While much of Brooklyn has enjoyed an influx of wealthy citizens who have grown weary of the Manhattan scene, the community of Brownsville continues to be entrenched in a deadly cycle of high poverty and senseless crime. In 2013, former mayor Michael Bloomberg declared New York City as the safest big city in America, with crime down a total of 30 percent over a 10-year period. In Brownsville, this declaration couldn’t be further from the truth. Over that same period, the neighborhood’s incidence of serious crime went down only 9 percent. And in 2013, the area had 13 murders on record — just three fewer than in 2012. But a group of about 40 elderly women and a few men are doing something together to improve their community and fight poverty: They’re exercising. “It makes people want to come out and do more, rather than be afraid,” Linda Beckford, a 70-year-old Brownsville resident and member of the group, told NPR. “A lot of seniors are by themselves and they don’t want to come out.”
On a recent February day, the women gathered at the local community center, where instructor Sid Howard, who is also a coach with New York Road Runners, led them in an aerobics workout. He starts the class with the elderly in chairs, where they warm up with rubber exercise bands. Eventually, they get up, stretch, dance and work muscles that haven’t moved in ages. On warm-weather days, the group takes to the streets, walking and dancing together. Not only is this an opportunity for them to get active and have fun, but it also gets people used to seeing their elderly neighbors, who before Community Solutions started the program used to stay primarily indoors.
Delores Stitch, one of the ladies in the group, says that she thinks the seniors get more respect now from their young neighbors. “They stop in and speak to us,” she told NPR. “The kids, the young adults, the middle aged.” In the summer, the group will walk to a local fresh produce stand, which is run by teens through another program focused on reinventing the neighborhood. Despite its high rate of crime and bad reputation, many residents of Brownsville and members of the social seniors group have lived here for decades. As Gwen Grant, 65, puts it, underneath the harrowing statistics lies a lot of promise, especially in the kids. “As seniors, we have to be interested in the kids. Don’t just say, ‘They’re bad, they’re troublesome,’ ” she says. “We have to give them what we know. We can also learn from them as well.”