Stuck in a Walk-Up, Only Steps Away From Life

January 22, 2004
By DAVID W. CHEN





Sometimes it is four or five flights that stand between
them and the sunshine. Sometimes it is only 12 stairs - a
physical barrier so daunting that it has virtually marooned
many aged or ailing New Yorkers in apartments they cannot
afford to give up, trapped high above the teeming street
life they once enjoyed and took for granted.

Were it not for the stairs, people like Robert Fine, who
has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, would not
need to make appointments with friends to carry him down
from his second-floor
West Village apartment so that he can
enjoy some fresh air. And he would not need to ask
strong-looking strangers on the street to carry him back
up.

Were it not for the stairs, people like Sebastian Pernice
would not have to wait for the world to come to him, in his
airy fifth-floor apartment of almost 30 years in the
West
Village
, 67 steps off the ground.

"Sometimes, you feel very trapped," said Mr. Pernice, who
has a diagnosis of AIDS. "Everyone tells me that I should
get out more, because I'm often depressed. The only thing
is - the stairs."

New York City has thousands of people in walk-ups who,
though not completely homebound, are still separated from
the world by a finite number of vertical steps, bedeviled
by what they might consider a conspiracy of fates. They do
not fit the classic definition of a shut-in, those so
bedridden or immobile that they could not leave any
apartment. Many of the marooned would eagerly encounter the
outside world if they lived on the ground floor or in an
elevator building.

But unable to afford a comparable home anywhere else in the
city, and unwilling to leave a beloved neighborhood that is
part of their marrow, they have few options but to stay
frozen in a world that eventually shrinks to the four walls
of their walk-up.

Many live alone. Many are treading poverty, dependent on
fixed incomes and rent regulations. And many more New
Yorkers will soon find themselves in similar straits,
housing groups and social workers predict, assuming the
elderly population continues to boom and construction of
new housing does not keep pace.

There are roughly 328,000 apartments in walk-up buildings
in
New York City with four or more floors, according to the
city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
There are 277,000 more apartments in buildings with three
stories, basements included. That total of more than
600,000 - or 20 percent of all the city's apartments -
makes
New York the walk-up capital of America, housing
groups reckon
.

For generations of New Yorkers, walk-up apartments have
been an inconvenient but vital staple of vertical urban
life, a gritty first berth up the ladder of success for the
newcomer and the striver. But walk-ups are far from the
dominion of the young. According to new research from
New
York
University
and the International Longevity Center, 27
percent of New Yorkers over 65 live in walk-up apartments
that are not on the first floor.

The story of Dawn Gantly, a feisty 70-year-old expatriate
from
Britain, is typical, tempering optimism with economic
hardships, independence with personal concessions.

A former retail saleswoman, Ms. Gantly has lived by herself
in the same rent-regulated, fourth-floor walk-up studio on
East 28th Street in Manhattan for 30 years. But her vision
is rapidly deteriorating. Her legs have poor circulation.
And while she would love to live in a garden apartment, or
in an elevator building, she can barely afford her current
regulated rent of $484 a month. In fact, she was almost
evicted two years ago.

So she rarely ventures out anymore, save for imperative
errands to buy food for her two cats, visit the doctor or,
on Christmas Eve, pick up a mince pie. She recently signed
up for the city's Meals on Wheels program through the
nearby Stein Senior Center, and every week or so, Julie
Audet, an accountant at Credit Suisse First Boston, visits
Ms. Gantly as part of a volunteer program arranged by
United Neighbors of East Midtown, a community group.

"You've always been an independent person, but suddenly,
you can't do these things anymore, darling, and you get
stuck up here," Ms. Gantly said. "You do get a little
lonely, and you do feel it's you against the world, so it's
so pleasant to have people come by and help."

If Ms. Gantly is emblematic of those who have readily
accepted help, then the sisters Soto in Cobble Hill,
Brooklyn - Feliza, 86, and Carmen, 91 - are examples of
those who are still reluctant.

For years, Carmen lived on the second floor of a
three-story walk-up, and Feliza on the third floor. But
Feliza recently received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's and can
leave the apartment only occasionally. So Carmen moved
upstairs to take care of her sister. And because the two
refuse to get a home health attendant, the eldest sister
must run the errands, despite her own osteoporosis,
difficulties with the stairs and a wobbly bannister in the
building.

"I cannot live without Carmen," Feliza said in Spanish,
through interpreters with the Fifth Avenue Committee, a
community group. "She's the only companion I have."

They are desperate to live in a building without stairs. So
a few months ago, when the two heard that they could get
into a public housing building with elevators if they
canceled their Section 8 housing vouchers, they did just
that. But they were mistaken. And now, with their Section 8
vouchers gone, they are plowing into their savings to pay
the rent of $891 a month.

"We don't have any place to go," Carmen said.


Self-sufficient or not, many walk-up residents say that
they must get used to the new reality of watching the
center of gravity of their daily activities shift skyward,
and waiting for everything, and everyone, to come to them.
God's Love We Deliver, which serves a growing roster of
people with AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other
serious diseases, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of its
1,500 daily deliveries are made to people essentially
trapped in walk-ups.

One of those deliveries goes to Mr. Pernice, the AIDS
patient in the fifth-floor
West Village walk-up, who
consumes his hot meal at lunchtime with his medication.
While it is easy, he said, to feel despondent about his
health and his isolation, he says that he has come to
appreciate the nest he has created for himself, and his
longtime partner, Tim Sutton.

"I used to fly up and down the stairs, and it's been
difficult to lose all that, being sick a lot," Mr. Pernice
said. "But sometimes, I feel like I'm in an aerie, because
I have my pets, I have my books."

If there is one commodity that many of these walk-up
residents say they most fondly desire, though, it is the
chance to enjoy as much human contact as possible - whether
in person or over the phone.

That is part of the reason why Alvin Lorberfeld, who has
nerve damage in his legs that makes the one-flight, 13-step
journey to his apartment arduous, enjoys the University
Without Walls program established by Dorot, a social
service organization in
Manhattan. People who are basically
homebound can discuss, in a teleconference call, anything
from international affairs to Jewish humor (Mr.
Lorberfeld's current choice). And in so doing, they make
disembodied contact or even form friendships with people
they have never met, or may have met long ago.

"There was a gal in a class - she happened to be from the
Bronx - she was from my old neighborhood," said Mr.
Lorberfeld, 76, who now lives in Bayside,
Queens. "But I
only knew her first name."

Then there is the remarkable story of Mr. Fine, who asks
friends to carry him down from his second-floor apartment
on
Perry Street, and strangers to carry him up.

Mr. Fine, who says that he is in his 50's, used to be in
the real estate business. He has used a wheelchair for
several years now, but he is so determined to go outside
that he keeps a motorized scooter on the ground floor,
outside his building. He does not go out much - he cannot
stand the cold, for one thing - but when he does, he
relishes every moment.

"Other people might think it's no big deal, trudging
through the streets, but for me, it's almost like a special
treat," he said. "When you're cooped up, and you go
outside, you say to yourself - `Wow, this is so fabulous to
be outside.' "

Mr. Fine does not mind being inside, though. With the help
of his current full-time home health aide, he busies
himself with his plants, his books, his collection of dance
figurines
atop his fireplace. He will recite poems for any
visitor: Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson are particular
favorites. And he loves ballet, most of all, as evidenced
by a large collection of brooches depicting dance figures.

"I used to spend all my time outside - I'd sleep and go
out all the time, but now, I hate to say relegated - but
it's a fact that I'm domesticated," he said.

His apartment also has lots of framed photographs and
drawings. Many are of famous ballet dancers. There is a
print of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And near the door,
there are photographs of a young man standing next to his
motorcycle and trekking through
Southeast Asia and Latin
America
.

The young man, of course, is Mr. Fine himself, back before
the stairs became the dividing line between what he could
and could not do.

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/22/nyregion/22WALK.html?ex=1075743575&ei=1&en=8514ac49b70d619a


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