Bridget Best loves her Inwood apartment on the second floor of 1 Arden Street that overlooks the building’s front entrance. Not only is it a beautiful space with “absurdly cheap” rent, it is close to the No. 1 subway line she rides to the Manhattan School of Music.
Best looked at the apartment last fall when the roads were empty and the neighborhood noise was minimal. She saw nothing suspicious. But as the temperature rose this past spring, she fell victim to the cacophony created by teenagers who took to the streets. Over one two-week period, Best says the noise was nonstop between 4 p.m. and 3 a.m, something she couldn’t handle despite growing up in urban Toronto and living in New York for three years.
The situation quickly escalated. A few fights broke out in front of her building, then a 50-person brawl another night – the two sides distinguished by their white and black beaters. On a different evening, people threw bricks from her building, smashing a car window. Best called for police in both cases, but no one responded.
Many residents of the 34th Precinct, which covers Inwood and Washington Heights, complain of the same thing. At community meetings this fall, they voiced their frustration with inadequate responses from the people who are supposed to serve and protect their communities. Although murders have declined, three last year versus 103 in 1990, quality of life issues bother these residents – problems they say the police don’t care about because a body isn’t on the ground.
Best thinks social demographics plays a role. “You see these kids,” she says, “They have no future and nothing to do. And nobody cares about them because they’re poor and Dominican. If these were white kids from a good neighborhood, you’d have police there every night.” Taking matters into her own hands, she befriended the people she says deal weed and crack on her street so they would know her when she walks home from the subway at 2 a.m.
After a few months, however, they stopped talking to her. Best soon discovered someone started a rumor that her boyfriend, a 6-foot-6 opera singer, was a cop. She isn’t worried. “Truthfully, I’ve never feared for my own safety,” she says. “They don’t want to hurt me; they want to kill each other.” She simply wishes she did not have to put up with the resulting noise and the drugs.
Olga Tello has similar problems. She lives in 640 Fort Washington Avenue and constantly complains about noise and nuisances like drunks sleeping in her building’s lobby, something new tenants have to adjust to when they first move in. “We pay too much rent” for that, she says with a thick *Argentinian accent.
Her battle, which she has been fighting since 1997 when she first moved in with her husband, Tom, is akin to a war of attrition. Before moving uptown, she was a live-in housekeeper for a family on 72nd Street. She was excited to have her own place and her new building looked nice from the outside, but she soon found out it was full of parties and drugs, and the elevator was in bad shape. She and Tom often complained to the superintendent and eventually held tenant meetings. Tello also asked the landlord if she could make a small garden; he obliged and contributed some money. He also fixed the elevator.
But some tenants didn’t appreciate the changes. They heckled Tello and played games with her. One night when Tom was away driving a bus to North Carolina, she came home to glue stuck inside her keyhole, preventing her from getting inside. In another incident, someone dumped bleach in her garden.
She turned to the police but she says they offered little assistance. Despite her constant calls to the precinct, officers rarely showed up. “Tommy went so many times to talk with Inspector Monaghan,” the previous commanding officer, she says. “They were not helping us.”
Tello turned into a community activist, morphing her building meetings into community gatherings in 1998. Her efforts proved successful. “We cleaned the buildings, but it was not easy,” she says.
These community meetings have become popular uptown, drawing the interest of public officials. Once a year, Tello manages to bring together officers from the 34th Precinct, Councilman Robert Jackson, representatives from transit and sanitation, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
She also attends the 34th Precinct’s monthly community meetings, which she says are especially ineffective because the police listen to public complaints but rarely follow up on them. She thinks the meetings are all for show. “I see people complaining over and over about the issues, and they don’t fix them,” she says.
She urges neighborhood residents to make Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly aware of their concerns. “Write to the mayor, write to Kelly,” she says. “Let the officials know that we’re not going to put up with this nonsense no more.”
Her frustration has reached a tipping point. “There are wonderful police officers who do their job and are nice,” she says, “but I cannot say that about the 34th Precinct… They never helped me with the problems I had here.” On the rare occasion they responded to one of her calls, she says “the police would come, and they would always have an attitude. And they would never do anything.”
Deputy Inspector Andrew Capul, the 34th Precinct’s commanding officer, sat on the panel at Tello’s Oct. 26 community meeting. Most residents voiced problems outside his jurisdiction (overflowing garbage cans, for example), but he briefly addressed quality of life issues, acknowledging noise complaints and such problems as a flurry of vehicle break-ins on Cabrini Boulevard (15 autos were stolen in a 28 day period this fall).
Capul tried to assuage the crowd by citing his officers’ efforts. For the vehicles, the precinct now parks a car with an embedded camera on the street. He also said the police try to respond to all noise complaints but have trouble doing anything because the volume often dies down before they arrive.
He used the same defenses at the 34th Precinct’s monthly meeting just before Thanksgiving. Unlike Tello’s community gathering, this night focused on police issues and a slew of officers attended, including Executive Officer Jose Navarro and traffic Officer Steven McManus.
On this occasion, Capul addressed quality of life issues first, noting a rise in complaints and growing community outrage. Upfront, he said: “If I had to give us a grade, I wouldn’t give us an outstanding. We can do better.”
Elizabeth Porter certainly believes that. She lives with her daughter on West 181st Street across from Cabrini Boulevard in an apartment she calls the “investment of my life,” but is constantly bothered by noise late into the night. Her living room, complete with VHS movies like “My Cousin Vinny,” overlooks 181st, a popular thoroughfare.
Mexican restaurant Agave Azul and cigar shop Fumee, both owned by the same man, are directly across the street from Porter’s living room window. Fumee offers valet service on several nights, which blocks parking spaces available to area residents, forcing people – often the shop’s patrons – to double-park.
This wouldn’t be a problem on a side street, but 181st connects to the West Side Highway. When cars are blocked, drivers honk incessantly and yell for people to come out and move their vehicles. When someone appears, a war of words ensues. It gets so loud that “it sounds like people are standing in your living room,” Porter says.
Fumee’s patrons also drink on the street and leave the shop drunk late at night, she charges, even though Fumee doesn’t have a liquor license. Porter has logged many complaints about the noise and the illegal drinking, of which she has photos.
Just as with Best and Tello, Porter complains that the police rarely respond to her calls. She is convinced they don’t respond because they themselves are Fumee’s patrons and sometimes double-park their squad cars – something she also has photographed.
Porter is fed up. Inspector Capul speaks to her personally at meetings but does little to follow up. “For many years he was treating me as a crazy old lady,” she says, adding that he listens to her and then throws out statistics proving the police are doing a good job. “He has a pitch,” Porter says. “He uses the same words to pat himself on the back.”
She’s also fed up with 311. When she calls, she gets a reference number to track the complaint’s status online and will check hours later only to find the complaint is closed, yet the cars remain double-parked or Fumee’s patrons continue to make noise. In some instances, she waits for the police to arrive and finds the complaint closed even though no one responded.
When officers do show up, they do very little. In one complaint she filed on July 21, 2008, at 8:37 p.m. because Fumee’s patrons were drinking outside and making noise, an officer wrote: “IT’S A FRIGGIN’ RESTAURANT BAR WITH A SIDEWALK EXTESION.”
The 311 complaint line also baffles Best. “I would always call 311 and they would rarely come,” she says. “And when they come, they shut the guys up for two minutes and then they get loud again.”
Porter feels like she has nowhere to turn. Calling the precinct is futile. “There is nobody that you can get connected with at the precinct that is going to give you a straight answer.” In the rare occasion someone says they will put an officer on her problem, she has no way to track the complaint like she does on 311.
Porter used to vent at Community Board 12 meetings, which includes the 34th Precinct, but she worries she can’t trust them considering Chair Manny Velazquez recently resigned because of shady liquor license negotiations. Community and precinct meetings are the only other outlets, but they sap her morale. “You go, you let your heart out, you get your heart going, and nothing comes of it,” she says.
Inspector Capul promises to take action on unanswered 311 complaints; he publicly vowed to sit down with two key officers before year-end to discuss how they can do a better job, focusing on chronic problems like noise complaints, which make up about 75 percent of 311 calls.
Capul says improving 311 response times and making sure the police show up are his priorities, but cautions that each precinct has around 50 fewer officers than five years ago. Cars dispatched to 311 calls sometimes get diverted to more pressing issues.
Capul also says the police are doing well in some areas. In 25 burglaries this year, the police traced fingerprints or DNA at the scene and tracked down the invaders; in a recent shooting on Sherman Avenue, the suspect was caught within a block and a half.
Tello doesn’t deny that some officers and precincts do a good job, but she wants accountability on the issues that constantly affect her. She’s also sick of hearing crime statistics cited at public gatherings because she has nothing to compare them to, something she fears makes the police look unjustly good.
Best would also like to see accountability. The 34th precinct meeting was her first, but she attended because she’s had enough.
“I used to think people who complained at community meetings were losers,” she says. “Now I’m one of them.”
*The story originally misstated Tello’s former nationality: she comes from Argentina, not Venezuela.