The Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., is known for many things, among them huge public housing projects, extremely high poverty and crime. Last summer, a one-year-old boy was shot in the head and killed as he sat in a stroller in the neighborhood.
But that's one side of life in Brownsville. Down the street from that murder, on weekday mornings, is another side.
At the local community center, about 40 older women can be seen dancing their hearts out, wiggling their hips and pumping their fist to the sounds of "Do You Love Me?" The women are decked out for exercise, wearing sweat pants, T-shirts and knit caps.
The ladies have just finished their twice-weekly exercise class. Usually, they go outside to walk and dance around the neighborhood, but today it's too cold so they're staying in.
It might not look like it but this class and walking club of women, and sometimes men, is part of a larger effort to fight poverty and improve impoverished communities. It was started by a nonprofit, Community Solutions. People there think that one way to help places like Brownsville is to get residents to look out for and care for each other.
Seventy-year-old Linda Beckford, who's lived in Brownsville for 27 years, says the walking club has done a lot of good for the community. Without it some of these seniors would be stuck at home, isolated and alone, she says.
"It makes people want to come out and do more, rather than be afraid," Beckford says. "A lot of seniors are by themselves and they don't want to come out."
Instructor Sid Howard knows how important such activities are. He's a senior himself, 74 years old, and a coach with New York Road Runners. He's won several world titles for running over the years and tells the women if "they don't use it, they'll lose it."
Howard starts his classes off slowly. Some of the seniors use wheelchairs or walkers; one woman is 97 years old. At first, everyone sits in chairs to warm up, gripping rubber exercise bands as they raise and lower their arms. Howard teases the women into doing as much as they can.
"C'mon, Mildred. Put your arm up, girl. Alright, let's go," he says to one of them.
In this class, the seniors say they use muscles they haven't used for years. It makes them feel stronger, confident and less vulnerable.
Delores Stitch, who refuses to give her age — she's known here as the Diva — says these seniors get more respect now from people in the neighborhood, especially the young people.
"They stop in and speak to us," she says. "The kids, the young adults, the middle aged."
She stops, then whispers that the neighborhood drug addicts talk to them as well. This summer, seniors from the walking group will also go to a fresh produce stand down the block, run by local teens, another program designed to help reinvigorate the neighborhood.
Sixty-five-year-old Gwen Grant says that despite its bad reputation, Brownsville can be a good place to live and that there's lots of promise here.
"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."
Hopefully everyone benefits, Grant says. And if nothing else, at least the seniors are having a good time.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to move closer to home now where fighting poverty can take many forms. There are the big government programs, like food stamps. And then there are small programs run by private individuals, which can take alternative approaches to improve the lives of the poor. Now to one of those alternative efforts: A group of senior citizens in New York City is using exercise to help reinvigorate their community.
NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn is known for many things - huge public housing projects, extremely high poverty, crime. Last summer, a one-year-old boy there was shot in the head and killed as he sat in a stroller.
But that's one side of life in Brownsville. Down the street, on weekday mornings, is another.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU LOVE ME")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Do you love me? Do you love me?
FESSLER: About 40 older women, many of them in sweat pants, T-shirts and knit caps, are dancing their hearts out at a community center - wiggling hips, pumping fists.
SID HUNTER: Push. Push. Push.
FESSLER: These women are stoked. And it's not even noon.
HUNTER: Push. Push.
FESSLER: They've just finished their twice-weekly exercise class and they're rearing to go. Usually, they walk and dance around the neighborhood. But today, it's too cold so they're staying in.
You might ask, what does all this have to do with fighting poverty? Well, a non-profit group called Community Solutions thinks that the way to help places like Brownsville is to get residents to look out for each other, to spot problems early on. And so it started this exercise and walking club, among other things.
Seventy-year-old Linda Beckford says, without it, some of these seniors would be stuck at home and isolated.
LINDA BECKFORD: It makes people want to come out and do more, rather than be afraid. You know, it makes you want to come out and just be a part of things.
HUNTER: Hello, everybody. We - OK, we going to ask everyone, like we always start our program out...
FESSLER: And instructor Sid Howard knows just how far to push the women and the few men who show up from time to time. He's a senior himself, 74 years old, and a coach with New York Road Runners. He's also a bit of tease, which the women love.
HUNTER: How you doing, Annie?
ANNIE: All right.
HUNTER: OK, let's go. Come on, Mildred. Put your arm up, girl. All right, let's go, all the way up.
FESSLER: The class starts slowly. Some of seniors use wheelchairs or walkers. One woman is 97. So everyone sits at first, gripping rubber exercise bands as they raise and lower their arms.
HUNTER: We're going to pull it and we're going to go all the way up. We're going to pull it, one, two, three, four, five...
FESSLER: The seniors say here, they use muscles they haven't used for years and do things they thought they'd never do again.
HUNTER: We want you to touch your toes. If you bring your feet closer, you can do it. Ready?
FESSLER: Which makes them feel stronger, confident, less vulnerable. Delores Stitch, who refuses to give her age - she's known here as the Diva - says these seniors get more respect now from people in the neighborhood.
DELORES STITCH: And they stop in and speak to us. You know?
FESSLER: When you say they, you mean the kids, or?
STITCH: The kids, the young adults, the middle aged, the - I don't know if I should say it.
FESSLER: And, she whispers to me, the drug addicts also talk to them.
Come summer, many of the seniors will also spend time at a fresh produce market down the block, run by local teens. Gwen Grant, who's 65, says despite its bad reputation, Brownsville can be a good place to live.
GWEN GRANT: As seniors, we have to be interested in the kids. Don't just they're say, they're bad, they're troublesome or whatever. We have to give them what we know.
FESSLER: She thinks seniors can learn from the kids as well. Hopefully, she says, everyone benefits. At the very least, the seniors can have some fun.
GRANT: Ah, we got it going on here.
GRANT: It's part of exercise.
(Singing) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Please, Mr. Postman.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.