Oldsters Protest: Film at 11

The folks desperate to save the Stiffel senior center were handed a tough math problem: raise $200,000 by June 30th or say goodbye to the multi-cultural mecca at Marshall and Porter.

With only $20,000 in hand, the South Philly center's supporters decided to pose another question.

What do you get when you add three dozens signs and six protest songs to a small army of elderly people then march them  for an hour in the noonday sun?

Well, the media, for one.

Which was the idea behind the sit-in today that turned into an old-fashioned protest march.

Just before 11 a.m. Harry Azoff walked into the center and picked out a sign.

"Oh, this is a good one," the 87-year-old retired jeweler said, eyeing a small rectangular banner that read:

"We're not dead yet."

He turned on his heels and walked out into the sun to join a madding crowd that included Estelle Goldstein, 79, who fought her shaking hands to paint her own sign - a city scene that included the 83-year-old-building and streets paved with dollar signs and the plea, "open your heart and wallet."

The building is old and broken. The roof and boiler need replacing, and could cost $400,000, according to the center's board.  On top of that the center is losing about $200,000 a year. The board has voted to close the place by the end of July if the Stiffel's supporters can't raise $200,000 and secure pledges for more.

Once predominently Jewish, the center's clientele reflects the changing neighborhood, long a toehold for immigrants. It's 30 percent Jewish, with equal numbers of Italians, and an increasing population of blacks, Hispanics and Southeast Asians.

Some signs were in Vietnamese. Translated, they read: "Please do not close the door," according to Phuong Duong, a 73-year-old pharmacist who found the place a year and a half ago. "Please save us," she said. "Every day I come here and exercise and enjoy the last period of my life."

I'll be writing more about the walking sit-in for tomorrow's column, but meanwhile one of our interns, Alia Conley, dropped by the center Monday to see what all the fuss was about, and spent some time talking to those who are fighting to save the Stiffel.

Rachel Garber, 67, has attended the center for about eight years. She told Alia she was the young one of the bunch, because most of the members are in their eighties or nineties. “It’s like having a roomful of parents, sisters and brothers here,” she said.  Garber called the place a United Nations, a place that should be a role model, the sort of laboratory for racial tolerance that students at South Philadelphia High School should have to study.

Alia talked to Barbara McKnight, 78, who told her if the center closes, she’ll leave “kicking and screaming.”

“We’ll become squatters,” McKnight said. “We’re going to move in.”