In January 2015, we sat down with six older residents of Morningside Gardens, a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) in Manhattan, to conduct an interview for our book The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion. Then, in May 2020, we followed up with three of the residents we had spoken to: Nancy Eder, Rose Voisk, and Sydney Weinberg. Sadly, two other interviewees — John Beard and Marge Nissen — had passed away. In our latter conversation via Zoom, we asked how the NORC continued to support their needs, changes they had noticed in the development and surrounding neighborhood, and generally what they were up to.
What follows are edited transcripts of our two conversations with residents of Morningside Gardens. These interviews are annotated with insights from our subsequent interviews with NORC directors and with Fredda Vladeck and Anita Altman.
To start, we would love for each of you to introduce yourself, to state your age, and to describe how you ended up at Morningside Gardens.
I’m 76. I bought my apartment seven years ago. Before that, I lived for 40 years in Greenwich Village, which was prime real estate. I worked for New York University and lived in NYU housing. My daughter-in-law’s parents, who live in the area, had the foresight to see Morningside Gardens as a possible place for their kids. So they put their kids on the waiting list. My son moved up here with his wife, and encouraged me to move up here as well. At the time, I didn’t know Morningside. I was on the waiting list for about 15 years! I put in for a one bedroom, knowing that when I retired I would lose my NYU housing.
I’ve been here since 1990 — 25 years, I can’t believe it! I’m 84 years old, closer to 85. I came to New York from my homeland Slovenia in 1959. I left the country and got political asylum in Paris because I didn’t like the dictatorship of communism. I eventually immigrated to the United States and worked for Barnard College.
I’m relatively young; I just turned 80. I’ve been here for eleven years now. I lived in the area before moving here. I was a social worker; I started my own little program called stress reduction services, teaching yoga for 30 years. When I later discovered Chi Gong, I went to China and studied there. In fact, I need to leave this interview soon to teach a Chi Gong class at the Harlem YMCA.
I moved here because my father got me the apartment in 1957 while I was a recently married undergraduate at Barnard. I never thought it would be forever, but it turned out to be! Now both my children live here. There are many second-generation and even third-generation residents.
I’m 96, and I’ve lived here since 1970. I’ve been involved for many years with the affairs of the community — though I’m no longer very involved. I still keep up, more or less, with what’s going on, using the Grapevine [an email thread for residents]. I came to New York in 1957 to work on a doctorate at Columbia University. I’m a Canadian originally, so I learned about a job at the Vancouver Public Library and left New York in 1959. While there, I worked at a cooperative supermarket and used a cooperative transportation system. When I moved back to New York, the idea of cooperation and living in a co-op such as Morningside Gardens really appealed to me.
I’m 84, and I’ve lived in Morningside Gardens for 20 years. I’m very happy here. We have many support systems, and you’re getting all this free love. It actually keeps me alive. Today I saw the nurse, who took my blood pressure and talked with me. I’m not afraid to say I see a psychologist. Problems come up and you can always come here. Young people come from Columbia to volunteer. They are wonderful, I’ve never met a lemon.
On that note, what do others enjoy about living at Morningside Gardens? How does living in a NORC improve your quality of life as you age?
What I like about MRHS is that it can satisfy all your needs. I have many interests. There are programs of all kinds — physical and mental health, current events, there’s a group for everything! You don’t have to go very far, which is important for seniors. I teach Chi Gong again tomorrow! Everyone is welcome.
I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It makes me feel like I’m living in the country; when I walk in this garden, I feel like I’m living in the Garden State, not Manhattan. The air feels so fresh from the greenery. MHRS is also a great organization. It makes me feel very much at home.
I LOVE THIS PLACE. Put it in big caps. It is the perfect thing for my stage of life. I’m a gardener; I’m a very active person on the grounds committee. I spend five hours a day working. So gardening is a big plus. I’ve attended a writing workshop for five years, and I’m very involved in the community. I’m involved with my grandchildren on a daily basis because they are only four floors below me.
My son lives in California. And I’ve lived there three times, but each time I come back. As I get older I want to be closer to him, but the pull of this place, of MRHS — I can’t leave it.
I also couldn’t conceive of living elsewhere. There are so many amenities. Nancy and I are on the grounds committee, and I take many exercise classes. Everything is inclusive, we try to include all ages, and some residents will get involved and others won’t.
People have been singing the praises of MRHS, and I agree. But also, one of the most important factors has been that Morningside is a cooperative. Being a librarian, which is a service profession (I suppose service is in my bones), there are lots of opportunities here. Especially when I retired in 1982 – 1983, I started volunteering at MRHS, and at that time there were no service workers, it was completely volunteer. I helped them set up their library, such as it is, and did all kinds of volunteer work like take people to medical appointments. I was on the board of MRHS for a number of years, so MRHS has been good to me, and I’m sort of about even [laughs].
When we first learned about NORCs, we were struck by the connections John is describing: between organized labor, cooperative housing, and the creation of senior-friendly environments.
Well, I would like to inject some reality in this conversation. There was a community spirit here that has changed because the co-op has gone open market.
Morningside Gardens is no longer limited-equity.
How do you think the decision to go open market has changed Morningside Gardens?
It has created a big divide among us, between those who are for and against it. I feel it. The atmosphere has changed and people do agree with me, though maybe not everyone in this room.
Things are only getting better, this community will not disappear.
This development was meant for middle-income people. Young people won’t be able to come here anymore. I went to Antioch College; my parents were communists. When I arrived here, I felt immediately that I had to get involved and fight to maintain the status quo. I was surprised to find that many of the people who have been here the longest are the staunchest advocates of change. They bought their apartments for pennies, and now they can sell for millions.
I’ve noticed that when new people move in — and I think this is related to the new prices and having a less intentional community — is that they don’t see it as a NORC or a special place to live. They don’t say hello in the elevator. There are people who live here who just consider it a convenient place to have an apartment. But in a sense, that’s how I was when I first moved in, too. I had schoolwork, and I had my kids.
Will switching to open market disrupt what exists in the long term?
I don’t think so. Even though it’s open market, there’s still a screening process for potential residents.
Because of our age, I don’t think it will change much for us. But I think my children who are living here will have a very different experience than us. You’re going to get a group of people in here who can afford it on a much higher level. And it won’t be able to provide housing for middle-class people, which it was built to provide housing for.
People who would like to live here and are retiring from a profession like librarianship, where you don’t make a million dollars, may not be able to afford it. It’s difficult to say that things are going to be absolutely different though because of the organizations that already exist, such as MRHS and the wood workshop.
We are also interested in the design of Morningside Gardens, a style that planners and architects call “towers-in-the-park.” How does the development’s layout work for you, and for aging bodies more generally?
I think the layout is very positive. We have all this green space. We have birds flying overhead!
We have a bird watching group! A very serious group.
It’s a very positive thing to have grounds. Even though you live in a high-rise, you have a backyard.
I vote for tall buildings, because all the people I meet in the laundry room are my friends. It’s not like living in a house far away. I never met my neighbors in a laundry room in my old house.
I really have to say, not that I’m unfriendly, but I didn’t know any of my neighbors in my old apartment building. Now I know every one of my neighbors; I know that if I need something, if I need help, that my neighbors are there and I can call them, which is rather unusual in a big city.
During the blackout, people knocked on our doors asking if we needed a candle.
What about being in a dense, urban environment like Manhattan?
I love it. We have ten bus lines right here!
You can go to stuff at Lincoln Center and you see a lot of your neighbors there. Columbia also at the Miller Theatre. A nearby church has concerts.
It’s New York City, so I walk everywhere. I never stay here. The library is nearby; they have wonderful, free exercise classes. There’s also the National Black Theatre in Harlem, the Studio Museum, the state park, Olympic pools, ball fields . . .
We have a supper club that meets across the street on Amsterdam Ave once a month.
There are two Italian restaurants nearby.
And a sushi place across the street!
You can eat any kind of food you want. There’s also a bus here that takes people shopping, twice a week.
But it’s important to add that we’re surrounded by the poor on two sides, by public housing developments. We are here and they are there. And there are fences. For whatever reason those fences will not be taken down. I want to work to take down the fences, literally and figuratively.
Last time around we started with a basic question: introduce yourself, state your age, and describe how you ended up at Morningside Gardens. We can skip that because apart from being five years older, none of that has changed. The second question we asked last time though is worth asking again: What do people enjoy about living at Morningside Gardens? How does living in a NORC improve your quality of life as you age?
It’s wonderful to be in a place where you know a lot of people and have known them for a long, long time. I’ve probably been here the longest. I moved in when there was only one building up. I had absolutely no interest in retirement. I was 18. But when I became older it became a lifeline.
Say more about that. In what way?
I met a lot of people through MRHS. I guess my feeling is that it makes it possible to live here when you’re older. I’m fortunate in that I have two daughters who also live here. But for others who are alone, it is essential. Actually, for me, it’s essential too: I don’t think I can live here without it.
Do you live with your daughters?
Oh god no! I love them but that would be too close; they live in another building. By the way, my daughters are seniors too.
I came here because my son lived here before I lived here. I’ve only been a cooperator here for the last eleven years. I was very resistant to coming up. I was on the waiting list for about 15 or 20 years. When I retired at age 70 I thought I should consider it. But I came reluctantly; I lived in the Village and I was happy. But I made the best move of my life to come to a NORC. This is a vibrant, active, intelligent, creative, inquisitive, political community. I could go on and on with the adjectives. I’m lucky: I have a one bedroom with a balcony. When you called, I was just out there planting potatoes and spinach seeds. I am very active on the grounds committee. Where else in NYC can a person go and dig in a huge space. I have a garden that is over 100 feet long! I’m very active in all kinds of things. I socialize with a lot of the people here: this has become my town.
Does this have to do with the fact that you live in a NORC?
Absolutely. MRHS is where I do art work. I have a writing group that has been going for 26 years. I joined hesitantly but now I’m a writer. People in their 90s are doing creative work. Living here socializes people. In other cooperatives, there isn’t the same commonality. They are more just neighbors.
Morningside has been a blessing for me. I moved here in 1990. What I cherish very much is our gorgeous garden with so many trees. We have 200. I enjoy them every day. When it’s nice, I sunbathe. MRHS is another blessing for the seniors and also for other people who can attend lectures. We have lectures of all kinds: political, practical, that can enhance our lives. There are also a lot of exercises that I participate in. I do Tai Chi. Right now I am attending Shakti Naam Yoga classes. After this class I feel rejuvenated. I meet very interesting people here. I would not exchange my home for a home on Fifth Avenue; I love it here.
Rose, you said that five years ago!
Now even more so.
Now we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic; how are you doing? Has it been helpful to have the NORC to help cope with being in New York City in the midst of a pandemic?
It’s definitely a different life; I cannot see my friends, who I miss very much. I am on the phone with them; it’s all we can do. But I go outside every day. I crave the sun. I sit in the garden and soak in the sun. I shop at Foodtown and Appletree. So far I have not used any assistance. I jump on the trampoline.
I’m a landscape painter so I paint at home. Since the pandemic, I learned how to use the iPad to draw. I paint plants! I had a show planned for this spring: paintings that I did in Cuba. But, that’s not going to happen. I’m prepared to stay home; right now I’m OK. But MRHS has been extremely helpful though this; they must be working ten hours a day. You can call them up and have someone go shopping for you; they can give you a mask (I’m immunocompromised and don’t go out at all). I’m doing fine. I am so appreciative knowing that there was an agency on our property who are like our friends. We all know Ron and Margie as if they were relatives.
They couldn’t be more helpful; you could call them about anything.
Nancy, you used the word “cooperator.” The last time we spoke you said last time that “there was a community spirit here that has changed because the co-op has gone open market.” You expressed fear that this would mean the development wouldn’t be for middle-income people anymore. Also, Sydney, you mentioned that the newcomers didn’t share the cooperative spirit: they didn’t see it as a special place to live. Do you still feel this way? Did your fears come true?
They vary; some are wonderful and some are: “This is a place to live and that’s it.”
That’s probably the way it always was, right?
I think people used to be into it being a co-op more than they are now.
At a meeting, one guy said: “Why should I pay for other people to have things?” It struck me that’s something you never would have heard even ten years ago.
Three or four years ago, there were rumblings that people were objecting to supporting MRHS, not realizing how little each apartment pays to help subsidize MRHS.
You mentioned that you attended a public meeting . . . How?
Zoom! Whereas we normally would have had about 50 people in the audience, we had 88 people. It was very rewarding.
Would that I could do Zoom . . .
Too bad you can’t be in real space. I understand the MRHS has been renovated; how do you like it?
I don’t think it’s fabulous. They didn’t do the right thing with the sound. You hear everything and that’s not fun.
There’s some fine-tuning.
What do you like about the new space?
The old one looked like an old peoples’ sitting room. The furniture was stained — it was gross.
I liked it; I guess I like old things. Don’t forget I’m mostly blind, so I can’t see dirt.
I didn’t want to be there. This new place is night and day; it’s very pleasant.
And it’s nice that they have coffee there all the time.
We were wondering about intergenerational life. Are there other examples of that that have lived on?
There are a lot of possibilities, but some things work and some don’t.
I have two daughters and granddaughters; I am very involved with them but do they do what I do? Not so much. Oh! Very important! I saw the need for intergenerational interactions. So I purchased — with the aid of MRHS — two intergenerational garden beds: they are wheelchair accessible. They were expensive. I got them with the idea that grandmothers could plant with their grandchildren. People didn’t want the beds in front of MRHS. Why? They didn’t want to see wheelchairs there — they said they didn’t want this to look like an old age house.
Also the gym . . .
Have the demographics in terms of age changed much over the years? When it became a NORC did more older folks move in?
Well, we’ve all gotten much older.
The whole point of a NORC is to age in place, and that has enabled people to stay here and be active. There are three women in my group who do creative writing; they are 92, 94, and 96. I’m one of the younger people in the group and I’m 81! People can age here; the woman who sold her apartment to me was 96. People live here as long as possible. There are young families who move in, but they will stay.
Has the neighborhood changed?
My opinion of the neighborhood has not changed.
I’d say it has changed drastically. Columbia is expanding their campus. The area around us has gentrified tremendously. New buildings are going up all around us.
It will change when these buildings are completed.
But it has changed already! The closest restaurant to here is one that sells half a roast chicken for $35. And it’s always busy! You can eat Chinese and Italian for less, but things are changing and not for not the better; being rich doesn’t make you better.