Metro, Featured Story, Newton

‘It’s Not Historical. We Are’: Demonstrators Call for New Senior Center Building at Wednesday Protest

Joan Belle Isle, the chair of the executive committee of the Council on Aging, said she thinks the Newton Senior Center is the reason she’s alive.

“This may sound a little weird, but I’m quite convinced that the senior center saved my life,” she said.

Belle Isle, who has lung cancer, said Tai Chi classes in the nearly 84-year-old building helped her stay active during treatment.

“I was recently diagnosed with lung cancer,” Belle Isle said. “And I’m absolutely convinced that being involved, being connected, being part of that Tai Chi [class], doing something physical every day, contributed to my essentially being cancer free at this point.” 

But Belle Isle—along with about 15 other elderly people demonstrating outside the center Wednesday afternoon—is calling for the City of Newton to tear down the current building and replace it with a new, more accessible facility.

Newton plans to preserve historic elements of the current structure at 345 Walnut St., such as its stained glass windows and elements of the facade, in creating the Newton Center for Active Living (NewCAL), according to a project update

The demonstrators, though, want the city to build an entirely new building. One of the protesters wielded a sign that said, “IT’S NOT HISTORICAL. WE ARE.” 

The front facade of the senior center looks a little bit like a town hall. But the white paint above the center’s name is fading away, and the metal fixture above the door is rusty. 

To get to the main entrance to the building, visitors need to climb seven steps. Once inside, they need to climb several more steps to reach the first floor which sits 6 feet above ground level, according to Belle Isle. 

If the city preserves the facade, the main entrance to the building would pose accessibility issues, according to Jayne Colino,the director of the city’s Department of Senior Services. 

“And I guess the issue is, if this was landmarked, we would not be able to change this building, and this would be the main entrance, which is clearly not accessible,” Colino said. “You can’t have a main entrance that isn’t accessible to everybody.”

Judy Kaplan, who has lived in Newton for 40 years, organized the demonstration.

“We were doing a petition and I said, ‘Well why don’t we just get a bunch of people in front of the steps and show how ridiculous this is?’” Kaplan said. 

She said the current senior center serves the community as a place to gather and share a cup of coffee or watch a cooking demonstration. 

“It’s a place for people to be and not to be alone,” Kaplan said. “Seniors, many of these people are widows, and to have a place to go—to meet other people—is important.”

Belle Isle said there is room for major changes at the center. The seniors need more space for programs, she said.

“[We could have] cooking for one, nutrition programs,” she said. “But we don’t have the space to do it at this point.”

NewCAL would create more space for programming, according to Kaplan. But even with the proposed improvements, Kaplan said she is frustrated with the preservation efforts that might hinder its construction.

“So it’s gonna be more spacious, and that’s what everybody wants,” Kaplan said. “But, [there’s] a group of people who want to preserve this facade. And this facade is like, you know, there’s nothing special about it.”

Belle Isle said an effort to preserve the facade would require long ramps and complicated lift systems for visitors to access the main entrance. Those requirements would just distract from the facade, according to her.

“All of the options that we’ve looked at, basically to make this facade accessible, destroys the facade,” Belle Isle said. 

An entirely new building is the city’s most accessible option, Colino said.

“If you are on a walker or in a wheelchair or have mobility issues, we want everybody to come into the same place and be able to see and be connected in the same way,” Colino said.  “And the new construction allows us to do that … more successfully than keeping this building.”

Efforts to preserve the facade endanger the option of creating a more accessible center in the future, according to Colino. She said the protest represents one of the first times seniors in Newton have generated a movement of their own. 

“There are organized groups in the city around different issues, whether it’s development or whether it’s school advocacy,” Colino said. “This is the first real kind of large, senior issue that seniors have come out, really on their own, to say this is something that the city needs to do.”

Colino said she was proud to see the seniors leading the demonstration.

“I think that we can do honor to this building in the same way that we can do honor to the people that are going to be served in it,” she said. “I think there’s a compromise that can be met.”

Images by Victor Stefanescu/ Heights Editor

February 24, 2022