Once upon a community board meeting

The panel for a discussion of banking for seniors included, left to right, Osi Ororokuma and JP Morgan Chase representatives Robert Benitez and Melvin Collins. Photo: Michelle Naim
Don’t mess with the District 9 seniors
by Michelle Naim

I did not wear a coat to work on Tuesday. February 5. The temperature was in the 40s that morning, but for someone from Los Angeles, who spent the previous week in her room with the heat on full blast and her feet wrapped in fuzzy socks, it felt like a beautiful summer day. (Which it almost was — we hit 65 degrees in the afternoon.)

The assignment was to cover a Community Board 9 meeting, but when I got to the George Bruce Library at 518 West 125th Street, where the meeting was to be held, it was closed. “Excuse me,” I said to a man who looked like he worked there, “isn’t there a meeting concerning senior issues at 11 a.m.?” “Sorry,” he replied, “the library opens at noon,” It was 10:45 a.m.

I met a kind, elderly woman waiting outside. I figured she was probably thanking her lucky stars that today was not a day she had to stay inside with her heat on full blast and fuzzy socks. But she was angry, and told me that the only thing keeping this library afloat was her and her fellow senior citizens, and how despicable it was that they could change the hours without letting them know.

A former Chase banker, Osi Ororokuma, also standing outside of the library, said he’d been there for an hour. Later, in a phone-call, still angry, he said it was a disgrace that “there weren’t any chairs brought outside ... after they found out that the seniors were waiting.”

As time slowly trickled by, community members proudly attempted to enter their library, only to find that the front door was locked. Attorney Anthony Fletcher, who served as the Community Board 9 interim chair for the meeting, but regularly serves as the treasurer, said, “With respect to Tuesdays ... it had traditionally been the case, at last for the least ten years, that ... the library opened in time for us to begin our 11:15 a,m. meeting.”

Asked about the library’s communication with the board about the change in hours, Fletcher said, “I did not receive that correspondence, and when I went into the office to retrieve what was in my box ... there was no mail. What I can tell you is that the librarian upstairs, who would not identify herself, told me the following: We notified the city of the change in hours and it is the city’s obligation, downtown, the department of libraries, to notify community residents and other organizations that the library hours are changing.” According to Fletcher, the library never consulted with the community board members about the change, “For the three of us who are here,” he said, “each of us has confirmed that the community board was never asked or informed as to the change in the schedule for today or the other days.”

When the library finally opened, the seniors carefully descended the steps to a theater-like room. The topic of the meeting was the business of banking and the services available to seniors and people with disabilities. Fletcher, Martin Wallace, and Carolyn Thomas were the three community board members in attendance. Fletcher moderated the panel.

Melvin T. Collins, current JP Morgan Chase branch manager, and Arif Seyal, market director for Washington Heights and Harlem, represented the bank. After many community members voiced their complaints about the customer service they had received at their local Chase Bank, Collins apologized. “I want my employees to treat you like a billionaire,” he said.

After many suggestions from the audience of ways for Chase to better serve the community, Seyal informed the seniors that the Chase Bank on 55 West 125th Street was closing for four months in order to build an innovative workshop room for its clients. Dr. Theda Palmer, a Harlem business owner who was attending her first community board meeting, said, “I think it would be a lovely physical place ... [but] if the content is not going to affect the people’s learning curve then they may as well stay where they are.” She continued, “I saw nothing at that meeting that was a teaching experience.”

As the meeting ended, a beloved woman who everyone called Ms. Gilmore was swarmed over by her friends and other community members. Lunch was served, and as I walked to the subway, I felt like I was already part of this small community, called District 9. It was late, and it was time to head back to midtown. Maybe I should’ve worn my fuzzy socks.