Thelma Kaminsky always had a big smile and a kind word for everyone in the Winthrop apartment building where she had lived for almost 15 years. People say she just had a knack for making friends.
But when she died last month at age 87, no friends gathered in her building to grieve and pay their respects. There were no hugs, no tears, no laughter, no chance for the elderly women in her circle to come together with Kaminsky’s family to reflect on what a dear, treasured friend they had lost.
The managers of the building wouldn’t allow it. They refused her family’s request to host a bereavement gathering in the building’s common room.
“We wanted a little reception for Thelma and for her friends,” said Myrna Sadowsky, 79, Kaminsky’s cousin. “It’s what people do when someone dies. But it didn’t work out the way we wanted. And it was devastating.”
Denied access to the apartment building, Kaminsky’s family made last-minute arrangements to gather at a relative’s house in Melrose, but none of Kaminsky’s elderly friends from Winthrop could make it.
The managers of Fort Heath Apartments gave me a variety of reasons for rejecting a proposed gathering they insisted on calling a “party,” but which the family said would have been a short afternoon reception with finger sandwiches and tea, mostly for older women reluctant to drive far from home.
After visiting the apartment building and sorting through everything told to me by three building managers and a half-dozen of Kaminsky’s family and friends, I stand with the family.
The managers certainly had the legal right to exclude Kaminsky’s family, since she was no longer a resident. But they ended up looking petty and just plain mean.
It’s a big, $15 million property, with 150 units on a 3-acre site. Kaminsky was a grande dame, adored by tenants and building management alike. Her death was sudden.
Couldn’t some compromise have been reached?
One factor that may have been in play is the changing profile of the building. When it opened in the early 1980s, Fort Heath Apartments offered a great many units to low-income residents, most of them seniors, at below-market rents. It was part of a deal to get long-term, low-interest financing from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Kaminsky, who worked for decades in administrative positions in banks, received a pension and paid about $1,500 in rent, according to her family.)
The HUD loan was paid off in 2011, and today there’s no obligation to provide below-market rents to new tenants. There’s an outdoor pool, a workout room, a pool table, and a “tenants-only” meeting place with a deck overlooking the ocean on the 11th floor, according to its website.
So it’s a building in transition in a really hot real estate market. Dozens of older folks remain in subsidized units, as is their right until they move or die. But when apartments do open up, the owner is free to charge market rents — which generally means younger tenants looking for a different living experience than their elders’.
When I was making small talk in the office with one of the managers, he spoke triumphantly about getting a tenant in his 20s to move in recently. Another manager chimed in that the building’s longtime reputation as a sort of retirement home was coming to an end.
Twenty-year-olds taking a break from poolside sunbathing don’t necessarily want to hop on the elevator with a bunch of little old ladies on their way to a bereavement reception, right?
Perhaps the apartment managers were simply taking a hard line in refusing the room to people who did not live there. But they seemed to grossly exaggerate the size of the gathering, with one manager claiming that the family expected more than 100 people; another said more than 50.
Only 13 people attended the graveside service at a cemetery in West Roxbury (10 family members, two nurses who had cared for and befriended Kaminsky, and one friend of a relative). How many friends from the apartment building would have attended? One Kaminsky family member told me she ordered enough food for 45, but she didn’t think that many would show up.
I checked in with a couple of directors of public housing authorities who run apartment buildings for the elderly. They frequently open their community rooms for bereavement receptions (and usually charge a $50 fee). It goes with the territory, one told me.
But at Fort Heath Apartments, managers told me and Kaminsky’s family they were worried about excessive noise, spilled drinks (nothing stronger than coffee was planned), outside guests getting lost and wandering the halls, and a big mess left behind.
Really? How many 80-year-olds do you know who still party like they did back when LBJ was president?
Mark Panetta is in charge of building management. When I got him on the phone, he seemed revved up, speaking vigorously and in unflattering terms about his dealings with the Kaminsky family.
“They called up and said they wanted a party,” he told me. “But we don’t have facilities for that. They wanted to bring in food. I’m thinking: What are they talking about? None of them is a tenant here. I found it so outrageous.”
Janna Rowe, one of Kaminsky’s goddaughters, said someone from building management at first gave her permission to have a reception in Kaminsky’s apartment. Rowe’s father, Allen Goldberg, later called to talk logistics. That’s when he was informed there could be no reception at Kaminsky’s apartment, because her tenancy ended with her life.
Goldberg said he asked instead to use the 11th-floor meeting place, where Kaminsky had once hosted a family Hanukkah celebration.
When that idea was dismissed, out of concern for security, Goldberg suggested the family could help by escorting guests in and out of the building. At that point, Goldberg heard someone in the management office shout to the manager he was on the phone with: “Just tell him no!”
“It was very cold,” Goldberg said.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.