Revealing a hope diamond
April 4th was to have been the grand opening celebration for EastView Independent Senior Living Complex, The Salvation Army’s latest venture in “doing the most good.” This nearly $80 million state–of–the–art building in East Harlem combines an upscale senior residence with the Manhattan Citadel and its corps community center, the first such partnership in the territory. Ten years in the planning, it is the Army’s most ambitious project since Evangeline Booth opened the organization’s Greater New York headquarters on 14th Street more than 100 years ago.
However, when the coronavirus pandemic swept into New York City, the Army postponed those festivities indefinitely. Also curtailed was the effort to bring in new residents and the much–needed revenue that would come with them. Access to the building was tightly restricted to protect the health of the elderly residents who had moved to EastView from The Williams Residence, the Salvation Army’s facility on West End Avenue that was closing.
“Timing is everything,” said Major Douglas Bartlebaugh, divisional secretary for business administration. “We just opened our doors to receive new residents and the pandemic hit us. Here we are, four months in our new facility and we are forced to close to new residents. We have this new shiny gem on 125th Street and Third Avenue and no one can see it. It is like having the Hope Diamond locked up in a dark safe for no one to view.”
Devastating economic impact
“To add insult to injury, we were forced to furlough some employees temporarily to help manage our budget, especially in light of the increased expenses to keep the facility clean and safe,” Bartlebaugh said. “As of April 30, the operation is running a deficit of over $502,000. Our administration is confident that once we are able to open our doors to receiving new residents, we will be successful in our operation.”
When that will be, though, is unknown. “We need new residents to be able to bring the occupancy rate to the point where we break even for the quality of services we provide,” said Colonel Nestor R. Nuesch, the retired officer hired as a consultant for much of the planning of EastView and the transfer of the 60–some Williams residents.
The quality of service includes breakfast, dinner, weekly housekeeping and linens, activities, and a modern fitness center. Activities have been suspended since mid–March and the gym closed as residents isolate in their apartments. The Sodexo crew, the facilities management company, is cleaning three times a day rather than the usual once. A tremendous amount of extra packaging material has been necessary for residents to take their meals back to their rooms since communal dining, a beloved feature of EastView, is suspended.
“The pandemic affects every aspect of the challenge we face,” Nuesch said.
The costly efforts have paid off. Residents have remained well and have expressed gratitude that all their needs are being met and will continue to be met.
“If we have additional outbreaks, we are prepared with stock–piled supplies and operational procedures that will remain in place,” Bartlebaugh said. “The Salvation Army infrastructure allows easy access to the supply chain. Throughout our history, the Army has sat at many of the higher–level administrative tables, such as FEMA, Homeland Security, Local OEM, VOAD,* and many more to position ourselves to be on the cutting edge of crisis management. From World War I to COVID–19, The Salvation Army has been there ‘doing the most good.’”
The staff has included added touches, such as adult coloring books and colored pencils, as well as puzzles and puzzle books for the residents as they isolate in their apartments. Weekly grab–and–go events such as “guacamole & chips” and “Danish & tea” have replaced the usual social gatherings.
“Our residents are not just guests, they are family,” Bartlebaugh says. “The EastView residence is a living community and we care for each other. Social life is important to many of our residents. The COVID crisis brought many to the point where they did not know what to do with their time. Family could not visit, and they could not meet with their friends. It was decided that we would need to provide some opportunity to keep residents occupied. To take them back in time, we decided to purchase adult coloring books, puzzle books, and other items, which were a hit.”
All these extra expenses have been added to what Nuesch calls the “built–in deficit” of the “scholarships” granted, thanks to donations given to residents unable to pay the full cost. He estimates nearly half of the residents are now subsidized.
Reaching out for support
“We need to inform and educate new funders to help us provide services and scholarships,” Nuesch said, adding that he would like to have financial support to develop endowed scholarships. “We seldom make money in any of our programs. That is why we need support from outside.”
Reaching out to supporters will be coupled with an intense marketing effort to attract new residents able to afford the full fee. Nuesch recognizes the biggest challenge is the neighborhood, which has a reputation for having high crime and many drug treatment programs. He believes the beauty of the new residence will offset these concerns and points to the community’s rapidly developing economy. A luxury co–op is well under construction right across Third Avenue from EastView and an attractive nine–story office building is planned around the corner on 125th Street.
Many studies and much prayer went into the decision to sell the West End Avenue property and relocate to East Harlem, Nuesch said. The 90–year–old Williams Residence, which The Salvation Army bought in the 1960s, needed between $40 million and $50 million to bring it up to standard. The Army already owned the property on 125th Street, where it has operated a corps community center for more than 130 years. With neighborhoods in this vicinity being developed during the past decade, the idea of combining the two programs into one operation began to take shape.
“In essence we were ahead of the curve,” Nuesch said, adding that EastView residents might welcome the opportunity to become involved with the community center by tutoring a child or attending concerts or other programs. “It depends on how you look at it. We have to think in terms of the future and to expect things will improve. I think it’s only a matter of time before we are in sync.”
Major Linda B. Lopez, a corps officer at the Manhattan Citadel, was eager to welcome EastView residents. “We’re a community,” she said. “That’s the way we see it. We’re here to support you.”
Some EastView residents have already taken advantage of the partnership, going to the community center for lunch, counseling, and to help prepare Christmas boxes for the needy. Because lunch is not included in EastView’s fees, Lopez and her staff have been bringing lunch to the residents on Fridays.
“It’s a way of helping them save a little money,” she said. “We have food for everybody. We are supporting each other.”
Nuesch says this kind of partnership is in keeping with the Salvation Army’s mission of providing for all people “without discrimination.”
“This is very much a part of who we are,” he said.
“Even though we have some hiccups right now, this is one of the biggest things The Salvation Army has done in New York City. You have to go back many years to when Evangeline Booth built the 14th Street complex to find something as visionary as this.
“We have to be patient. I still believe God is faithful and He will bless our efforts. We will be seen as a beacon of light for the people who live there and for the community.”
by Retta Blaney
*The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Office of Emergency Management (OEM), National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster VOAD)