By Margie Smith Holt
It’s not that far. A quick subway ride and a crosstown bus and you can make it in less than half an hour. But for 91-year-old Eva Yachnes, forced to move from her beloved studio at the Williams Residence Senior Home on the Upper West Side, her new address in East Harlem might as well be on another planet.
Four years ago, more than 300 seniors were evicted from their apartments at 720 West End Avenue, on the corner of West 95th Street, when The Salvation Army, the building’s owner, sold it to a luxury developer. The SA promised to replace it with the East Harlem building where Yachnes now lives. The seniors put up a fight — Yachnes was one of the leaders — and it was a real UWS brouhaha, with demonstrations and local politicians calling The SA’s plan “a disgrace.” Even the New York State Attorney General filed a suit to stop the sale. “But of course no one can prevent an individual or an organization from selling property that they own…from selling your place,” Yachnes said, when WSR visited her last week. She was among the last to leave the Williams in late 2019.
This story is about what happened to Eva Yachnes after she left The Williams, but we also now know what happened to the building she left behind. On Monday, the Rag ran a story about a coming luxury-condominium conversion on West 95th Street and West End Avenue that is displaying an advertisement the size of the entire building. The ad offers no hint of the building’s past as home to hundreds of senior citizens. Instead, it proclaims, “A grand welcome through a restored Renaissance Revival entrance sets the tone for a wide array of exceptional amenities, including on-site parking, basketball, squash, and much more,” according to the 720 West End Avenue website about the luxury development in what used to be home to Yachnes.
“Home” for Yachnes now is the EastView Independent Senior Living Residence, The Salvation Army’s new high-rise at East 125th Street and Third Avenue. She’s been making the best of it there for four years. Acceptance and optimism seem to shape her outlook — she says she focuses on what she likes and finds promising about the new place.
“When we first moved here, it was much worse. I would go for a walk and see people zonked out on drugs. I once saw a drug deal happening,” she says. “And once when I was out walking, I heard gunshots.”
Now, though, it seems like the neighborhood is getting safer, she says. A grocery store recently opened in a new luxury apartment building across the street. And her own building has a lot of amenities she likes. Her old place had a hot plate and a bathtub. At EastView she has a microwave and a bathroom “perfect for older people” with a walk-in shower and “grab bars everywhere.” Best of all at Eastview, she doesn’t have to cook (Yachnes doesn’t like to cook). Breakfast and dinner are provided in a 12th-floor dining room with a view of the Empire State Building.
“I like the view from the dining room,” says Yachnes. “I like my apartment, even though it’s tiny and peculiar.”
But she misses her old neighborhood, and her friends from the Williams who didn’t move to EastView, like the one whose daughter didn’t want her mother to relocate to East Harlem.
“She’s still on the Upper West Side. I’m jealous of her,” says Yachnes. “But not jealous that she has to cook and clean by herself!”
Yachnes’s life began with another forced relocation. Above her bed in the new place is a movie poster of a 2007 documentary, “Vienna’s Lost Daughters,” about women who had to flee the Nazis when they were children. Yachnes is the one in the pink coat, all the way on the right.
She remembers the day the Nazis knocked on the door of the Vienna apartment where she lived with her grandmother.
“They had those high shiny boots—you’ve seen pictures of the German soldiers—and the arm band with the swastika,” says Yachnes. “And my grandmother took them into another room. And when they came out, they left, she was crying. And she said, we have to leave the apartment. We didn’t live in the Jewish part of Vienna, and they were making a ghetto.”
Yachnes’s grandmother had heard about the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), a rescue effort that would eventually bring thousands of children, mostly Jewish, to Great Britain from Nazi Germany. Yachnes was six years old when her grandmother put her on a train on Christmas Eve, 1938.
“I was hysterical when I left my grandmother. She was the last one I was familiar with. They had to undo me, I was holding on to her skirt so hard. They had to pry my hands open to take me to the train. Then I stopped crying as soon as I got on the train because what was the use now?” she says. “I was on the train. No use crying.”
Yachnes never saw her grandmother again. Bertha Obersohn died in a concentration camp.
But Yachnes’s parents had gotten out ahead of her. Her mother, Leonie, was working as a cook in England. Her grandmother had sewn the address into Eva’s coat, and she was eventually reunited with her mother.
Her father, Ernest Steiner, had escaped over the Alps to France, making it to New York with help from a rich uncle who funded the passage for the rest of the family. At age eight, Yachnes sailed to America with her mother on a White Star Line ship. Their first apartment was on the Upper West Side.
“On West 98th Street!” she says. “I went to look for the building but it’s no longer there.”
When the United States declared war, her father enlisted in the army. Yachnes and her mother moved to the Bronx to be closer to other relatives … and that’s where she stayed for the next 50 years. She went to P.S. 66 and commuted to Manhattan to the High School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design).
Yachnes married at age 19, while in college at Hunter; had a baby at 21; and was widowed by 24. She got a job at Montefiore Hospital (Medical Center), working in the chemistry lab.
“I started out as a chemistry lab technician. And then, just as I was dying of boredom, I got a chance to go on a training course to learn electronics.”
She was the first woman hired to fix electronics at Montefiore. If the EKG machine wasn’t working, she got the call. She was promoted to supervisor and when she retired (at age 64 in 1996) she was the highest-paid person in the department.
After nearly 70 years in the Bronx, Yachnes made it back to the UWS after helping a friend move into The Williams. She liked what she saw.
“I thought, you know, I always hated housework. Here, somebody else goes shopping, and cooking, and serving, and washing the dishes. Somebody comes once a week and cleans your apartment, and once a year gives it a thorough cleaning. I got kind of jealous of her!”
She moved to the Williams in 2011, taking full advantage of the neighborhood. “Riverside Park … stores of every kind within a short walk on Broadway, Amsterdam, and Columbus … every kind of food, in every price range from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s … Symphony Space, where they have live performance and movies … and long walks to the Ethical Culture Society,” where she is a member … were just some of her favorite things, she said.
After her relocation, she continued to visit friends in the old neighborhood. But then came COVID, and a fall that left her with a cracked skull and a neck brace, and complications from hip surgery. Getting around is harder than it used to be.
She stays involved with Ethical Culture via Zoom, and she belongs to a writing workshop there that provides a lot of inspiration. A recent topic: What do you do to make yourself feel better when you’re upset?
“That’s easy for me,” she said. “I read. I bury myself in a book.”
And she regularly reads the Rag.
“Yeah, I still read it. It makes me feel worse!” She laughs. “No, it doesn’t. I like to find out what’s happening there. It still feels more like home.”
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