OLD age is hardly golden for those who have remained in New York City neighborhoods that were once safe and are now crack-ridden. These elderly people see drug deals made outside their apartment windows and hear gunfire through the night. Yet, the common image of them as isolated and frightened - prisoners of their apartments - is a myth.
When two dozen people aged 65 to 85 were recently interviewed in one such Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, they showed themselves to be remarkably adaptable - and still connected to their much-changed turf.
They are nostalgic when talking about how beautiful their neighborhood used to be: rows of immaculate apartment buildings and limestone town houses. But they express surprisingly little self-pity now that it's one of the hottest crime spots in Brooklyn; they're indignant. Several are part of block-watching groups. One woman is part of a civilian patrol.
Though most limit their excursions to daylight hours, these seniors more often see themselves as street smart than as targets. And the brightest spot in many of their lives is their relationships with neighbors - especially the children.
Many of the old-timers interviewed are white; Prospect Lefferts Gardens, formerly Italian and Jewish, is now predominantly black. But this doesn't keep bonds from forming.
Those who have been in such neighborhoods for decades ``are in the same boat as many of the newcomers,'' says Dr. Sandra Brandler, an expert on the elderly and an assistant professor of social work at New York University. ``They're able to overlook differences and form alliances. There's a camaraderie.''
For those old people who have no family, informal networks develop, says Dr. Brandler, ``whether it's a neighbor who picks up the mail, or checks up on somebody to see that they're OK.''
It's not a one-way street, Brandler says: ``Old people are on the giving end, too.'' As neighbors, ``they give what they can economically. They baby-sit. They're generally no more dependent than younger people - until perhaps their 80s.''
The most common crimes against the elderly are the stealing of Social Security checks and burglaries, says Aurora Schulz, director of the Senior Security Program at the New York City Department for the Aging. In 1988, there were 78,248 reported crimes against people in New York City aged 60-98, according to the New York City police.
The Senior Security Program contacts each victim, offering counseling and financial aid, Ms. Schulz says, ``but most of the time the elderly just want to tell somebody what happened.''
Here are profiles of three people aged 66-79 who have lived 18 years or longer in Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
FOUR nights a month, 69-year-old Edna Zoni climbs into a van and patrols her neighborhood, checking for potholes, broken traffic lights - and crack dealers.
By radio, she and a companion report back to the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association, and to the 71st Precinct, which jointly sponsors the van. The patrol gets results: ``We closed down four crack houses this year,'' Ms. Zoni says.
Twenty years ago, Zoni moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan, where she managed restaurants and concessions in jazz clubs. Her marriage had just broken up, she says, and she wanted a change. She chose Brooklyn because ``it has the sunlight. In Manhattan, you don't see it,'' says Zoni.
She has two obsessions: the children of her neighborhood, many of whom she has helped raise, and neighborhood crime, which incenses her because ``this area has so much to offer,'' she says. ``Parks, museums, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, street fairs.''
Even when she is pushing a stroller - wearing one of her signature hats - she's watching for ``unlawful activity,'' she says. And at night, while in bed, she records and calls in to the police the sounds of gunshots. ``Approximately 200 calls a month,'' she says, ``are made to 911 about shootings in our neighborhood.
``I forget that I'm old,'' says Zoni. ``I've walked old people home after dark.'' Recently she walked a teenager home after a group of teens attacked him, says Barbara Culbreath, a neighbor.
Though it's not easy for her to make ends meet, she gives often - treats and birthday presents for neighborhood children, donations to local drug programs.
`ONCE you lock your door and leave your house, you've got to think street,'' says 66-year-old Jos'e Gonzales, who recently retired after 39 years as a hotel worker in midtown Manhattan. Raised in Harlem, he has lived in Prospect Lefferts Gardens for 18 years.
For Mr. Gonzales, that means being careful - and staying in touch with his grandchildren's generation. ``Keep a little modern in how you dress,'' says Gonzales, who has seven children and 13 grandchildren. ``Learn your grandchildren's slang, their ways. It keeps you alert.''
It makes him more comfortable on the street, he says, ``to know the latest haircut, to know rap.'' But just because he listens to rap music with his grandchildren doesn't mean he likes it. ``I'm a jazz man,'' he says, ``but I don't condemn the new music.''
Young people are foolish to view the elderly as easy targets, he says. ``They see a little gray hair, they think you're simple, retarded.'' But an old man can still defend himself, he says. ``I do intend to make my next birthday.''
His own youth helps him understand kids on the street, he says. From the time he was 10 until he was 30, he was ``a gang leader, a hoodlum,'' he says. ``I hung out with the wrong people.''
He credits his wife, who died six years ago, with turning him around. She did it ``just by talking,'' says Gonzales. And now that he's retired, he'd like to do the same thing for young people - give them hope, he says, by talking to them ``in their language.''
SEVENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Mary McNamara was born in Brooklyn and remembers when parts of the borough were farmland. Prospect Lefferts Gardens, where she's lived for the past 31 years, ``used to be gorgeous,'' she says. ``It hurts to watch a neighborhood go downhill.
``I've always helped myself - always,'' she says, explaining how she manages. She's made only two concessions to the neighborhood's crime rate: She hasn't gone into nearby Prospect Park - the section bordering Prospect Lefferts Gardens is frequented by drug dealers - for years. And she tries not to go out after dark.
But Mrs. McNamara still takes long walks, especially if she feels depressed about her apartment, she says: Her ceilings leak, and she has no heat. She takes the bus to downtown Brooklyn to go shopping, and to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, along which she likes to stroll.
She has never been mugged, she says proudly, and being one of the few whites in the neighborhood doesn't faze her. ``I'm not prejudiced,'' she says, ``and so many of my neighbors are nice. They respect me,'' she adds, ``maybe it's my age or something. If I walk down the street, it's `Good morning, Mary!'''
Mrs. McNamara's neighbors keep an eye on her. ``If she doesn't show up for a couple of days, I go check up on her,'' says Meryl Arshransky, a waitress at the local coffee shop, where McNamara is a regular. Ms. Arshransky says she's She has often tried to get Mrs. McNamara to move to another building, she says, but has been unsuccessful. ``It's hard to make a big change,'' Ms. Arshransky says.
McNamara is proud, but not inflexible: When a neighbor recently gave her birthday money to buy a small heater, she gave him two heartfelt kisses.