grand Street Settlement facilities.
While Masaryk leadership had years ago told the settlement that a gate would eventually shutter the walkway, they had pledged advance notice, according to Grand Street Settlement executive director Robert Cordero. But on Thursday, Cordero abruptly received an email notifying him that the gateway would be closed the next day, giving the group less than 24 hours to plan for the students who would come through for after-school programs.
“The issue for us was not to fight them closing the gates but…to communicate with us, let us know,” explained Cordero. “We have to do signage around here. This is the Lower East Side. There are three or four different languages.
“They literally sent me an email Thursday at 6 and closed the gates on Friday at 4pm.”
The closure raises health and safety concerns for the youth and elderly clients who flock to the center for their services and programs, said settlement reps.
"It was just chaos yesterday," said Emily Lederman, the settlement's community engagement and policy advocate.
"A woman a wheelchair was crying. It was really awful for the seniors."
Approximately 100 middle and high school-aged students are currently enrolled in the center's after school program, many of whom use the Rivington walkway to get home, though the settlement anticipates closer to 300 students when summer camps start in about a month.
Meanwhile, roughly 200 seniors come through the center daily for food and health services, while between 400 and 500 use the facility's food pantry twice a month, including Monday. Many of those seniors also use the walkway to travel from the Baruch Houses.
Without the walkway, the kids and elderly clients must come up Delancey Street — a less safe route that goes under the Williamsburg Bridge, settlement reps said — or walk up to Houston Street for a more isolated, industrial route. On top of the safety concerns, seniors have a harder time making the longer trek, said Cordero.
“These are people who are fragile, with walkers, with wheelchairs, who are coming to literally eat, and we provide them with counseling and services and access to health care,” said Cordero. “They come on a daily basis they come directly through Masaryk.”
Grand Street Settlement has circulated a petition demanding Masaryk work with settlement management to provide access to children, youth, families and seniors using the center and that Masaryk communicate with Cordero regarding any changes to access in the future. More than 300 community members had signed the petition as of Tuesday afternoon, said Lederman.
Cordero said he has reached out to Masaryk leadership but has yet to hear back. Mitch Magidson, the complex's general manager, told the Lo-Down that the decision was "to ensure the safety and security of its residents."
Both Magidson and Masaryk board president Bernice McCallum did not immediately return requests for comment.
Councilwoman Rosie Mendez said she had met with Masaryk leadership roughly a decade ago regarding the eventual gate closure — which had been recommended to lower insurance rates — and that they had agreed to keep the gate open during certain hours of the day, rather than shuttering it permanently. Masaryk directors don't recall the agreement, she said, and they are digging up records of that meeting for review.