A strange thing happened last week: In response to a community concern (amplified by Post reporting), Mayor de Blasio . . . acted. No, he didn’t solve the problem, but he didn’t ignore it, either. It’s a glimmer of hope for New York: grassroots groups can get results.
In July, the Upper West Side got a shock. With no warning, the city dumped 283 men in the Hotel Lucerne on Amsterdam. These men aren’t just down on their luck: They suffer from mental illnesses and addictions. With street traffic already down significantly, the warehousing of vulnerable men with no daytime supervision became a tipping point. Pedestrians had to fear random attack. Kids saw addicts shooting up. Witnesses filmed paid sex acts in the streets — incidents that, considering the incapacitated condition of the so-called sex workers, appear to be assault.
Some people have already left: Residential garbage collection in the area was down 4.1 percent in August, relative to last year, when people staying home should produce more trash.
But most people have stayed — and resolved to act. A new group, Upper West Siders for Safe Streets, launched a Facebook page and soon amassed 15,100 followers.
Separately, Megan Martin, a doctor and neighborhood veteran, worked with neighbors to organize West Side Community Organization, or Westsideco. Westsideco raised more than $100,000 from 1,000 donors. “Some people gave $10,” Martin says. The group built a Web site and hired a lawyer and a p.r. firm.
“I would never consider myself an activist,” says Martin. “I’ve always led a New York anonymous life.” Part of what motivated her is seeing the poor treatment of the mentally ill. “Having people overdosing on the median, the needles on the street,” and getting inadequate information from the neighborhood’s elected officials, “all this disturbed me.”
After weeks of media attention, the mayor termed conditions “unacceptable,” closing the shelter. Happy ending? Not exactly. The city has moved the Lucerne’s residents to another hotel, in Midtown . . . and, to do that, the disabled residents of that hotel were displaced until a local outcry forced a halt.
Using sick, poor people as warm bodies to bail out the downmarket hotel industry is hardly progressive. “Our organization is certainly not about shuffling” people around, says Martin.
Still, Westsideco and Upper West Siders for Safe Streets have proved something: People do have some say over where they live. The media helped, too. A Post series brought massive attention to the crisis.
It’s easy to make fun of the West Side as NIMBYs, ignoring that the area, with 103 people per acre, is 2 ¹/₂ times as dense as the average Big Apple neighborhood.
It’s easy, too, to dismiss the West Side as a “gated community.” Except that if West Siders wanted to live in a gated community, they wouldn’t bother with this. They would just . . . move to a gated community.
And sure, while the Upper West Side is whiter than most neighborhoods, it is one-third minority. A white supremacist would hardly choose to call it home.
Rather than dismiss people who fight to keep overdoses and prostitution off streets, when they could flee to a “private community” in Florida, why not emulate them?
What will scare the pols — and potential pols — isn’t the Upper West Side’s money. It is the votes: 15,100 people, organized into a bloc, can swing a citywide election.
The Upper West Side is liberal: It voted against Mayor Rudy Giuliani in both his successful elections. But the area isn’t insane. Voters won’t repeatedly elect pols who systemically ignore their concerns.
In poorer neighborhoods, the pols make a cynical bet: that the people of East New York and the South Bronx are too busy struggling for survival to make a concentrated push to prevent far more serious crime, such as the surge in shootings.
But poorer neighborhoods are already proving the cynical pols wrong: The same week de Blasio acted on the Upper West Side, he said he would move homeless residents from a Long Island City hotel, too — because the residents of the nearby Queensbridge Houses public housing complex had organized to complain.
If New York is to overcome its COVID-19 malaise, it has to replicate local activism, not dismiss it — and actually help mentally ill homeless people and addicts, not just move them from hotel to hotel.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images