CityBench Program Provides a Place for Elderly to Rest

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Benches outside Leonard Covello Senior Center were the first to be placed in East Harlem. (Photo by Myeisha Essex)

Last month, two gleaming stainless steel benches appeared outside the Leonard Covello Senior Center on East 109th Street. They are the first uptown installation, with hundreds more set to be placed throughout New York through the CityBench program.

In October, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem, announced the initiative as a way to increase the quality of life for elderly residents.

The CityBench program is a citywide effort to provide more public seating, particularly for the disabled and the elderly. From March 2012 through 2015, the program plans to place 1,000 new seats throughout the five boroughs. Places for priority seating include bus stops without shelters, shopping districts, senior centers, community health centers and sidewalks near transit facilities. Anyone can recommend a location for a bench on the Department of Transportation’s website.

Linea Fuenzalida, a Covello Senior Center participant who says she is in her 70’s, plans to request more benches along First Avenue. “They used to have them there a long time ago,” she said. “When I am shopping, I would like to sit on the benches near the park to relax.” Many of the city’s benches were removed during former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration when they were thought to contribute to vagrancy and graffiti. Senior center employees said they see the CityBench program as a welcome improvement for local residents.

Chelsea Improvement Co. designed the three-seated benches with comfort in mind. Ignacio Ciocchini, director of design, said it came down to how much space to provide to users. “When you put together a mom with a stroller, and a business man with a business bag, and a student with a backpack and cell phone and someone waiting for the bus,” he said, “all of those things become important.”

The company took about three months to observe and sketch nine prototypes. After the first and second prototypes, a majority of the community said the backs of the benches were too straight, whereas the city wanted an unobtrusive design to blend in with the neighborhoods. Before the benches went for final approval, Ciocchini increased the seatback angles and size of the holes in the seat pattern.

“So far it has been great,” Ciocchini said. “The feedback has been very good. People say it is comfortable.”

Andrew Martin, a spokesman for the New York Academy of Medicine, says the benches are also good for local businesses. “They make the neighborhoods more inviting and age-friendly,” he said. “It is a place where people congregate and socialize.”

The New York Academy of Medicine and the City Council partnered to create Age-Friendly New York City, which is working to establish Aging Improvement Districts around the city.

Mark-Viverito gave $10,500 in public money for Age-Friendly New York City last year. Along with East Harlem, the Upper West Side and Bedford-Stuyvesant are serving as pilot neighborhoods for Aging Improvement Districts.

A $2.4 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration helped fund the CityBench program.

“Now that I’m older suddenly I love the idea,” Fuenzalida said. “I walk for six blocks and then I get tired. The benches felt like a dream come true.”

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