Are our streets still safe?
Lynnette was almost mugged at lunchtime in Times Square. Alan was chased down 10th Ave while out for a run in the morning. Henry and his girlfriend were threatened and spat on while walking their dog.
In the last four weeks, residents have reported a rising sense of insecurity, with many feeling afraid to go outside amid scenes of drug deals, graffiti, theft, and people defecating in the street. And they're placing the blame, largely, on the homeless population.
The issue of the disenfranchised on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen is nothing new – the neighborhood has one of the highest representations of supportive housing in the five boroughs. And its proximity to Times Square and Port Authority means it’s a magnet for panhandlers and people who lead a transient lifestyle.
But since the stay-at-home order, a combination of fewer tourists (meaning less money for panhandlers), fewer people on the streets in general (meaning the issue is more visible), and an influx of those who were formerly living in shelters to local hotels, has meant tensions, in some pockets of the neighborhood, are higher than they’ve been in years.
"It's important not to demonize those experiencing homelessness,”
Add to that the fact that, at one point last month, 20% of NYPD were reported off sick with COVID-19 (38 members of the department have died from coronavirus-related illness), and it has created a toxic cocktail of pressure between residents, police, and our elected officials.
"It's important not to demonize those experiencing homelessness,” says City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose district includes Hell’s Kitchen, “which is why we are so committed to addressing this issue and connecting these New Yorkers to care.
“Unfortunately, the affordability crisis we have in New York City is part of a national trend, which has led to a nationwide humanitarian crisis. For far too long, this issue has festered without any real long-term vision and few concrete proposals.”
“I spend a lot of time in Times Square,” says photographer Lynnette Blanche, “and work-from-home had just started – I think we’d been on quarantine for a couple of weeks. I had a light day so thought I’d take the camera out around lunchtime for a walk to Times Square.
“It seemed fine because it was mostly empty. Then, as I was walking north, I saw a gentleman coming south. I started to cross the street, and he followed me. I started walking faster, he started walking faster. He was jogging towards me. It got to the point where he was within arm’s reach and I was kind of freaking out.”
"It was crazy. I was basically chased down ...I've never had an experience like that."
She spotted a police car and ran to it for safety, at which point the man slowed down and walked in the opposite direction.
“It was crazy. I was basically chased down, and if it wasn't for the fact that I spotted a police car and started to run towards it, undoubtedly he would have taken my camera. There was no doubt in my mind,” she says. “I've never had an experience like that.”
And the police officer? “They didn't do a thing. They watched the whole thing happen. I looked him dead in the eyes as I was running towards him, stood next to his car, and he looked at me out the window. He didn't roll the window down to be like, ‘Are you OK?’”
“It's terrifying, the fact that we're at a place now where we can't even be out in broad daylight without feeling there's some inherent risk.”
“I'm a single parent with a young daughter,” says Alex Wolaver. “My elderly mother helps me take care of her half the time, so she's walking around with my daughter in this neighborhood, and I'm very concerned. I've lived in Hell's Kitchen for over 15 years, and have been in this building for over 10, and the neighborhood has deteriorated significantly. I'm talking to my fellow neighbors and tenants, and they're saying they haven't seen it this bad in decades. It’s scary.”
He’s had particular issues on his block, W51st St - 8th/9th Ave – which he shares with Stardom Hall, a supportive housing facility; a women's shelter; and a soup kitchen.
“A majority of the residents are fine, outstanding neighbors,” he says. “But one of the biggest problem tenants we refer to lovingly as The Yeller [it is understood this particular resident has now been served with an eviction notice]. His main disturbance to the community is he likes to get out in the middle of the street … and yell and scream and sing … upwards of sometimes between six and eight hours a day.”
There have been reports of physical threats, violence, attempted break-in, and burglary.
“Our argument,” says Alex, “ is that, for some of these people, this isn't the right place for them. They need more support – and one of the biggest things we're advocating for is better screening.
“The ongoing homelessness crisis has only been exasperated by COVID-19. There is a definite need for supportive housing and affordable housing within this community … but it can't be at the expense of the entire community."
“When I moved to Hell's Kitchen in 2008, we were in a renaissance,” says Scott Sobol. “Despite the issues that were going on with the economy, public life in Hell's Kitchen was fantastic.
“If you've ever seen the opening of Beauty and the Beast, where she strolls through the town and knows everybody – that's how I feel. We're a real mom and pop neighborhood. We have wonderful parks and playgrounds for children, and we know our neighbors. I know the shop owners and the restaurant owners and the dry cleaners by name.
“There really is such a community here. And they fought hard in the 80s and 90s to clean the place up so that, by the time I got here, it was wonderful. I had recently come out of the closet in 2007, so for me to be able to walk down the street and hold a man's hand or kiss a guy on the street corner or feel comfortable that I'm going to go out in my short shorts to run some groceries, was wonderful.”
"I have been harassed ... I have been threatened. And I have witnessed a gentleman defecate on the corner."
Little by little, he says, things started to change around three years ago. Now, he says: “I don't want to get stabbed, I don't want to get screamed at with obscenities about my sexuality, and I don't want to watch people defecating on the street. I think those are kind of basic public safety needs. I don't think I'm asking for the moon.”
“Even in the last seven days,” he says, “I have been harassed and called a faggot. I have been threatened. And I have witnessed a gentleman defecate on the corner of W50th St - 9th Ave. I live on W52nd St - 9th/10th Ave, and there's a shelter across the street from me where they get handcuffed to beds, and dragged out kicking and screaming.”
While the NYPD has reported a 28.5% drop in major crime compared to April last year, murders, auto thefts, and burglaries are up. Commercial burglaries more than doubled. But Scott says: “I don't think you need crime statistics to feel unsafe. I feel alone and I feel scared.”
He’s made multiple reports to the police who, he says, are responsive, but their hands are tied. “They've done everything they could within the confines of the law. If this person is strolling around on drugs, can they technically arrest them? Sure. ‘What is that going to do?’ say the cops. ‘They’re going to be out of jail before we’ve finished completing the paperwork.’
“And it's not about arresting the drug users,” says Scott. “Those people are victims. But the enablers, those who come to our neighborhood to sell the drugs, to poison our most vulnerable, those are the people that need to be removed."
In a statement announcing the city's crime figures for April, police commissioner Dermot Shea says: "With unparalleled commitment, strength and fairness that is at the core of our agency’s mission, the men and women of the NYPD are maintaining operational continuity and public safety during this ongoing COVID-19 outbreak."
"Though the pandemic has put considerable strain on the department, and taken 38 colleagues who we will never forget, our uniformed officers and civilian employees have demonstrated extraordinary professionalism in adopting innovative policing functions to remain on the front lines, to allay uncertainty and fear and to relentlessly serve New Yorkers for as long as this unprecedented crisis goes on."
"Public safety is paramount,” says Corey Johnson. “My staff and I communicate on a daily basis with NYPD precincts across Council District 3, including the 10th, Midtown North, and Midtown South precincts in Hell's Kitchen. We'll continue advocating for the resources our precincts need to carry out their mission of keeping us safe.
“We also partner closely with our local block associations, tenant associations, and community boards to pinpoint locations in the community that need attention.
“My policy team had been looking at the issue in depth ever since I became speaker. At the end of January, after 18 months and talks with over 100 stakeholders, we released a comprehensive, long-term plan to address this issue in our city. It can be found here. My staff and I are available seven days a week and I encourage constituents to reach out to us by calling (212) 564-7757 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org."
Stardom Hall declined to comment.
Read our interview with Corey Johnson from June 2018.
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