When I ran into this article, I was still living in Columbia, MD and working in downtown D.C. I knew suburban life wouldn’t work for retirement — I wanted what I’d had in Boston where I could get anywhere by walking or on public transit, including cultural events and healthcare.
But where? I thought about Philadelphia or North Carolina but neither had the type of urban density I wanted. NYC seemed a distant dream. Then I read this article. I didn’t copy it or otherwise save it but it stuck in the mind of my mind until a librarian friend found it for me again this past week.
A different friend taught me three years later that NYC wasn’t a place I had to take in one gulp — that it was no more than a group of neighborhoods. Then she introduced me to the right real estate broker and serendipity (karma?) hit.
My friend’s miracle worker found my dream apartment within a week and I closed just before 9/11 while I was still working in D.C. and hoping for a transfer to 7 WTC. My life, like so many other people’s lives, then became complicated. It took six years before I could live here full-time.
But I have never regretted the lengthy process of moving to NYC where I eventually retired. This is my home in a way that no other place has been.
THE BIG CITY
No Stairs, No Driving, No Tropical-Colored Pants
By John Tierney
- March 9, 1997
See the article in its original context from March 9, 1997, Section 6, Page 20
It may sound a lit-tle strange, especially to the elderly natives fleeing to Florida, but a few entrepreneurs have begun marketing New York City as a lovely place to retire.
The Esplanade, a hotel building at West End Avenue and 74th Street that was recently converted into a residence for the elderly, is enticing customers with this advertisement: ”Just one block west is lovely Riverside Park, with its splendid views of the Hudson, walking paths and year-round enjoyment of the ever-changing scenery. Then one block east is bustling Broadway with its potpourri of specialty shops, restaurants, boutiques and bookstores. Just a short stroll downtown are the many cultural offerings of Lincoln Center. Excitement or tranquillity are just steps away.”
You might question how much tranquillity anyone can find in Manhattan, but otherwise you can’t really fault the ad’s pitch. What other retirement community offers so much so conveniently? In New York, you can get everywhere without driving; you can get whatever you want delivered to your door. In other places, the elderly complain about feeling isolated; here, you have seven million neighbors. You don’t have to beg your relatives to visit you; if you have a free guest bed, they will come.
In New York, an elderly person can live a full existence without ever being expected to walk up a staircase, ride in a tour bus or put on a pair of tropical-colored pants. The city encourages black formal dresses and dark business suits — a great look for the elderly, as Italian villagers have known for generations. New York may not be the most serene place to retire, but at least you can age here in dignity.
The Esplanade, which offers housekeeping services and meals to the elderly who rent apartments there, has proved so popular that it has a nine-month waiting list. Charging between $2,500 and $4,500 a month per person, it is attracting people who could afford to flee to more bucolic settings — people like Hannah Kimmel, who’s known as Honey, and her partner, Harry Rackow. She’s 82; he’s 89. In 1995, when they decided to sell their apartments in the Rockaways, they considered traditional retirement communities.
”We looked at a beautiful place up the Hudson that had 4,000 acres,” Harry explained recently as he and Honey sat in their two-bedroom apartment at the Esplanade. ”But it was too isolated.”
”It was a million miles from nowhere,” Honey said. ”If there’s a sale in a department store, we want to go right away.”
Why not Florida? Honey grimaced. Harry tried to be diplomatic.
”We spent winters around Boca Raton and found it enjoyable,” he said. ”They’re beginning to get more culture in the Miami and Lauderdale area. They’re getting museums.”
”They’re getting a muse-um,” she said.
”Some touring theater companies.”
”But you can’t compare it to New York,” he concluded.
”It’s the opposite side of the universe,” she said. ”You go to Florida to die. Here in New York, your brain is still working.”
One of their neighbors, Beatrice Grossman, has become a devout Manhat-
tanophile since moving in last year from Nanuet, a suburb 25 miles northwest of New York. ”It was kind of lonely for me in Nanuet after I retired,” she said. ”It got boring. You could take a walk, but you wouldn’t see anybody unless you went to the mall. Here, you leave your apartment and there’s always something going on.” In the suburbs, she had felt especially limited once she stopped driving after dark.
”Now I’m as busy as the day is long,” she said. ”I go to the gym a block away every day — I’ve got a personal trainer. I go out and shop on Broadway for the other people in the building. I have subscriptions to both opera companies at Lincoln Center, and I can go to the evening performances without worrying about driving home. I walk to the ballet, to the movies, all the way to midtown. Last year, someone spotted me and hired me to do a music video with Sheryl Crow. They had me stand in the background wearing a short, tight dress and a red fake fur. That’s not the kind of thing that happens to you in Nanuet.”
Statistically, Beatrice is still the exception: New York hasn’t been attracting many elderly immigrants. The typical old New Yorker is a woman who has lived here for many years. Of the roughly 950,000 New Yorkers 65 and over included in the 1990 census, fewer than 15,000 had moved here from another place in America during the previous five years. Meanwhile, the census found that more than 90,000 elderly New Yorkers had left the city during that five-year period. (A third of them moved to local suburbs, and a third went to Florida.)
New York politicians have tried to persuade the elderly to love New York. The city has its own Department for the Aging, which delivers meals, pays for trips to the doctor and runs a raft of programs ranging from computer training to a counseling service billed as the nation’s only Grandparent Resource Center. But the city and state governments have also done their part to drive away the elderly. Besides high income taxes, New York has one of America’s most onerous estate taxes; it also has a set of burdensome regulations that has discouraged large companies from opening ”assisted living” facilities for people who don’t need a nursing home but do want some special services.
These facilities, already popular in other states, are only now starting to be built in New York by developers who recently worked their way around the confining regulations. (The solution is for the facility’s operator to provide just basic housekeeping services and meals, and for an independent agency to provide personal-care attendants.) One such facility is the Prospect Park Residence on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Scheduled to open in May, it will include private apartments, communal facilities and a branch of the New York University Medical Center.
”We’re going to take advantage of the city’s cultural resources,” says Stanley Diamond, the chairman of Castle Senior Living, one of the facility’s partners. ”We’re going to set up programs with the Brooklyn Museum and Public Library. Experts from the Botanic Garden are going to help the residents with a garden on the roof. New York offers the elderly more opportunities than any place in the world. We’re hoping to build a dozen of these residences around the city in the next two years. The challenge is to keep down the costs so it’s affordable. If we do that, it won’t be hard to find people who want to retire here.”
While New York’s cost of living is intimidating to people on fixed incomes, the elderly do meet one of the crucial criteria for surviving in Manhattan: childlessness. Young families are practically forced to go to the suburbs for backyards and better schools, but once the children are grown, the city becomes more affordable. Even the most skeptical aging suburbanites sometimes come to appreciate the city’s pleasures, as Sig Gissler and his wife, Mary, recently discovered.
Until 1993, the Gisslers were living in a suburb of Milwaukee. She was a retired nurse; he was the editor of The Milwaukee Journal. New York did not strike them as a great place to live. In 1990, after the much-publicized murder of a Utah tourist on a subway platform, Gissler dispatched a reporter and photographer to do a series about New York’s evils. One of Gissler’s sons, who was living in New York, tried telling him that he was exaggerating the problems. But he didn’t believe them until he retired from The Journal and came to Manhattan for a nine-month fellowship at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.
To everyone’s surprise, the Gisslers ended up selling their house (and two cars) and settling in New York. Mary began doing volunteer work with AIDS patients; Sig became a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. They bought a two-bedroom apartment on Columbus Avenue and took to calling Central Park ”our 844-acre front yard.” When Mary happened to mention to a relative back in Wisconsin that she had just returned from taking a nap in the park, she heard a gasp at the other end of the line, then a question: ”You did what?” Sig’s friends heard about him circling the park on Rollerblades.
”I’ve become a repentant New York-basher,” he says. Gissler, 61, has no plans to leave New York when he eventually retires from teaching. ”I’d rather be here than in some retirement community named Sun City,” he says. ”People start to go to seed in those places because they’re so isolated from the young and from new ideas. Here, you feel the energy pulsating as soon as you walk out the door. If you come here at age 60 or 70, you find that New York has a hidden elixir of youth — no matter how much you thought you knew, the city gives you a good kick in the pants.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 9, 1997, Section 6, Page 20 of the National edition with the headline: No Stairs, No Driving, No Tropical-Colored Pants.