BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | In some countries where police are overwhelmed by crime, it’s not unusual for residents to hire private security in order to feel safe. In Latin America, private security guards actually outnumber police.
It seems the trend is now catching on here in New York City — specifically in Greenwich Village, where several block associations have hired guards. And, in one case, until just recently — the guards were packing heat.
The conditions that the security firms are hired to address in the Village include open drug dealing, smoking crack and injecting heroin in public and drug users and homeless people using stoops and stairwells as open-air toilets.
In July, a group of concerned residents formed the W. Ninth 9th Block Association (W9BA) in response to “repeated attempted overnight break-ins, physical fights and acts of aggression, including physical violence.”
One of their first acts was to contract with Excel Security for a six-week pilot starting in late July. Under the program, an unarmed security guard walked the block from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, while a “branded security vehicle” did additional drive-throughs from midnight to morning. The pilot ran through Labor Day, after which the association will assess the results.
W9BA did not respond to a request for comment.
However, a member of the similarly newly formed West 4th / Mac 6th Block Association was eager to talk — more like vent in frustration — about what the area has been going through and how they’ve been trying to address the situation. The association covers the one block of W. Fourth Street between MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue — a main route between Washington Square Park and the W. Fourth Street subway station.
Brian Maloney, the association’s de facto leader, is a condo owner on the block. He formerly worked in P.R. and art consulting and now helps people organize their spaces. A father with young children, he was moved to get involved with trying to improve the street’s quality of life when he simply could not take what he was seeing and experiencing anymore.
‘It was another level’
“It started a few years ago in 2019,” he said. “It started to get so bad. In 2019 we started to see an uptick with just the E.D.P.’s [emotionally disturbed persons]. It was another level…the blatant drug use, the blatant drug dealing.
“I’ve lived in this city for 37 years,” Maloney said. “I went through the ’80s crack epidemic. I feel like this is a different level. And it’s not just me that feels this way.”
As things began to deteriorate, residents and local officials did a walk-through of Washington Square Park — which is a source of many of the problems the surrounding blocks are dealing with. State Senator Brad Hoylman was on the tour, as were members of the Village Alliance business improvement district and Bob Gormley, the district manager of Community Board 2. Residents also met one night with an assistant district attorney to talk about their area’s issues, Maloney said.
“It was nothing but lip service,” he scoffed of the A.D.A. meeting. “One of the responses was our neighborhood was not so bad, ‘so we’re allocating our resources elsewhere.’ The default is ‘just wealthy people complaining,’ and that’s a load of crap.
“I ran a soup kitchen in Times Square — we fed 500 people a day,” he bristled. “Don’t tell me I’m an elitist.” At another point, he noted of the block association members, “We’re all compassionate liberals.”
One of their members is an A-list rock star. The block features a residentially converted church — formerly known as the “Peace Chruch,” which was also an organizing hotbed of the early gay-rights movement — that’s now high-end condos. But, according to Maloney, the street’s residents range from low- and middle-income to the wealthy.
Clouds of crack smoke
On the day of his interview with The Village Sun, Maloney said, “I’d say I saw four people with crack vials today. The other day a woman blew a big lungful of crack dust into my face as I was passing by. She just turned her head and blew.
“It’s O.K. to sleep on the sidewalk — we’d prefer they move to a more comfortable place to sleep,” he said. “But shooting up, defecating. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked down the block and had a full cloud of crack blown in my face. I mean, I hold my breath.”
Another common sight is crack smokers sitting on the block’s residential building stoops — the steps of a residentially converted former parish house that is the closest stoop to the park is a favorite. The smokers often light up under a T-shirt or even a garbage bag, hiding their activity and creating their own personal “crack dens.” Frightening residents, one of the druggies also recently somehow set a small fire on the former parish house stoop.
Disturbing scenes daily
Maloney said his young kids are regularly confronted with disturbing scenes, such as a man covered with feces lying in front of their building or an unconscious woman — a transgender woman named Bethany — with a needle sticking out of her hand. In the case of the latter, Maloney said he tried to make it a teachable moment for his daughter, telling her, “Look at her hair, nails and skin — this is what happens when you make bad choices.” The young girl, who sounds wise beyond her years, responded that she didn’t care about all that, saying, “I just don’t want to die.” Also recently, a man was standing with his penis casually exposed over the top of his waistband as Maloney and one of his kids walked by, he said.
Maloney said he and his neighbors know the street people by names or nicknames. Ginger is a young guy with red hair, who got cleaned up and was doing O.K., but then rapidly relapsed. He can regularly be seen scurrying up to the top of the former parish house stoop to hit the crack pipe under a T-shirt up to 15 times a day or whisking through Ben’s Pizza trying to scrounge up money for another hit. (Because the block is within the landmarked Greenwich Village Historic District, it’s apparently a bureaucratic hassle simply to install a gate to seal off the stoop to trespassers.) As for Bethany, the transgender, Maloney said she has been visibly sinking and, as a result, is “losing her trans.”
“Where is the mental health outreach?” he demanded. “Where is the presence of the police? It feels like we’re just hitting our heads against the wall. I’m just asking for a little bit of visibility from the police.”
Guards carried guns
Earlier this summer, the association conducted a survey and the findings were that the members felt police were not doing a good enough job and that the only choice was to hire private security. On the advice of a local security expert, whom Maloney did not want to identify in this article, they decided to hire guards — with handguns.
“We were told, ‘Every dealer is carrying a weapon’ — and that’s when we upped our level to armed guards,” Maloney explained. “He said, ‘Look, if you’re hiring guards, they need to be armed in your area.’ We don’t want to, but it’s gotten to a point where you have to. It’s all connected to the park. It’s all connected to the drug dealing.”
The cost of hiring the two guards was not cheap, $18,000 a month.
They were dressed in black, but it was clear they were security, he said. In the first two weeks, the guards had 200 “interactions” on the block. Their shifts were rotated — sometimes during the day, sometimes at night — to keep things “unpredictable.”
Blatant drug dealing
Something that is very predictable, though, two to three times a week, according to Maloney, is a silver-gray Dodge Caravan that parks on the block. A drug dealer who sits inside tosses crack out of its window onto the sidewalk. The buyers make their deals in the park — then a text message is sent to the pitcher in the car to alert him to make the toss.
As a result, there’s a simple reason disheveled people are always walking along the street bent over and picking at things on the sidewalk and along the curb, Maloney explained: “The junkies and addicts walk down the block stooped over looking for crack packets or heroin that someone might have missed.”
Police allegedly say that because the car keeps changing its temporary South Carolina license plates, it makes it hard to do anything, the activist said. However, Maloney countered, “It’s the bail reform — they don’t arrest them because nothing can be done. They all know the loopholes now. They’re not stupid people — frankly, they’re running the show.”
However, the activist said he has observed one thing that works to get the troubled souls to move off his block: “If you say, ‘I’m going to call E.M.S.’… They don’t want to go to Bellevue. They’ll get up and go away.
‘It’s all connected’
“It’s all connected,” he said, “the drugs, the emotionally disturbed people and the lack of things being done — that’s the architecture of it.
“It was bad under de Blasio but it’s gotten worse under Adams,” he charged. “Alvin Bragg — I don’t understand,” he said of the Manhattan district attorney. “I want him to come at night and take a walk on our block.”
The conditions on the street continue to deteriorate, he said. Meanwhile, the Open Restaurants dining shed of Galanga Thai restaurant down the block isn’t helping matters, either, he said, noting, “We call it the ‘Crack Shack’ — it should be torn down.” With what he sees going on in the structure, he said, “I don’t know who would eat there.”
He noted that the block association on Washington Place, led by Nancy Bass, the owner of the Strand Book Store, also has its own private security.
Some residents fleeing
Some of the W. Fourth Street block’s residents are so frustrated that they have decided to leave. Maloney said it’s not about property values at all, but quality of life.
“It has nothing to do with property values,” he said. “I’ve talked to everyone on the block about this. People are on fire.”
Two weeks after speaking with The Village Sun, Maloney reported that — after having private security for the month of August — the block association had decided to discontinue the guards, at least for now, and regroup with their “security team” — local security consultants — to decide on next steps.
“While most residents on the block were encouraged and felt some progress was being made, it became obvious that it would only work if we had 24/7 guards — and that cost is just too prohibitive,” he said. “The minute our guards went off duty was when our safety and security again became compromised with the same criminal/illegal activities.”
Begging politicians for help
Although Maloney is the most vocal resident on his block about the street conditions, others are just as incensed. On the condition their writers remain anonymous, he shared letters that some of them recently penned to local politicians to air their concerns. The letters were addressed to Councilmembers Christopher Marte and Erik Bottcher and state Senator Brad Hoylman. The block and park are in Marte’s district, though Bottcher’s district starts right at Sixth Avenue.
Maloney said Nicole Barth from Bottcher’s office got back to them and that she was “very helpful,” but that Hoylman and Marte did not respond.
“Brian [Maloney] has expressed it beautifully but I’ll just reiterate it — we fear for our lives!” one woman wrote in her letter to the politicians. “No one in this city, especially in this historic neighborhood, should have to live like this. As a woman I’m terrified to go out at night, but the situation is just as bad in daylight. We’ve had to take things into our own hands but we cannot become vigilantes (though it’s tempting!). We’ll be the ones arrested while these miscreants are allowed to trespass on our properties, desecrate them and make a drug den of our street. Please help. We are desperate. And angry. And we will take it as high up as we can.”
‘Alarming criminal activity’
“As a new resident of W. Fourth Street, I am alarmed over the criminal activity going on outside my window each night,” another woman wrote. “We moved in May 1, and since then have called police over and over again, with minimal intervention. The offenders scatter for the moment, but are right back within minutes. The blatant drug dealing and drug use goes on all night, every night, right outside our window, along with loud verbal altercations and violent threats, blocking us from walking into our homes by occupying the stoops, urinating, masturbating and defecating in entrances and alongside the buildings, and who knows what else. A large group congregates at the structure belonging to Galanga and on the stoop of 147 W. Fourth. We have to alter our routes to avoid this area, especially at night. … If everyone moves out of this area as a result of these disgusting conditions, what and who do you have left? We are scared to leave our homes and more fearful when we return, knowing that we are walking into a dangerous situation. We didn’t move to NYC to be stuck in our apartments. The fact that residents are having to compensate for the city’s failures is a disgrace. It seems like nothing is being done by officials. Ignoring the situation is not a solution. I am also tired of hearing the excuses. If ‘your hands are tied,’ then figure out how to untie them. PLEASE DO SOMETHING TO FIX THIS.”
‘It sickens and saddens us’
A third woman wrote, “My husband and I moved to W. Fourth Street just before our daughter started kindergarten (she is now entering 8th grade) and it sickens and saddens us to see our block — which had been such a wonderfully vibrant, diverse and SAFE area — turn into exactly the environment Brian has described in his e-mail. We used to celebrate everything from Halloween and Gay Pride to electoral victories on our stoop. That fire [on the parish house stoop] and those addicts that you see in those photos now populate our stoop.
“My family is currently looking into other areas we would like to move to because the situation has become so intolerable. My 10-year-old son literally asks when we can move to the UES [Upper East Side], where it is clean and he and my husband don’t get accosted and have bottles thrown at their heads in the morning when they walk to the subway to go to school, or come out to see the front windshield of our car completely smashed in (after they stopped taking the subway because the W 3rd Street station become so bad in the early mornings). My daughter used to walk to the Chase bank on the corner to wait for the school bus alone when she was in lower school. Now, despite being in middle school, I need to walk her to that corner so that she doesn’t get accosted by addicts for money. Imagine being a child and watching people defecate on the street, injecting themselves with needles and smoking from pipes, and generally being violent and psychotic on a regular basis.”
Merchants on the block aren’t happy about the street scene, either. When asked about the conditions, one local manager spat in frustration, “You mean that mess out on the street?”
‘Call me whatever you want’
Maloney said he’s gotten a bit of backlash for making noise about his street: A Cornelia Street resident, responding to organizing posters that were posted on W. Fourth St. when the block association was forming, blasted the effort as “racist.”
“Call me whatever you want. O.K., right, call me ‘an elitist,’” Maloney declared. “I just want to protect my children. I get groceries for the elderly people here because they’re afraid to walk down the street. Everyone should feel safe. And a city should provide that level of support for its residents.
“We love the energy and vibe [of the Village],” he said. “But don’t be a criminal. Don’t shoot up and smoke crack. Don’t defecate on the steps. … We want safety and security for everyone. We want help for the mentally ill. And we want the park for everyone to enjoy, not just the criminals.”
Marte: ‘We’re gathering info’
In an interview, Marte told The Village Sun that he’s gathering information on the situation and wants to meet with the residents, probably this month when people are back from vacation.
“We saw the e-mails and we wanted to meet with the [Sixth] Precinct and the Parks Department to make sure we get a firm picture of what’s going on,” he said. “There’s been some different strategies.
“Right now, we’re just gathering information. Maybe we’ll meet first to hear their concerns. Maybe we’ll also include Councilmember Bottcher. To be honest, we’ve been getting e-mails about this since our election. We did a walk-through three months ago of the W. Fourth Street station and saw some improvement.
“A few months ago they closed down the [park’s] northwest corner. It had mixed reviews,” he noted. “What was happening in the northwest corner spilled over to other parts of the precinct or surrounding streets. It helped a little bit, but it just sort of moved it around.”
At the end of August — about two weeks after The Village Sun’s conversation with Marte — he and Bottcher and a member of the district attorney’s office did a walk-through of Washington Square Park.
Hoylman did not respond to a request for comment for this article. While he won his Democratic primary race on Aug. 23 and so seems set to win reelection, due to redistricting, as of January his district will no longer include Washington Square Park.
D.A. changes on crack arrests
Captain Stephen Spataro, the commanding officer of the Sixth Precinct, said changes at the D.A.’s office have made it more difficult to make arrests for crack, among other things.
“It is illegal to possess and sell crack,” he stated. “What we are seeing is that the D.A.’s office is not prosecuting crack in the same way [as before], with reduced charges for dealers and declining to prosecute people with crack pipes with crack residue, which they had prosecuted for decades. We encourage people with information regarding drug sales to let us know.”
However, just in time for the start of New York University classes, police manpower is up in the park. Yet, as Spataro noted, more police in the park tends to have the side effect of pushing problem uses into the surrounding streets.
“We have officers being redeployed from all over [Patrol Borough] Manhattan South to assist us with the park both day and night,” he said. “As we’ve seen success with this deployment, there was an expected displacement effect. To counter that, we have posted many of those officers on MacDougal Street, Waverly Place, Sixth Avenue, etc. where there are conditions related to the park.”
In another challenge police are facing, Spataro added that, over all, the precinct’s number of officers is much lower than it was in previous decades. He also said that bail reform — which went into effect in January 2020, right before the start of the pandemic — has, without question, been an issue in trying to keep down crime in and around the park.
Police and other agencies cleared out and fenced off the park’s northwest corner on a Friday night a couple of weeks ago. But Spataro said that was done mainly to keep a handle on homeless encampments there and was just a one-day closure.
More police in the park
Last Tuesday evening, The Village Sun saw six police officers in Washington Square Park. Two were circling the fountain and four more were posted on the park’s west side — two sitting just east of the park’s northwest corner and two standing by the park’s entrance at Washington Place. One of the latter said the park’s police presence had been beefed up for the last month because, as he put it, “A lot of crime was coming out of the park.”
As for the trend of local block associations hiring private security guards, Captain Spataro embraced it — and even quoted Greenwich Village’s most famous urban planner.
“We welcome all partners willing to work with us,” he said, “and are pleased about having additional responsible ‘eyes on the street,’ as Jane Jacobs would describe it.”