Ethel Paley

This month’s West Village Original is Ethel Paley, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1949. Ms. Paley was recently honored as a 2010 L’Oreal “Woman of Worth” for her decades-long association with FRIA, an organization dedicated to making sure that seniors get proper care, services, and treatment from nursing homes in New York State. Ms. Paley was FRIA’s first executive director and still serves on the Board.

“I was born in Flushing in 1920,” says Ethel Paley. “There were still a lot of farms in Queens at that point. My family moved to Connecticut during the Depression and then I came back and have lived in New York since the end of World War II. I’m glad to be able to say I’m both alive and very well.”

Paley spent the war years in Washington, D.C., having the experience of a lifetime. “I served in the WAVES,” Paley remembers. “I took on the kind of desk jobs that the men who were in active duty used to have. Let me say any experience like that opens you up to ideas and to people that you might not have ordinarily met. I came from a very small town in Connecticut and while my parents were pretty sophisticated, my own experience was much more limited. Some of the people I met and the ideas that I encountered in the service had a big influence on me. It was a great experience and Washington, of course, was a very interesting place at that time.”

After her service, Paley returned to finish her education, ending up with a degree in Social Work from Columbia. It was this career path that eventually led her to Friends and Relatives of Institutionalized Aged (FRIA). “I had been working on geriatric programs when I was hired by them,” she recalls. “FRIA was organized right after the nursing home scandals of the mid-1970s, when it was clear how difficult it was for even very well-educated families to understand how the nursing home system worked. Our task was to both guide and safeguard our client’s loved ones who were in these facilities. To this day, we don’t suggest solutions but we talk about what options are available in any kind of circumstance. And even though it was descriptive, our full name still reeked of a ‘social work’ look at the world, so we eventually dropped it and just use FRIA instead.”

“Personally, it’s been enormously satisfying,” Paley says of her experience with FRIA. “I feel every time I’m in the office or out in the field, I’m learning something new. We’ve had our wins and we’ve also been frustrated by what we couldn’t accomplish. But most of those frustrations have been financial.” Sadly, the current recession has pushed FRIA to the brink due to the difficulty of raising funds. “While I think the need for our services is still very real, we might have to suspend operations,” Paley laments. “This is very hard news to convey to anyone. We’re not giving up our non-profit status, but we’re going to have to look for new approaches and new funding.”

I think there are those of us who might not be happy with the changes over the years, but neighborhoods have to evolve.As a long-time resident of the West Village, Paley mentions one spot where the change has been most dramatic. “I would say both Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue have become so tacky,” she says. “Eighth Street used to be a Mom and Pop type neighborhood; a genuine small town Main Street with good delis, restaurants, and small stores of all types. This changed for the worse over the years. My own neighborhood has been changed in recent years by the proliferations of designer stores on Bleecker Street. Instead of being tacky, they’re just glitzy in their own right. And also nothing that most of us can afford! I do none of my shopping here now but in my time you could be very self-sufficient and almost never leave the West Village.”

After six decades here, though, it’s not hard for Paley to express her love for the West Village. “It’s still the best place in New York City and probably the second-best place to live in the whole wide world,” she says. What’s first? “In my view that would be Paris,” she admits, laughing. “But the Village is really very special. I think there are those of us who might not be happy with the changes over the years, but neighborhoods have to evolve. Actually, my two daughters are feeling that it’s become so much more of a Yuppy community than it used to be. But it’s home to me, and I feel comfortable here. I’m happy to still be able to visit the establishments that I’ve known over the years and welcome many of the new ones.”