The scene outside 520 West 140th Street is like many in West Harlem. Drug dealers in North Face jackets maintain watch with cell phones in front of the yellow brick house, located at the hub of New York’s wholesale cocaine zone. They scatter when police arrive, congregate when an SUV pulls up to unload bags or wads of dollar bills.
This street, between Broadway and Hamilton Place, is notorious for drug activity. Until recently, the police had it barricaded to block off traffic. Residents pinpoint several buildings on the block as narcotics spots, including number 520.
Compared with some of its neighbors, 520 isn’t so far gone. One law enforcement official says that the police have received far fewer complaints about it than they have about nearby buildings where landlords are clearly complicit with drug traffickers.
But the owner of 520 is a player in a different arena. Susan Lasher is married to Brooklyn City Councilmember Howard Lasher, and she is planning to run for his seat later this year. Some residents of 140th Street are enraged that these public figures are not helping them regain control of their block from the drug gangs, who brazenly work in the open. The dealers verbally harass residents and urinate on their front stoops, deposit trash on the sidewalk and blare music at all hours.
The neighbors regularly appeal to the 30th Precinct and District Attorney’s office to do something about the house, which they say has a long history of drug links. In recent months, they claim, they have seen peddlers they recognize from Hamilton Place go in and out of the building with bags.
Police report several arrests on the premises in recent years, including two for criminal trespassing last July. Two years ago, a man was convicted for a 1994 shooting homicide on the property. “This house has been a problem since Lasher bought it in 1985,” says one block resident, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals by drug gangs. “People have been shot there. Dealers have lived there. They hang around there.” Adds another neighbor: “But do the Lashers care? No–they’ve never lived in the neighborhood.”
The neighbors have appealed to elected officials and police to look into their allegations, and local Councilmember Stanley Michels has repeatedly brought up complaints about the building to the Lashers. Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau’s office is investigating drug activity in West Harlem as part of a coordinated initiative with the police to combat cocaine traffic, and members of his staff have met with Lasher and her building manager over the years to discuss 520’s security.
Lasher, who lives in Brooklyn, insists that after some rough times, there have been no troubles for the past three years. “I think it’s a bizarre accusation,” Lasher says of the neighbors’ complaints. “There were times in the past when we had problems with tenants as well as visitors. But I am not really aware of problems now.” She does acknowledge that “every time we speak, Stan Michels asks me about that building.”
The 1980s and early 1990s were truly bad, Lasher readily admits. Doors were smashed in. A superintendent linked to drug traffickers installed illegal tenants behind Lasher’s back. Another tenant turned out to be a dealer. But the last drug users who lived there, a young couple, left a year and a half ago, Lasher says. She adds that she trusts the current superintendent, a tenant who has lived in her building for several years, and stays in constant contact with her. (Lasher herself doesn’t visit the premises very often but does drive by every two or three weeks.) For several years now she has participated in the Trespass Affidavit Program, which gives police the right to patrol the building and arrest suspicious visitors. The program is a major piece of the joint D.A.-NYPD crackdown on wholesale drug activity.
The last time Lasher recalls trouble at 520 was in mid March, when police were called in over an “altercation” between a tenant and a female visitor. But Lasher says she was unaware of last year’s trespassing arrests.
She says her biggest lapse has been her compassion, by providing housing to people down on their luck. Stressing that she has lost money on the six-unit building, where rents range from $650 to $750 a month, Lasher recalls how she once rented to HIV-positive people enrolled in a city program and allowed a homeless man to sleep on the outside steps. One current tenant has fallen behind in rent payments, but Lasher says she doesn’t have the heart to kick him out.
All the same, Lasher admits that she cannot be on top of everything. “I try to be very, very diligent…. I’m careful to the best of my ability,” she says. “But things do happen.”
Nothing, however, has inspired Lasher to get rid of the building. Encouraged by the sale of townhouses nearby for half a million dollars–nearly 10 times the $62,500 she paid in 1985–Lasher intends to hold onto her property for now. “This neighborhood is changing and people are rehabbing,” she says. “So why sell?”