Diana Wiener wanted information and was not getting it. So last May, at age 80, Ms. Wiener went into the news business.
“I’d had it with this whole secrecy thing,” she said the other day.
Ms. Wiener, a former furniture store owner, lives with her husband in the Five Star Premier Residences of Yonkers, just north of New York City, a retirement community that provides multiple levels of care. When the novel coronavirus hit New York last spring, and the building management confined residents to their apartments, Ms. Wiener felt a frustration that has become common among those who live in buildings like hers. Residents had no idea which neighbors or employees were sick with the virus, which had died, which had moved out or been exposed during a visit to the doctor. Management refused to provide names, citing privacy laws.
For Ms. Wiener, this lack of information was dangerous. “Every time we went to the doctor, they would ask you, have you been in contact with anyone?” she said. “How do I know? They’re not telling us anything. If we don’t know, how can we say we haven’t been in contact?”
Ms. Wiener, who once served on the town council in Port Jervis, N.Y., is by her own description a “big-mouthed Jewish girl from Brooklyn.” So instead of just complaining to neighbors about the lack of information, she decided to do something about it. When she told the building’s executive director, John Hunt, that she intended to write a newsletter for residents, he wrote back, “They cannot understand what is happening.”
“That really infuriated me,” she said. “I just felt it was dismissing us as little babies — go to your room and be quiet. I decided that I was going to do this and I did it. Somebody has to stand up.”
Mr. Hunt declined to comment for this article, referring questions to Five Star’s corporate office, which said in a statement that the company “established a comprehensive communications protocol that ensured team members, residents and their families would be informed of necessary developments regarding Covid-19 in as close to real time as possible,” while adhering to privacy laws.
Ms. Wiener, who had no journalism experience, recruited a friend to proofread and found a local printer who would make 170 glossy copies. That was all she needed. In May, she and a couple of neighbors slipped the debut issue of The Buzz, 12 pages, under the doors of Five Star’s 146 independent living apartments.
“We distributed them kind of surreptitiously,” said Eve Boden, 86, a retired psychotherapist. “It was making management be accountable and inform us what was happening. Because basically they said, Please stay in your apartment. We will bring meals to you. And that was the end of that. So Diana said, We’re going to do this, and I said, Yay, right on. She’s a moving force.”
At the top of the first page Ms. Wiener wrote, “Isn’t it time for a newsletter by us, for us?” The first issue included some news: contrary to the building’s official daily emails, which did not mention deaths in the building, 13 people at Five Star had died of the coronavirus since March.
Ms. Wiener wrote: “We are not children, to be confined to our rooms, to have the names of those who are sick, or have died, withheld from us. This is our community. These are our neighbors, our people. Our family.”
The next issue added the names of the dead and hospitalized.
Sean Strub, a friend of Ms. Wiener’s, said he was not surprised to see her stirring up trouble. Mr. Strub, 62, an AIDS activist and founder of POZ magazine, is now a hotelier and mayor of rural Milford, Pa.
He said he would welcome Ms. Wiener in his foxhole anytime. “Smart, persistent and really wonderful,” he wrote by email. “She’s also outspoken, and some people may find her abrasive. She doesn’t tolerate fools well, but she’s afraid of no one.” Ms. Wiener, for her part, said she wished she could adopt Mr. Strub.
In addition to news of the death toll at Five Star, Ms. Wiener added poems and book reviews by other residents, as well as updates on the virus from state and federal health bulletins. Neighbors began slipping envelopes of cash under her door to cover printing expenses — $500 from one supporter, $5 from another. For a while, hardly a day went by without another contribution. Ms. Wiener cultivated sources among the building’s workers, who started to tell her things that management would not.
For the residents, the newsletter struck a chord.
“It breaks a little bit of the loneliness that people have here,” said Norma Fredricks, 87, who published several poems in the newsletter. (Ms. Wiener declined her anti-Trump poems as too political, Ms. Fredricks said.) “And there isn’t anything quite like that. We’re alone in our apartments. We’re not supposed to visit or go downstairs and sit around — especially since some people won’t put a mask on properly. It’s company, the way the telephone is — the way it is right now when I’m talking to you.”
A woman contributed a poem about life during lockdown (“The TV is my company all day long/Law and Order is keeping me strong”); a man contributed a multipart memoir about World War II. Ms. Wiener took care to praise the facility’s staff and management for keeping the residents safe. Sometimes she saw her role as communicating to her neighbors in language that the corporate ownership lacked.
Which is not to say everyone loved it. When Ms. Wiener surveyed readers about whether they wanted the newsletter to continue, 81 said yes, but two said no. She trumpeted the survey’s response rate: 59 percent weighed in!
In the fourth issue, in August, Ms. Wiener protested that residents could not use the facility’s garden, citing other buildings that allowed their residents to congregate safely on the grounds. “The issue went out on a Saturday,” she said. “On Monday the garden was open.” She credited the newsletter for the change. Other issues prompted the resumption of meetings of the tenants association, which had stopped during the pandemic. “It made a tremendous difference in the quality of life here, there’s no doubt about it,” she said.
She has heard from neighbors who want to organize for other causes as well. “One woman has tried to figure out what to do with all the food that’s being wasted, how to get it to food banks or local churches,” she said. “These are the women and men who worked in every organization for the last 60 years. A lot of ex-teachers. They’re organizers, they’re fund-raisers. They did all this. I didn’t, really. It wasn’t my thing. But The Buzz stirs it up.”
Now, as she prepares issue No. 9, she intends to use the newsletter to protest against rent increases, especially since the building has curtailed services during the pandemic.
And she has lately started to think more broadly. What if The Buzz started a movement of resident newsletters around the country? Surely, hers was not the only big mouth out there. With the web service Substack, which enables people to create and distribute newsletters online, writers could reach not just residents but their families as well.
“And monetizing it to boot,” she wrote in an email.
It was a lot to consider. She added: “What a great time to be writing, in spite of Covid!”