Joy Bergmann

Monday, October 8, 2018

UPDATE: Young, Homeless Man “Stephen” Who Died in Riverside Park Identified; Family Found by Local Journalist


--> Originally published September 25, 2018, in West Side Rag


Neil Harris, Jr. in a 2010 family photo
Back in April of 2017, I wrote about a young homeless man who was found dead under the West Side Highway near 71st Street in Riverside Park.

Many community members mourned the quiet man in the maroon hoodie, a park fixture known to some as “Stephen.” A memorial plaque soon appeared on “Stephen’s bench” near 75th and Riverside. But his identity remained a mystery, a John Doe, buried months later on Hart Island – the city potter’s field – plot 383, section I, grave 35.

Now, thanks to two determined women, we know who he was.

His name was Neil Harris, Jr., 32. He loved animals, cooking, video games, horror movies and reggae music. He hated crowds and feared change. He had learning disabilities, severe social anxiety and bouts of paranoia. He also had a mother, Susan Hurlburt, and a huge extended family who’d been worrying about and looking for him since he disappeared from the Inwood, Long Island, train station on December 12, 2014.

“He knew my number by heart.” Hulburt told WSR. “I thought if it got bad, he’d call me and I’d come pick him up. But I never heard from him.”



Hurlburt finally learned of her son’s fate thanks to recent efforts by Jessica Brockington, a journalist who lives on the Upper West Side (and has written for West Side Rag).

Brockington, like many locals, felt a connection to the man she’d often see while walking her dogs. She’d once offered him coffee and tomato soup on a frigid day. Upon reading of his death, she wondered how his family would ever find out – if he even had a family. She said a prayer and left the question unanswered.

Until this past August.

Brockington was busy reviewing several government databases, looking for information to use in a data journalism class she was taking through the Knight Foundation. On NamUs.gov – a Justice Department site to help resolve missing and unidentified persons cases – she stumbled upon a missing person photo for a Neil Harris, Jr. “He looked just like the guy we knew in the park as Stephen,” she says.

That discovery set in motion six weeks of frenzied – often frustrating – detective work by Brockington.

She shared the photo with multiple Riverside Park denizens who also immediately recognized the man as “Stephen.”

She contacted NYPD’s 20th Precinct with her findings. Officers sent her to the Missing Persons division, where “Stephen’s” case had been transferred. Detectives there didn’t think she’d made a match, based on the medical examiner’s photos and a description of the body.

She persisted.

By this point, Brockington had already scoured Facebook and discovered Neil Harris, Jr. had a mother who’d been posting about him, requesting prayers for him, asking him to be safe. “There was a loving family besides themselves with worry,” she says. But Brockington felt she couldn’t contact them until authorities confirmed the ID. And they weren’t moving fast. 


Brockington says detectives in Nassau County – where Neil grew up and the missing person’s report had been filed – were more amenable. One detective decided to contact Hurlburt and ask her to get a DNA test done. But, not wanting to upset a mother needlessly if it wasn’t a match, he did not tell her a body had been found.

“There was no rush,” Hurlburt ruefully recalls. Now living in North Carolina on a fixed income, she says she didn’t have a spare $99 for the test and had no clue what the stakes really were.

Meanwhile, Brockington was getting impatient. She wanted Hurlburt to know the urgency of the matter. So she called Kenny Jarels, founder of the AWARE Foundation, a nonprofit that supports families of missing people, to serve as an intermediary. “On Facebook, I’d seen AWARE interfacing with Susan about Neil. AWARE had had posters made and she was sharing those posters on Facebook weekly,” she says.  “Kenny decided Susan needed to know that there was a possible match. So Kenny called Susan that night. And the next day I spoke with her.”

Once the two women connected, they were unstoppable.

Hurlburt immediately went on NamUs to inspect a tiny thumbnail photo of the unidentified man’s face taken at the medical examiner’s office. “I knew it right away. That was my son,” she says. “I’ve known him at 300 pounds and at 150 pounds. With dreadlocks and with a shaved head. That was my son.”

Hurlburt quickly arranged to take a DNA test at a local police station. But, unwilling to wait on results, she also contacted NYC’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner [OCME] to try to speed up the identification process. “After the third phone call, I got to a woman there who said we might be able to do it through Neil’s medical records. Had he had any broken bones?”  Neil had broken his arm as an adult; an injury that never fully healed. Hurlburt requested the hospital send his file to OCME for comparison with X-rays taken during the man’s autopsy.

About a week later, on September 21st, Hurlburt got the call from OCME. “They told me, ‘we can positively ID that this is Neil.’” According to OCME, he died on March 9, 2017, of an acute intestinal hemorrhage due to a perforated chronic peptic ulcer.

Hurlburt says she wants people to know her son had a kind heart, and a big Italian family who loved him. But Neil was also “a lost soul” who had run away once before. He told her he wanted to live on the streets. In addition to mental illness challenges, he had long struggled with his biracial background, often asking his mother, “What am I?”  His African-American father, Neil Harris, Sr., had had his own struggles and is also buried on Hart Island.

Hurlburt also wants her experience to help others avoid the “torture” of not knowing what’s happened to their missing loved ones. She says law enforcement and other authorities need to better respect families by treating these cases with greater urgency. “Homeless people are still people. If you have one lead on who these people are, you should follow up. Immediately.”

How Neil ended up in Riverside Park remains a mystery. He had no previous connection to the Upper West Side, says Hurlburt. He’d only been to Manhattan once in his life – to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree – and hated it. She has no idea how Neil managed to survive for over three years on his own. He could barely read or write and had no access to funds. “He didn’t know what to do with himself. So he just sat and stared.”

She suspects the kindnesses of Upper West Siders, “angels”, sustained him. “God sent all of you there then,” Hurlburt says. “And sent you now to make sure he rests in peace with his identity. That was the most important thing to Neil. I want to make sure he has a name, and isn’t just some number.”

Hurlburt is especially grateful to Brockington and hopes to meet her and others when the family comes to New York to collect Neil’s death certificate and personal effects. “She never stopped. This was a stranger. She didn’t have to go this far. And she did,” says Hurlburt. “This has changed my view on the world. There’s good people in this world. There are.”

“Connecting Neil’s family with the community of people who mourned his death has been really emotional but deeply satisfying,” says Brockington. “It’s one little piece of good, you know? I just wish it happened earlier.”

Friday, October 5, 2018

Talking with Anna Quindlen About Her New, Very UWS Novel and Why the Neighborhood Suits Her Down to the Ground

Quindlen on her UWS rooftop. Photo (c) Maria Krovatin

Originally published September, 24 2018, in West Side Rag

Stepping into Pier 72 diner, Anna Quindlen seems much like any other work-from-home writer on break. Eager for news, a laugh, some rice pudding with the decaf. Most of the day, she says, “I just sit and stare into the middle distance.”

Her résumé says otherwise. After working as a journalist and winning the Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times columns, Quindlen moved on to writing bestsellers, from memoirs to advice books to nine novels.

Her latest, Alternate Side, is set on a dead-end block on the Upper West Side, one with a tiny private parking lot that’s an enduring source of pride for those granted a space, and envy for those relegated to New York’s insane automotive dance. A block quite like the one where Quindlen lives with her husband, attorney Gerald Krovatin, and two Labrador retrievers. The couple has three grown children, one grandchild and another on the way.

Quindlen spent a recent hour talking about the novel, the fault lines running through many UWS lives and why nothing beats Broadway’s “great parade of humanity.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
*
WSR:  Alternate Side digs into so many issues that obsess Upper West Siders – class, status anxiety, real estate, gentrification. What sparked the story?

AQ:  The initial impulse for the novel came because my elder son was reading Bonfire of the Vanities. It made me think how long it’s been since Tom Wolfe published that book. And how issues of race and class attach. Not only in this city but across this country. Now perhaps more than ever.

So I was a little surprised to discover what it turned out to be was a novel about marriage.

WSR:  Your 50-ish protagonist, Nora Nolan, and her husband, Charlie, feel so familiar.

AQ:  I think of them as classic, prosperous Upper West Siders.  Wealthy people live on 5th or Park or down in Tribeca. Prosperous people live on the Upper West Side.

WSR:  Changing perspectives hit Nora from multiple angles. She’s conflicted about her relationship with her marriage and with her city.

AQ:  And with herself. It’s not accidental that she has a completely different work life at the end of the book as she has at the beginning. She changes substantially. In ways that I’m not sure would be true, had the incident with the golf club not happened.

WSR:  That incident – an assault on a blue-collar man by a white-collar one – divides the block, upending peaceful coexistences. Do you think one incident can change how you see someone you’ve been with for 25 years?

AQ:  I don’t think the single thing changes it. I think sometimes something cataclysmic can magnify the differences that you unconsciously knew were there but refused to look at or acknowledge. You see it when empty nest syndrome happens…when serious illness strikes.

It’s not so much that that thing caused the schism. It’s that there were tiny cracks all along and that thing is like a teaspoon hit against the side of the vessel. Suddenly all the tiny cracks get bigger.

WSR:  Nora also has shifting feelings about New York.

AQ:  What Nora says over and over is that she felt more of an affinity for New York – and certainly her neighborhood – when it was grittier, harsher, harder. That it felt like someplace that was challenging her. Now she feels really settled in it. In a way that you’re not really supposed to feel in this city. You’re supposed to feel settled in the suburbs, not on Broadway.

WSR:  Do you feel the same way?

AQ:  I have a certain fondness for the grittier, crazier Upper West Side that existed when I came to college here. And when I was a street reporter here. But as a mother? As a property owner? I’m not so unhappy with things feeling slightly safer and more settled.

What I am unhappy about is when younger people and less prosperous people get pushed out.
The great thing about the Upper West Side is you walk up Broadway and feel like you’re seeing the great parade of humanity. You’re not just seeing people who can afford a pair of Jimmy Choos.

But fewer members of the great parade are welcome here or are prosperous enough to settle here now. I’m a big fan of rent control!

WSR:  Speaking of divisive issues…class and its power dynamics run thru Alternate Side. Among prosperous Upper West Siders, I’ve sometimes sensed this crisis of masculinity and of femininity, when folks interact with their contractor or their super or their nanny.  A person who enters their lives and has much more power than they expected.

AQ:  It’s certainly a major theme of the book. The people who are performing the tasks that – deep in your heart of hearts – you believe you should be doing yourself.

I don’t think it’s quite as strong among the men. But among the women, certainly I get a really powerful sense of that. Whether it’s the nanny or the housekeeper – that person upon whom you are so reliant, and who therefore has a kind of power that can make you uncomfortable.

The woman who might know things about your children that you don’t know. Who knows where everything is in your house. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, but it can be.



WSR:  The denizens of Alternate Side’s block have some sharp personalities. Do you think there are particular character traits shared by Upper West Siders?

AQ:  I think of us as liberal, outspoken, nicer than people think we are. People can be really, really helpful to each other. Cliquish and clannish, too.

WSR:  How so?

AQ:  You just have this tightly woven tapestry of the neighborhood people. They’re your nabes. Maybe they’re not even people you know. But they are people you see almost every day. You know their dogs. They go to the same nail parlor. A few you know, but most you don’t – except by sight.

WSR:  But they’re still your people.

AQ:  Definitely your people. Suddenly, you notice when they’re not there anymore.

WSR:  After growing up in Philly and South Brunswick, New Jersey, you first came to the upper Upper West Side – Morningside Heights – at 18?

AQ:  Came to Barnard in 1970. And I would’ve stayed around here. But my husband and I got married and didn’t have much money. So we looked around for the place most like the Upper West Side, one where you could get cheap housing. And moved to Hoboken. I tended to think of the Hudson River as nonexistent.

In 1999, we moved back. Right after Oprah chose Black and Blue as an Oprah Book Club book. Which was not coincidental.

WSR:  Ah, windfalls…

AQ:  And we were both horrified, because we were convinced we were buying at the top of the market. Only to discover that the market had no top!

WSR:  19 years, then. A lot has changed…

AQ:  It changes in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t.

WSR:  What are the eternals?

AQ:  Well, you walk past a place like Barney Greengrass and you think, by right, this should be an Armani Exchange. And yet, somehow, it’s not.

There’s this weird alchemy to the Upper West Side. Some places really stick. I’m convinced that if there was a nuclear disaster, Cafe Luxembourg would survive. And thank God for that.

WSR:  What’s your favorite part of the neighborhood? Beyond our spunky spiritedness…

AQ:  That is one of my favorite things. That odd combination of friendliness and non-intrusiveness. The neighbors who know how to say just enough, but not too much.

And Riverside Park. Poor Riverside Park! In any other city in America, it would be THE park. But because of Central Park, it gets overlooked. I’m a real Riverside Park devotee.

My grandson’s favorite place on earth – other than Nana & Pop’s house – is the American Museum of Natural History. Which is just as it should be.

WSR:  In A Short Guide to a Happy Life, you summarize your personal code as, “I show up, I listen. I try to laugh.”

AQ:  My work makes me sound so much more large and in charge than I actually am.

WSR:  You’re so together!

AQ:  I’m baffled by it. I read a quote from myself on Twitter and I think, did I actually ever say or write that?

When my kids were really young, and I’d be going to give a speech or something, I’d come downstairs in a dress and heels and make-up. My son would say, “It’s the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll!”  And most of the time when I have to talk about my work, or look at my work, or think about what I’ve produced in my work, I feel like the Amazing Anna Quindlen Doll.

And that is NOT the person who populates the streets of the Upper West Side every day!

WSR:  Ha! Alternate Side’s paperback is out in November. What’s next for you?

AQ:  Nanaville will be published in the spring. It’s thoughts on grandmothering from a newbie nana.


-->

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.

Nope.

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: dsny@customerservice.nyc.gov

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 people...it'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.