Sunday, March 9, 2008

Finding a Place for the New Senior Center

[Salem Council on Aging at Broad St.]

For at least the past 20 years, Salem has been trying to find a new home for its senior center, which is considered small and inadequate by the standards of other senior centers in the area, notably Peabody's Community Life Center.

After Mayor Driscoll tried, and failed, last year, to get an agreement to relocate the center to the old St. Joseph's Church (a topic worth a post in itself), several other candidate sites have been put forth, as mentioned in "Mayor floats proposal for community center" - Salem, MA - Salem Gazette.

The mayor has put forth a very tentative proposal:  North Shore Medical Center will build a medical office at the old Sylvania site at Boston and Bridge (long vacant since the Federal Street Neighborhood Association chased off prospective developers with lawsuits.)  The Senior Center will be on the first floor of the new development.

This hasn't sat well with everyone.  Teazie Goggin, of the Senior Center Committee, wants a standalone senior center located on Memorial Drive next to Camp Naumkeag, where a playground accessible to the disabled is now located.

One site is not on anyone's list:  People on Salemweb, as well as Salem Politics have promoted the school at St. John's Church at St. Peter's St. as a slamdunk for the senior center.  The fact that it hasn't made anyone's short list is seen as a conspiracy between Madame Driscoll and unnamed developers.

If only. 

I'm no Mr. Sunny.  Cynical, I will gladly believe any Salem political conspiracy presented to me, at least those that aren't already in my head, but I don't think this is the reason.

I've been in St. John's.  I was a member of the mental-health clubhouse Pioneer House in the early '90s.  At the time, their offices were in the front half of the school.  The back part of the school was used by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health for a crisis center.  (I was there, too.  Please don't ask.)

Almost none of the school is handicapped-accessible.  Only a small room off the main entrance is level with the sidewalk (and used for bingo overflow).   The ground level of the school has steps going up from the main entrance.  The large auditorium has steps into the building, steps up to the lobby, and steps down again into the auditorium itself.  There is a complete kitchen and cafeteria in the basement level, but there are no elevators.

St. John's School was built in the same era (late '40s-early '50s) as the city's Carlton School.  But in the late '90s, when that school needed renovation, it was deemed so expensive that the school was demolished and a new school built on the site. 

St. John's has not been used as a school for at least 20 years if not longer, and it has not been occupied for the past 8 years.  It isn't an especially old building, but time and newer standards have not been kind to it.

People who propose St. John's seem to think that we can just cut a check to the Archdiocese and bring out the U-Hauls.  

That's far from the case.

The lack of accessibility stops this one cold.  You don't need to be using a walker, a cane or a wheelchair to be put off by this idea.  I've written about my own bad experiences with steps, and there are steps everywhere in the building!

In fact, the auditorium was once used as my precinct's voting site, but is no longer (requiring over a mile's walk on my part to Salem Heights), due to state regulations about voting accessibility.

Making that building accessible would require more money than almost anyone, including the Archdiocese, could or would spend.

This is to say nothing about parking:  The church there is still open and still in use for Sunday services and Friday bingo.  The city and St. John's would have to coordinate activities carefully.  St. John's has been very aggressive in protecting the use of their parking lot, with very good reason, and have regularly attended public meetings affecting their neighborhood.  They are not by any measure absentee owners, and this could not go anywhere if the church doesn't want it.

St. John's just isn't going to work, and I can only think the city has seen the same things I have--or they should.

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