In Rotherhithe back in the 70s, on the south shore of the Thames, there lived a retired lighterman named Johnny Coffee. Lighterman ‘drove’ barges single handedly up the Thames using muscle, skill, and huge oars. Johnny had an a list of phone numbers hanging around his neck with contacts to anyone you could care to name including the Queen’s personal private secretary. Susan Perlstein has such a list. Pages and pages of numbers and names neatly printed out in thin elegant strips.
Susan was one of the triumvirate who established the National Centre for Creative Aging (NCCA) in the US. Hers was the initial spark, the vision. Of course I had read some of her writing and had discovered basic background from web searches but standing outside Ozzie’s Tea House on the corner of 7th and Lincoln in Brooklyn with her I get a glimpse of the energy and passion that has created this amazing country-wide network; this process of staking out, naming and the nurturing of a whole territory that naturally and so obviously fuses together creativity and aging. We don’t have this in the UK. It’s a gap: a huge gap. Practitioners are better connected between San Francisco, Minneapolis and New York than Liverpool, Newcastle and London. Given the distance in scale that has to be a little embarrassing.
The NCCA started with a thought and a question: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put research practice, policy and practice under one roof?” Gene Cohen (see earlier blog) providing the research, Paula Terry from the National Endowment for the Arts National providing the policy, Susan providing the practice.
Susan has practice dripping from her finger tips. Thirty years ago she founded Elders Share The Arts (ESTA). It started in 1979 with a single “living history” theater workshop at the Hodson Senior Center (the nation’s first senior center located in the heart of the South Bronx) Since then ESTA has grown massively working with elders in community-based sites throughout New York City helping them find and give creative voice to their stories and life experiences. Central to the practice has been and is the process of ‘building community’. It’s the familiar story of the absence of common territory; of meeting grounds for people from different groups to connect. And in the vacuum the creation of these feelings of alienation and prejudice between groups.
There’s a project in Flushing that she says I must find out more about. Here older Eastern European adults live with many immigrants from the Pacific Rim countries. The seniors interviewed each other about the changes that had occurred in the neighborhood.
The interviews were full of remarks like: “The Koreans should go back where they came from—what makes them think they can take over?” But then they met the real children in workshop sessions. And the seniors realized the children had the same goals that the seniors’ own children once had: to get an education and a job, and to become responsible citizens.
We walk through the Park Slope neighbourhood to the Park Slope Food Coop, a member-owned and operated food store. Each member gives 2hrs and 45 minutes of their time every 4 weeks to help run the place and of course, way back, Susan was one of the founders of the enterprise. We wander around the crowded store with the trolley and I buy my fruit. Afterwards, alone, I walk up into Prospect Park and through the trees. I feel like a character in a computer game who has collected a massive stash of energy tokens: all of those little green bars totally full. I eat an orange.