Monday, September 3, 2018

Why Jeffrey Toobin Loves the Upper West Side

Originally published on July 30, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

Jeffrey Toobin chuckled as he grabbed a bench in his favorite place in New York City – Riverside Park. “My wife thinks it’s very ambitious of me to live 17 blocks from where I grew up.”

The best-selling author, New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst spent his childhood at 90th and Riverside and has lived in the same West 70s building for 23 years with Amy B. McIntosh, CUNY’s Associate Vice Chancellor. The empty-nesters raised a daughter and son here, and recently added Breezy, a Labradoodle puppy, to the family.

An unabashed UWS fanboy who resists nostalgia, Toobin spent a recent hour away from working on his next book – about the Mueller investigation – to talk Fairway strategies, mugger money and the joys of the dog run. After being told that all comments were on the record, Breezy chose to remain silent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WSR: Always an Upper West Sider?

JT: Effectively I’ve always been an Upper West Sider. Except for college, law school and the three years my wife spent in the Obama administration when we lived in Washington. But we never gave up our apartment here. It really is home.

Amy moved here in 1984, and I remember telling her which blocks she could walk on and which ones she couldn’t because the west side was still pretty dangerous.

By the time our kids came along in the 90s, it was almost hard to remember that because the whole place had become so gentrified. Which is a mixed blessing, but the reduction in crime is nothing but welcome.

WSR: You went to Columbia Prep...

JT: I went to PS 166 and then Columbia Prep. My kids went to Ethical Culture and then Fieldston. One of my happiest memories of their childhood was walking them to Ethical.

WSR: You’ve no doubt seen a lot of changes around here.

JT: It’s not that I’m one of these nostalgia buffs. The neighborhood is unambiguously better than what it was, but I remember walking on West End Avenue when they were shooting the scenes for “Network” when the people are yelling out the window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

WSR: Classic. And timely.

JT: One difference from when I grew up? It’s a lot more rich people.
I grew up at 175 Riverside Drive, which was nice building that went co-op after my parents moved in in the 60s. It was accountants, school teachers. And now, 175 Riverside Drive, every apartment is in the multiple millions of dollars. I regret that lack of diversity. The vibe is much wealthier than it was.

WSR: Any places you pine for that are no longer around?

JT: The only two commercial establishments that I unambiguously miss are the Royale Bakery on north side of 72nd Street between Broadway and West End that’s been gone for like 20 years. They had this Mitteleuropean feel and amazing rugulach – the raspberry, not the chocolate. And the All State Cafe on the south side of 72nd Street [now the Emerald Inn].

When our kids were about 4 and 6, there was a serious fire above us in our apartment building. We had to evacuate. But where do you go at one in the morning? We went to the All State Cafe and they were so great. They brought our kids milk. And they certainly didn’t bring us milk. Amy and I were like, “We need a drink!” Our cat, Lightning, was at the bar.

WSR: Ha!

JT: I love the way the neighborhood was, but I love it now. I think New Yorkers recognize that change is part of living here. It’s part of the organic process of a successful city.

WSR: What differentiates the UWS from other nabes?

JT: There’s a settled feeling here. There’s not a lot of space for a lot of new buildings. It’s just so convenient to a lot of places where people work. It’s just an intensely desirable place to live.
I walk to CNN at Columbus Circle and have it timed to the second. I can roll out of bed and be on television in 35 minutes which is pretty great.

WSR: OK, but kvetching is the official sport of the UWS...

JT: That’s true.

WSR: So, what do we need to improve?

JT: I’d like to see greater diversity in terms of income and ethnicity. I’d like to see more independent stores and fewer chains. But I don’t have a lot of complaints.
I mean, we’re sitting in Riverside Park. The Riverside Park in which I grew up, 75 percent of the benches in front of us here would’ve been broken, and there would’ve been graffiti, and we would’ve been in genuine fear of getting mugged. None of which is true now. That’s an unambiguously good thing.

I was a mugged as a kid. A lot of parents of my friends would make sure their kids had a five-dollar bill with them at all times – mugger money so you’d always have something to give a mugger and he wouldn’t kill you. Imagine how terrible that is. That’s gone, that concern.

WSR: Do you feel like the edge is gone, too?

JT: Edge is overrated. I do wish the city was more affordable for people of more limited means. There’s no question that that’s a problem. But if edge means graffiti, if edge means muggings, good riddance.

WSR: Switching gears: Are you Team Fairway or Team Trader Joe’s?

JT: Very much Team Fairway. I’ve never stepped foot in Trader Joe’s. Not because I have any objection. It just never occurs to me to go in there.

WSR: Do you have survival tips for people encountering Fairway for the first time at, say, Sunday at 5pm?

JT: Bring shoulder pads. It can get rough in there, no question about it.

WSR: Where do you love to get your nosh on?

JT: My favorite local business is Giacomo’s. It’s this tiny little food place on 72nd next to the [West End Superette] bodega. It was the first place my daughter was allowed to go by herself. She became coffee-obsessed at an embarrassingly young age and she would go buy coffee there. I take great pleasure in supporting a business like that.

Another one of our favorite stores is what we call the Pink Awning Store even though it hasn’t had a pink awning for like 15 years. Stationery & Toy on 72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam. It’s just an amazing store. Whatever you’re looking for, they always have.

WSR: What is the perfect UWS day for you?

JT: I like good rather than perfect. I love taking Breezy to the dog run early in the morning. Just to watch him tear around with the other dogs gives me great pleasure. Then it would be nice to go to the JCC with my wife and work out. And then she has a real job, so she goes to work and I just go back to the apartment. I’d work for a while, get lunch at Giacomo’s and when it’s time to get ready for “Situation Room,” walk down to CNN. That’s a good day.

WSR: What’s Wolf Blitzer really like?

JT: Wolf and Anderson [Cooper] are two of the most sane people you’ll ever meet, which is unusual for television stars. They are relentlessly normal. And that vibe spreads through the entire network. There is no reward for eccentricity at CNN.

WSR: What’s the distinguishing characteristic of an Upper West Sider?

JT: I don’t know. I’m a journalist, but I don’t think I’m the most observant person on the world. I don’t have a picture in my mind of what an Upper West Sider is. But I just did a piece in the New Yorker about [Congressman] Jerry Nadler, and if I were looking for a hardcore Upper West Sider, he’s a pretty good example.

WSR: What’s the biggest misconception about the UWS? What do people get wrong about it?

JT: Do people have conceptions at all about the UWS?

WSR: I think so.

JT: Really? Well, I think it used be known as kind of bookish, liberal and insular. Now, I think it’s too expensive to be bookish. Though I heard Shakespeare & Company is coming back.

WSR: They are.

JT: I think the UWS’s uniqueness, it’s a lot more similar to the Upper East Side than it used to be. But again, I don’t want to give the impression that everything used to be better. Everything did not used to be better.

WSR: Thanks for taking time today. Your schedule has been SO leisurely...

JT: It’s been crazy. All Trump all the time. And the Supreme Court. The pace of news has been more relentless than any period I can remember. I’m also working on a book about the Mueller investigation.

WSR: But you have to wait until the report is issued, right?

JT: Yes, I do.

WSR: Do you know when it’s coming?!

JT: No. No, I don’t.

WSR: A lot of people are in a fugue state of nervous anxiety about the political situation. Got any prescription for coping better?

JT: It’s okay to take news vacations. A week, two weeks. I don’t have that luxury, but I think news vacations are not a bad idea. There will be a new crisis in two weeks, and you’ll have had some Zen moments in the interim.

MTA Mystery: Has Anyone Taken the CPW Ghost Bus?

Mystery shuttle bus photographed in the wild
Originally published on August 23, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

All summer there's been scuttlebutt about a free MTA shuttle bus roaming Central Park West, presumably to provide alternate transportation for B/C subway riders affected by the temporary closure of stations being upgraded and repaired at 72nd, 86th and 110th Streets. 

But if the MTA has not posted any signs about this bus, does it exist?

"It exists. It's being offered and paid for. But very few people know about it or how to make use of it," insists tipster Juliet.

Juliet, a 92nd Street resident, has been depending on the M10 bus for her commute along Central Park West during the B/C shutdown. But one recent day a bus with "Out of Service" in its route display stopped and Juliet boarded, thinking it an M10. The fare box was disabled – not an unusual occurrence – and so she accepted the free ride, ringing the bell near her 92nd St stop. When the bus whizzed past her destination she spoke up and was told by the driver, "This is the shuttle. And you're the only one who doesn't know that." 
No shuttle bus mentions here

It was the first she'd heard of any free shuttle. Subsequent conversations with bus stop comrades revealed they, too, had had strange encounters with these CPW buses. Sometimes the route display says "To Subway", other times "NYCT", but no one seems to be riding them. And no one knows where the stops are, Juliet says. 

Another tipster wrote to WSR back in June, "Special buses have been running on CPW since the 72 and 86 Street subway stations have closed for renovation.  When and where the buses stop is a mystery to me, and apparently to others since I have never seen any passengers on the bus."

When we first checked with the MTA, a spokesperson responded, "While the 72 St, 86 St, and Cathedral Pkwy (110 St) stations are under repair and renovation, we’re running increased M10 bus service along Central Park West to help customers looking to use another station on the line without extra walking."  

Nothing about a free shuttle bus here either
And yet, these mystery buses – definitely not M10s say our tipsters – are still being spotted, if not taken. So we again asked MTA for clarification. 

"The MTA never announced any shuttle service," an MTA spokesperson said Thursday. "We've added additional service on the M10 bus line to assist passengers in making connections to B/C stations that are operating." The MTA added that the station upgrade projects are on schedule and that re-opening dates will be announced soon.

Great. Now back to a twist on the original question:  If the MTA did not announce a shuttle service, could it still exist?

WSR readers, have you seen these CPW ghost buses? Enjoyed a surprise free ride? Let us know in the comments.

This story was later picked up by the New York Post. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

City Removes Trash Cans on the UWS, Claiming it Improves Cleanliness; One Local Says It's 'Boneheaded'

Overflowing trash can at West End Avenue & 103rd Street
Originally published on August 15, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

As someone who walks her dog several times a day along West End Avenue near West 104th Street, tipster Melissa G. says she’s “very trash-can conscious.”

A few months ago, she noticed all of the baskets were overflowing with trash. Then she had another realization: There were now only two baskets per intersection instead of four – one on every corner – which she says had consistently been the case during her nine years on the block.

What happened to the baskets? Did they get removed in anticipation of some windy weather? Surely the Department of Sanitation [DSNY] would soon restore the baskets – thereby easing the overflow trash – she thought.

A neighbor who shared her concerns called 311 and was told that the baskets had been removed because people leaving Riverside Park were putting their trash in them. “You can’t make this up,” says Melissa.


Counterintuitive as it may seem, DSNY says having fewer trash baskets increases area cleanliness. “For some reason, when there’s a garbage can on a corner, it attracts litter,” DSNY Community Liaison Nick Circharo told West Side Rag. “The corner without a basket is the cleanest corner. If you take away the baskets, people will take their garbage elsewhere.”

Rust stains indicate this WEA corner used to have a wire trash basket.

DSNY spokesperson Dina Montes says that 1,131 litter baskets citywide were removed in the past year for chronic misuse, leaving about 23,250 baskets in place. In an email, she explained:
"Litter baskets are for pedestrian litter, and are placed in busy commercial and pedestrian-heavy areas, not in primarily residential areas. It’s always been DSNY’s policy that litter baskets be used solely for pedestrian litter and not household garbage or business garbage. 
Our Department’s cleaning office routinely reviews litter baskets usage and placement around the city, and will remove baskets that are in areas that do not meet the commercial criteria, or baskets that are chronically misused (i.e. illegal drop-offs, improper disposals of household trash in and around litter baskets, etc.). On the other hand, we will also add baskets to areas that have become more commercial in nature. 
[Many of the removed baskets] were in residential areas that did not fit the commercial criteria and were being misused. Removing chronically abused and misused baskets is a practice we do citywide and it has proven to be effective and beneficial in reducing drop offs and improper trash disposal."
Circharo says the basket reductions, “Are not a money-saving thing, but a cleanliness-increasing thing,” noting that DSNY crews empty baskets on West End Avenue every day, twice a day, except for Sundays when there is no pickup.

Aaron Biller, head of community group Neighborhood in the Nineties, called the DSNY move "a crude, boneheaded mistake."
In deciding it could treat West End Avenue and Riverside Drive as residential areas that need less service, Sanitation does not consider that these so-called residential streets have a fair number of commercial facilities like SRO and commercial hotels, shelters, facilities for the elderly and a major park that attract large numbers of visitors, on top of our residents, who need a place for their refuse. WEA and Riverside are also densely packed with apartment buildings, some as high as 20 stories. The geography of the community, with its long avenue blocks also makes a compelling argument for a can on all four corners.
Melissa isn’t buying the DSNY explanation either. “When the trash cans overflow, it’s vile. I want a can back on every corner,” she says. “It was one of those great New York things not to have to walk a mile with a bag of poop.”

Could this be the spark of a new poop-bag rebellion, incited when Central Park similarly removed trash cans a few years back?

Hopefully not. But for now, DSNY’s Circharo says that if residents want their trash baskets restored – no promises that they will be – they may make requests at:

This story inspired other pieces in the New York Times and Gothamist. 

NYPD Again Confiscates Controversial Sidewalk Bookseller's Inventory

Originally published August 3, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

For years, sidewalk bookseller Kirk Davidson has been a lightning rod and Rorschach test for Upper West Siders. Some see his open-air marketplace at 73rd and Broadway as a funky haven for bibliophiles, while others see a filthy nuisance blocking pedestrian traffic.

But on Thursday, folks didn't see much of anything at all. No Kirk. No books.

That's because NYPD confiscated five tables full of books – hundreds of volumes – left unattended over the past week, according to Capt. Timothy Malin of the 20th Precinct. Officers conducted similar sweeps back in July and August of 2016. 

Malin says that since he took charge of the precinct in April, "Not one week has passed during which Kirk's name has not come up at least once. He is the single individual that we receive the most complaints about."

In New York City, it is legal for vendors like Davidson to proffer their wares. But each vendor is limited to one table of goods no larger than 8 feet long, 3 feet wide and 5 feet high; and those goods may not be left unattended on the public sidewalk.

Malin says he received an uptick in complaints when Davidson expanded his enterprise to five tables. And the problem can be more than clutter. "I don't think it's the books that are offending's the unsanitary conditions," he says, noting that books left outdoors can become covered in mold, mildew and host vermin. "When we took similar action against another vendor, there was actually a rats' nest in his books. Also, when vendors camp there overnight, they leave garbage and human waste behind."

West Side Rag was unable to locate Davidson for comment, but we did reach his long-time attorney, John Levy, who had not yet been apprised of the latest police action. "Kirk's been there for decades," says Levy. "He knows what to do when he loses his books. He goes to the precinct to claim the vouchered property. Gets transportation to pick them up. It's his business."

The NYPD treads carefully when dealing with Davidson. According to an NYT profile, Davidson claimed to have received more than 200 summonses [and beat most of those charges] and had won more than $80,000 from the City in a series of civil suits for unlawful enforcement and seizure of his books. "Before we do anything with respect to a bookseller, we contact a Department attorney," Malin says. "We're not here to chase booksellers. We're here to address community concerns."

Olivia, our tipster who provided photos of the Wednesday night confiscation effort, says she wishes the NYPD would put their energies elsewhere. "With everything going on in the world today and the absurd corruption we're seeing at such high levels, it seems ridiculous to crack down on a street bookseller," she said. "He's not bothering anyone."

Council Member Helen Rosenthal has long supported efforts to clear the sidewalks of scofflaws. In a statement to West Side Rag she said, "The key issue here is that everyone be able to share our sidewalks safely and enjoyably, whether they are pedestrians or vendors. The vast majority of sidewalk vendors follow the rules and they are an asset for the community. But in the case of Mr. Davidson, he violated the terms of his sidewalk vendor license multiple times over a long period."

Given Davidson's 25-plus years as an area fixture, it likely won't be long before his tabletop bookstore returns. But on Thursday afternoon, his long-time corner looked like a blank page.

[PS:  Within three days, Davidson and his tables were back.]

This story was later picked up by the New York Post

UWS Gets Flower Flashed With Huge Garbage Can Bouquet

Originally published on August 2, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

A huge floral bouquet magically appeared early Thursday morning, plunked into a trash can on the southwest corner of 73rd Street and West End Avenue, delighting passersby who wondered:  What? Who?

The display was the latest "Flower Flash" created by Lewis Miller Design, a floral design firm in NoMad. According to his web site, Miller has been committing these random acts of beauty [and viral marketing] around the city since October 2016.

In a May interview with Haute Living,  Miller described part of his motivation:  To get people to look up from their phones and enjoy flowers.

“Tech constantly runs our life, and flowers are ephemeral. They’re fleeting, and they’re natural, and they’re soft, and they’re beautiful, and they’re luxurious," Miller said. "Our schedules are all so crazy, and technology is just driving us all bonkers, and we’re living on the edge of all having nervous breakdowns. Flowers are a comfort. They’re beautiful. Anywhere we can bring that back to counterbalance the realities of modern living is a good thing.”

Ephemeral, indeed.

By 9:15am, Department of Sanitation workers were on the scene and the flowers were headed for destruction.

"Why? Why can't you leave it for 24 hours? It's beautiful!" pleaded Ruth Cohen, who lives on that corner.

A Sanitation supervisor explained that with the bouquet in place, "People can't throw garbage in there."

Locals scrambled to grab a few blooms before they landed in the garbage truck's maw.

"Here we have a beautiful indication of life that could last 24 hours," Cohen told West Side Rag, "and the Department of Sanitation destroys it."

It was nice while it lasted.

Mount Sinai to Close Renowned Birthing Center as Midwives and Moms Push Back

Originally published July 25, 2018 in West Side Rag  

By Joy Bergmann

During an internal meeting last week, leaders of the OB/GYN team at Mount Sinai West hospital announced the January closure of its pioneering Birthing Center, opened in 1996 as the first hospital-based birthing center in New York City. The hospital is on 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th Street and was formerly called Roosevelt Hospital.

Parents, grandparents, midwives and other advocates for the home-like, childbirth facility – intended for women with low-risk pregnancies who seek a more relaxed environment to give birth without epidural anesthesia – have vowed to pressure Mount Sinai executives to reconsider this decision.

A group calling itself Save The Birthing Center has started an online petition seeking 2,500 signatures, saying, “If it closes there will only be one in-hospital birthing center in all of New York City. NYC families deserve autonomy and choice when deciding where to give birth. Help save the MSW Birthing Center!”

Asked about the impending closure, Mount Sinai emailed the following statement:
"In order to make the critically necessary expansions of our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) along with enhancing the services of our Labor and Delivery Unit, we have had to reevaluate the use of space within our obstetrics footprint. The newly configured Labor and Delivery area and NICU expansion will allow us to provide improved patient safety, comfort and delivery of care to all mothers and infants, especially those who require extra care. 
Mount Sinai is committed to providing patient-centered care for all expectant mothers and supporting each mother’s unique childbirth experience. We respect a woman’s birthing choice and will continue to offer the option of a childbirth experience that includes low medical intervention, accessibility to midwives, and one that ensures the health and well-being of both mother and baby. 
While the Birthing Center at Mount Sinai West will no longer exist in its current capacity after December 2018, we believe the concept of a natural, low-intervention delivery is not bound within four walls and choice of a natural childbirth experience will continue to be available to all expectant mothers who deliver at Mount Sinai West. We remain committed to our mission of providing compassionate, personalized care for all expectant mothers."
Risa Klein, Certified Nurse Midwife, says she was present at the grand rounds meeting last Tuesday when officials made the announcement. “There had been rumors of changes coming, but you never expect it.”

Klein says the hospital is very supportive of midwives and new mothers – even the traditional Labor & Delivery rooms have tubs – but that the Birthing Center is something special and worth protecting. “The real downside loss would be the loss of that in-house community people look to,” she said. “The Birthing Center is like being at home, but with the safety net of first-class medical facilities being just one floor away in the unlikely event of something challenging happening to the baby or mother. It’s a real comfort and would be a loss for the community.”

The importance of choice is a consistent refrain among those who’ve already signed the petition.

“NYC desperately needs low-risk birthing options within a hospital setting,” wrote Vanessa Cariddi.
“Without birthing centers, women have only two choices: medicalized hospital births or home births.”

“All mothers deserve the right to choose a birthing center,” added Alex Passas.

And Karie Brown wrote, “I gave birth there – a glorious experience – and it breaks my heart to know that Mt. Sinai wants to take that experience away from others.”

This story was later picked up by the Wall Street Journal

NYPD Calls UWS Duane Reade Stores Crime Magnets; Asks Residents To Demand Better Security Investment By Corporate Owners

Originally published April 25, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

Capt. Timothy Malin, the 20th Precinct’s new commanding officer, is taking aim at Duane Reade for what he considers a lax attitude to crime prevention.

By not investing in private security guards for the precinct’s eight stores, he says, the company is drawing in repeat offenders from other neighborhoods who use these locations as their “personal shopping malls” and may commit other crimes of opportunity while visiting the Upper West Side.

“The vast majority of the larcenies (thefts) are coming from one place: Duane Reade,” he told residents at Monday evening’s monthly Community Council meeting.

So far in 2018 there have been 180 reported larcenies from area Duane Reade stores, up 35% over last year. Duane Reade makes up 42% of the precinct’s total reported petit larcenies (stolen goods under $1000); multiple grand larcenies have also been reported. NYPD has made 76 larceny arrests in the stores this year; 97% of those arrested live outside of the precinct.

During his PowerPoint presentation, Capt. Malin highlighted the rap sheets of five recidivist arrestees as exemplars of his larger concern. Career criminals – sex offenders, gang members, robbers with upwards of 78 arrests – are traveling to the UWS to hit unguarded Duane Reades and perhaps swipe laptops and handbags elsewhere while they’re here, he says.

“They have security guards in other parts of the city like northern Manhattan and the Bronx. We’ve asked them twice for the exact same thing for the Upper West Side but we haven’t made any progress.”

Capt. Timothy Malin
Capt. Malin said he met with Walgreens [Duane Reade’s owners] corporate security managers last week, noting that the precinct’s previous commander held a similar meeting back in January. He found the reps to be sympathetic, but not racing to ameliorate the situation. “They approach store security from a strict dollars and cents point of view,” he said. “They told me they expect to lose $7 million of merchandise in Manhattan every year, and they just write it off. They expect one in three lipsticks to be stolen. They call 911 to file a police report so as to make an insurance claim.”

Walgreens did not respond to requests for comment.

Money matters to Walgreens, Malin says, but it should also matter to area residents.

“Taxpayer dollars right now are essentially subsidizing private security at Duane Reade,” he said. To attempt to stem the wave of thefts, 20th Precinct officers have made over 822 “directed patrols” at area stores wherein uniformed cops stop by and walk the aisles. Those are “822 times this year when our officers could have been engaged with something else, a different quality of life issue our residents may have.”

Capt. Malin urged residents to contact Walgreens and demand that the company take action. “We want the same preventative measures that the Bronx and other parts of Manhattan are getting…visible, well-run security in their UWS stores,” he said. “They can’t just be reactive. They need to be proactive for the safety of the community.”

This story was later picked up by the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and NBC New York.

Mosquito Squad Declares (Cautious) Victory After 8-Year Infestation

Members of the Mosquito Squad cross their fingers in front of their block.
Originally published April 19, 2018 in West Side Rag

By Joy Bergmann

Nevermore will flesh-munching mosquitoes haunt the nights of residents living on West 84th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive (also known as Edgar Allan Poe Street). After eight years of misery, the mosquitoes appear to have been eradicated, say members of the Mosquito Squad who have fought the tiny beasts.

“It’s been a long journey, but one we want others to benefit from,” says Tom. “We’ve created a prototype for how the city should handle future infestations and have shown how residents can create change.” [Squad members asked me to only use their first names.]

In December 2009, neighbors started sharing their tales of sleepless, gnawed nights. Mosquitoes were biting them particularly during the winter months, and the welts they'd leave were different from the kinds they normally got. Their early investigations revealed that these were no ordinary bugs. The mosquitoes of 84th street were a particularly hearty species called Culex pipiens molestus, known for terrorizing Londoners during the Blitz in World War II. West Side Rag first wrote about them in 2011.

Using a shared timeline document, volunteers compiled observations and action steps. Though initially unschooled in how NYC infrastructure actually gets monitored and repaired, the Mosquito Squad soon began a doctoral program in navigating unfamiliar science and tangled bureaucracy.

The driving question for years was: Where is water pooling underground to host these hearty wintertime invaders and how do we drain that habitat out of existence?

Dozens of expert and amateur sleuths weighed in. A mosquito geneticist from Rutgers. An entomologist from the American Museum of Natural History. A vector specialist from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. Con Ed sinkhole experts. Sewer strategists from the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. Department of Transportation sidewalk inspectors. A civil engineering professor from Purdue. A mosquito behaviorist from the University of Maryland. And the block’s 403 families, who signed petitions, made 311 calls and answered regular online surveys from the Mosquito Squad regarding mosquito sightings. Some politicians got involved: the squad was particularly grateful to assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who assisted with inter-agency coordination and follow up.

The group’s now-18-page timeline tracked every development. Holes were checked. Larvicide got dropped. Traps went into manholes. Water mains broke. Gas leaks hissed. Dubious fame arrived via Wikipedia noting the block as a site of London Underground mosquito “invasion.” Every winter, residents taped vents, slept under nets and still awoke bitten.

But some time in the past two years – Squad-ers aren’t sure how or when – the DEP decided what the block needed was a re-lining of its sewer pipes using a technique called CIPP (cured in place pipe). CIPP is essentially like slipping a plastic sleeve into the existing pipe and then using either heat or light to transform raw chemicals into a hard plastic lining, sealing any leaks while eliminating the need to dig out damaged pipe.

In early March 2018, Tom was surprised and “ecstatic” to find a flyer taped to his brownstone’s door announcing the imminent sewer repairs. But when crews began working on March 6th, he became alarmed by an intense chemical odor akin to burning plastic penetrating his home. The flyer had warned of this, stating, “These odors, though unpleasant, are not dangerous or toxic.”  Tom wasn’t so sure.

A worker relines the sewer pipes in March 2018. Photo via Mosquito Squad. 
A subsequent Google search about CIPP fumes yielded some unsettling safety concerns and new research. Like characters from a “Catch-22” bonus scene, the Squad reached back out to city officials, alerting them – and their neighbors – to this possible new hazard. “We were reluctant to fight the City on another topic that was designed to fix our problem,” Tom says. “But they listened and are looking at revisiting procedures to make sure contractors are acting in accord with the latest information.”
[The DEP did not respond to my inquiries.]

In any case, that booster shot of anxiety may have been worth it. Since the sewer repair work, the Squad says there has been only one reported mosquito.

But is a victory dance premature?

Tom doesn’t think so. “Even if some residents get an occasional visitor now or next winter, we can consider the block's infestation solved.” He’s so optimistic, he’s planned an eradication celebration block party for December.

Other Squad-ers remain more cautious in their prognostications. The nets over beds might get taken down, but for now, the net hooks are staying in the ceiling.

They are unanimous, however, in their commitment to taking action to improve community life and implore other UWS-ers to do the same.

“Don’t just complain about something. Take responsibility in your own hands,” says Pauline. “Talk to each other. Be accountable to each other.”

“If you want something done, you have to make the city aware and stay on the case,” adds Dan. “The more face-to-face meetings you have, the better. It’s easy to ignore someone over email or 311. Put your problem on the top of their list.”

Subway Musician 'Maestro D' Revives Frazzled Straphangers

He can’t make the 1 train arrive sooner. He can’t stop people from blocking the doors into the 2. But most every Saturday, Maestro D pulls off an even greater feat: Bringing joy to the 72nd Street subway station.

No toe can resist tapping to his repertoire. If a soulful bit of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” fails to seize your spirit, a boogie-woogie “Roll Over Beethoven”, funktastic “Rapper’s Delight” or bluesy “Let It Roll” soon will. Resistance is futile.

“This is what I call music!” a teenage boy shouts to his friends. “It’s different. It’s got that old-school flow to it.”

A five year-old totters over to the donation box perched in front of the electric keyboard, popping in what might be his first busker-supporting dollar. “God bless you, man,” says Maestro D, moving his ring-covered hands with a flourish.

Maestro D doesn’t do interviews. “I never wanted to be famous. I wanted to be good,” he tells WSR, declining to reveal more than his stage name.

But good is more than enough in these acrimonious times. And good doesn’t get much better than a Motown “My Girl” sing-along among strangers.

Originally published in West Side Rag on April 1, 2018