Wednesday, November 01, 2006

It was supposed to be a crime story

Prof. W. assigned a crime story, but the police wouldn't talk to me. So this is what came of the assignment. It has not been edited yet, but I thought I'd post it since nothing original has gone up in awhile.

In the parking lots of the LaGuardia Houses, a public housing project on New York’s Lower East Side, posters featuring a black and white photograph of an anonymous man talking on the telephone were mounted on parking signs. The posters read, “You don’t have to reveal your identity to help solve a violent crime.” And then below, in smaller print, “Crime doesn’t pay. Crime Stoppers does. Up to $2000.”

Crime Stoppers, a program sponsored by the New York City Police Department to encourage citizens to report criminal activity, puts up signs like these directly after a crime has occurred. According to Detective Polesovsky, of the NYPD Crime Stoppers tip hotline, residents usually tear the signs down soon after they go up. The signs in the parking lots of the LaGuardia Houses appeared brand new and untouched.

On Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006, two men were shot in the courtyard here. The only details disclosed by the police were that one man was shot in the back around 9:40 P.M., and was found about a block away at the East Broadway F train subway station; the other was found in the courtyard; one was 58; both were taken to area hospitals with non-life threatening wounds; and no arrests were initially made.

Ethan Rouen, crime reporter for the New York Daily News who was sent to the scene the night of the shooting, said in an email, “I don’t know much about LaGuardia, but my impression was that this is not a rare occurrence. It is one of the nastier housing projects, which is odd because it’s so close to 1 PP (1 Police Plaza, NYPD headquarters).”

It might seem, based on the scanty details and the lack of witnesses coming forward, that violent crime is a regular occurrence in the LaGuardia Houses. The New York City Housing Authority development was constructed in 1957 and named for former mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, who founded the public housing agency during his time in office. The complex consists of three brick buildings joined by vast courtyards and bordered by Rutgers and Montgomery Streets to the East and West, and by Madison and Cherry Streets to the North and South, respectively.

Yet the development does not appear “nasty” to the casual daytime observer. On a recent Friday afternoon, neighbors chatted on benches lining gravel-covered walkways between the towering residences, and teenagers played basketball and handball on the LaGuardia courts.

According to Jessica Thomas, president of the LaGuardia Tenants’ Association and 40-year LaGuardia resident, “people are very neighborhood-oriented…They look out for each other.” Thomas said she got some calls after the shooting, but not many, and that in general, people felt safe.

The feeling of safety is no accident. There are several security measures in place to help protect residents. For one, police officers are regularly on site, thanks to a close partnership between the Tenants’ Association and Police Service Area 4, a branch of the NYPD that covers New York City housing developments.

Plus, as part of a Housing and Urban Development regulation, the Tenants’ Association must organize a nightly tenant patrol, where residents sit in the lobbies of each building from 6 to 9 P.M. each night and monitor who goes in and out.

Thomas also noted that since the city installed two outdoor security cameras (each building already has several indoor cameras), “It’s been really quiet” in the development, and they expect to receive seven more outdoor cameras within the next year.

The shooting occurred outside in the courtyard, not far from the security cameras’ range. Why did the cameras’ presence not deter the shooter(s)? Thomas believes that the two men simply did not care.

Still, this recent violent incident is not enough to frighten Thomas, who fondly reminisced about growing up in the projects in an era when people frequently left their doors unlocked. She and her friends would often show up for meals at each others’ apartments, and their mothers never seemed to be fazed by the surprise dinner guests.

The atmosphere is less trusting these days, and Thomas said she could have left a long time ago, but enjoys the diversity of the LaGuardia Houses. The ten-year wait list to get into LaGuardia is evidence enough that it is a place where residents are inclined to stay put and work to prevent crime, rather than flee to escape it. “If it was high, high crime, I wouldn’t be here,” Thomas explained. “I don’t feel afraid.”

© 2006 by Suzanne

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