83rd Precinct

Jacob Silberberg

The 83rd Precinct building was constructed on a site cleared by a devastating fire during the neighborhood's darkest days.

This is the second chapter of City Limits’ 2009 magazine issue on Bushwick, a community at the center of New York City’s map and the epicenter of 21st Century change.

On a sultry Sunday this August, two groups of old men play dominoes on tables on the Knickerbocker Avenue sidewalk outside Maria Hernandez Park. Inside the park, which covers a whole block, infants lie next to moms or nannies on the grass, and older kids swarm over the shiny new playground in the center. Near the basketball cage, a small-squad softball game gets under way. Church ladies distribute bookmarks bearing the Ten Commandments. A shirtless, sculpted man does set after set on a chin-up bar while his decidedly less sculpted friend watches. They’re next to a plaza where skateboarders roll laconically between stunts. The summer wind carries a faint chorus of ambulance sirens from nearby Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and ice-cream-truck jingles and car radios from the streets.

Lisette Jimenez, who has lived in the area for 38 years, stands on a shaded knoll. She says that day’s picture is starkly different from what one would have seen before the Bloomberg administration. “Oh definitely—especially the park. Ten years ago, this was all gang-related,” she says, gesturing in a wide circle. “You had to walk through very fast and find the nearest exit. No strolling.”

When asked to reflect on the past eight years, people in 11237—be they residents, real estate agents, pastors, activists or politicians—first point to the reduction in crime. Adam Schwartz, a local historian, agrees. There was a music festival at Maria Hernandez Park earlier in the summer. In the Bushwick of old, he says simply, “You wouldn’t have had festivals in parks.”

Glenn Ho, owner of Hoskie, a meatpacking plant several blocks north of the park, says that area is also less seedy than it was. “Years ago, we would have hookers walking around the blocks,” he says. “Those girls seem to have retired.”

In a place once famous for disorder and violence, safety has changed the game for residents and business owners. Behind the feeling of security is a complex story, reflecting both successes and failures on the city’s part, some by the Bloomberg administration and some spanning two decades.

Maria Hernandez Park is at the heart of the 11237 ZIP code, a slab of north Brooklyn running northwest to southeast along the Queens border, a sort of rectangle 40 blocks long and five blocks wide at its thickest. At the north end, which starts south of Grand Street, the area is heavily industrial—populated by metal factories and concrete plants, as well as warehouses. South of Flushing Avenue, the zone turns residential. Most commercial activity is along Knickerbocker Avenue, which runs the length of the area and anchors the densest housing of the zone—a ridge of tan apartment buildings. Turning off Knickerbocker toward Queens, one sees mostly smaller buildings, including some semidetached houses. Myrtle Avenue slices through the width of the area and separates the blocks of chain stores and big retailers in the west from quieter streets dominated by walk-ups and bodegas in the east. At the south end, the ZIP code ends at the Cemetery of the Evergreens.

According to the Department of City Planning, that area of Brooklyn (Community Board 4, which encompasses 11237 and the rest of Bushwick) is 67 percent Latino and about 24 percent black, with the remainder split between whites and Asians. In 2008, 48 percent of the population received some form of public income support—mostly Medicaid, but also welfare and disability income.

Forty years ago, the statistics would have been starkly different. Bushwick was German and Italian until suburbanization drew an increasing number of white families away in the 1960s. They were replaced first by middle-class blacks, then by poorer blacks and Latinos. Exactly why the neighborhood turned less affluent is still debated. Some attribute it to federal immigration laws that choked off the flow of middle-class newcomers to areas like Bushwick. Others blame city cutbacks in other areas for causing conditions that led people to flee east. In any case, the newcomers came, and more of the whites began to leave. Real estate agents redlined. Property values sank, and some owners set their properties alight to collect insurance. Others just moved out.

The decline became a nosedive when the 1977 blackout struck and the neighborhood erupted in riots. Sister Elizabeth Nickels, then a school principal in the area, sat on her stoop and watched people she knew loot stores. Ralph Ehresman grew up in 11237 and was a teenager hanging out with friends when they happened upon the violence. His mom worked as an aide in the local precinct, so he asked a police officer for help. “He said, ‘Kid, you’re on your own,’ ” Ehresman recalls.

The explosion of violence earned the neighborhood a measure of infamy. When New York hit its ’70s nadir, Bushwick symbolized the despondency. “We had 1,820 abandoned lots in the district—worse than East New York or Brownsville,” says Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the powerful Brooklyn Democratic chairman who represents the area. “Buses used to have tours for people from Europe to see the ruins.” While 11237 was mostly spared the fires that plagued Bush wick’s southern portion, it followed the rest of the neighborhood down.

In some ways, the riots were a beginning, not an end, to the problems. Many minority homeowners were terrified by the violence and sold out and left. Stripped of their stabilizing presence, the area decayed further. The park where the men play dominoes on an August Sunday used to be called Bushwick Park but was renamed for Maria Hernandez, a neighborhood resident who organized her community to oppose drug dealers before being killed by shots fired into her home. She died in 1989, a full 12 years after the riots made Bushwick synonymous with the “death of New York.”

“There are a couple big events in Bush wick’s history,” says Nicole Marwell, a political science professor at Baruch College and author of Bargaining for Brooklyn, a book that examines the role of neighborhood organizations in reviving areas like Bushwick. “The riots were one. The next big moment was the crack epidemic. Bushwick was the center of crack in the city and maybe in the Northeast.”

* * * * *

Of course, Bushwick was no utopia before the riots. “I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world. But there was a lot of violence,” Ehresman says. “There were race riots then and again. We had the Italian cafés on the block. They had a lot of issues with race, especially if they saw a black guy with a white girl.” And drugs were a problem well before crack. In the ’70s, angel dust was in such demand that people would break in to Bushwick funeral homes to steal the embalming fluid, which could be combined with the dust in a potent cocktail. Soon after the blackout, Bushwick suffered the All-Hands Fire—the biggest conflagration in city history before Sept. 11. On the ashes, the city built a new headquarters for the 83rd Precinct, the police command responsible for most of 11237.

Ehresman, a police officer for 18 years who retired in 2001, worked in that precinct for three years in the late 1980s. By the middle of the decade, the area was already a hot spot for people from Queens and the burbs to score heroin. But crack was signally devastating, partly because its price spurred a raft of other crimes. Crack was so cheap that you could steal virtually anything and pay for a hit. “If you saw something in somebody’s car, you took it,” Ehresman says. “If you sold something for five or 10 bucks, you get a rock.” In other words, crack lowered the threshold for addicts to feed their habit by thieving. The drug triggered more serious crime as well. Cops in the 8-3 had a pool for when the first homicide would happen each year. One year’s contest was over by 12:07 a.m. on Jan. 1.

“There was a sense of lawlessness on the streets,” recalls Realtor Patrick Huang, who works on Wyckoff Avenue and has been in the neighborhood since 1982. “They would sell drugs in front of you. A lot of people were afraid to go out after they came home. There were people working extremely hard, trying to open businesses. But they didn’t know the situation. They spent a lot of time opening up, but no one came.”

According to Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College and historian of the drug trade in New York, crack arrived in Bushwick fairly late. The drug dealers who controlled the local market in the 1980s traded only in heroin and powder coke. “Up until 1990, you had the big, corporate-style dealing organizations that were dominating 11237,” Curtis says. “What happened in ’90 was, they got an infusion of more dealers from Williamsburg because the dealers from Williamsburg were displaced by TNT,” or tactical narcotics teams, an NYPD anti-narcotics push that began in the late 1980s.

The result was more violence. In the 2006 documentary “Bushwick Homecomings,” young men who grew up in Bushwick tell filmmaker Stefanie Joshua about losing friends to drug-related violence. “Personal friends, that I knew?” One man, a former crack dealer named Elijah, said. “Maybe 20 of them got killed. And hundreds, hundreds in jail.”

When crack hit Bushwick, local organizations like the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council—which Lopez, then a social worker, launched a decade earlier—worked with the police to bring TNT to the streets of 11237. The heavy manpower, checkpoints and klieg lights got rid of the dealers, says Marwell. “The bad news was, they pushed them a few blocks away, where they set up again.”

A veteran police officer, still on the force, who works in the 11237 area says, “The real turnaround came in 1993, 1994.” By then, more cops were on the beat after the Dinkins administration pushed through its Safe Streets/Safe City initiative to add 4,000 officers to the NYPD. But an evolution in police attitude, the officer says, is what really altered the neighborhood’s direction. The police force had followed a hands-off policy toward drugs since the 1972 Knapp Commission investigation found that corruption was endemic to the city’s narcotics units. But that started to change after a young police officer’s murder in 1988. The TNT initiative was one step toward more active policing. But the crucial piece came in under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. With Commissioner Bill Bratton and his deputy Jack Maple’s arrival in 1994, the police department adopted a data-driven approach to detecting crime trends and a strategy of relentless follow-up to target the wrongdoers.

“Cops were allowed to do their job,” after Bratton and Maple arrived, says the officer, who did not want to be named because department regulations bar unauthorized contact with the press. “We were allowed to take people off the streets. We came up with focuses [on particular crimes]. Cops were unhandcuffed. We were no longer reactionary—we were proactive. Whether it was going up to people hanging out on a corner and telling them, You can’t hang out here, or making a call to a narcotics squad to say you think they’re dealing drugs. It’s a very methodical process.”

Meanwhile, the police pressure coalesced with other forces to start turning the neighborhood around. “The community organizations got some legs under them. There really are sort of boots on the ground,” Marwell says. “And then a lot of it was how the money starts flowing in.”

Under Mayor Ed Koch, the city began to build housing on vacant lots like the ones that pockmarked Bushwick. The Community Reinvestment Act steered bank lending to property owners in the area. These investments began to take hold just as crime started to retreat. “The more often-told story is, ‘Things were bad, and then the knight in shining armor in the form of Rudy Giuliani or Bill Bratton rides to the rescue.’ There’s a grain of truth to that. But the real estate market’s role—that’s not a story that gets told,” says Travis Wendel, a John Jay College sociologist. In the competition between drug dealers and investors over Bushwick’s space, he says, “The real estate market had a better military organization in the form of the police than drug dealers did in dudes with guns and bats.”

At the same time, Curtis’ research indicates, the crack boom hit a self-correcting point where potential users, seeing the drug’s devastating effects on others, started to stay away from the rock and opted to use marijuana instead. Dealers responded to that lower demand by showing less interest in killing one another over market territory and adapted to police tactics by moving their operations inside.

* * * * *

In 1990, there were 77 murders in the 83rd Precinct. By 1995, there were 17. The number has dropped further, slowly, since then. In 2001, Giuliani’s last year as mayor, there were 12. Last year, there were 10. Rape, robbery, felonious assault, burglary and car theft have also gone down during the Bloomberg years—anywhere from 13 percent to 50 percent. Grand larcenies, however, are up 25 percent.

“I think they’re doing a wonderful job. All I see is these officers, they are trying their damnedest to educate these kids not to lead the community back to the way it was,” says Edward Kormin, a property owner in the area since 1983 and a former resident, who still sits on the community council for the 83rd Precinct. The drug war came to his doorstep, literally. He says one of his superintendents was caught with a big stash of cocaine. Inspector John Bambury, who commanded the 83rd for three years between 2005 and 2008, once climbed onto the roof of one of Kormin’s buildings to make a bust. Kormin now participates in the Formal Trespass Affidavit Program, in which he gives the cops a roster of his tenants and the right to conduct so-called vertical patrols in his building, ostensibly to prevent nonresidents from selling or buying drugs in the building. “I got to tell you, it’s very effective. The cops are doing a damn good job,” he says.

Not everyone in 11237 shares that view. Few New Yorkers expected crime to continue to fall even lower under Bloomberg than it had under Giuliani, especially with a police force that’s at least 9 percent smaller; that crime has continued to hit record lows since 2002 is certainly an achievement. But the tactics the NYPD has used have stirred resentment among some in Bushwick—especially its policy of stopping and questioning increasing numbers of people on the street. From 316,000 stops in 2004, the NYPD’s use of the tactic increased to 531,000 last year and is on pace to hit more than 600,000 this year.

“The way police are operating in our community is not productive,” Eddy Polanco, a local teenager, told the audience at a recent forum on policing sponsored by the community organization Make the Road New York. Another teen, Bernard Green, who claimed that he was arrested on false charges and assaulted last year, said, “These days, cops don’t go for quality arrests. They go for quantity. People are killing people, these drug dealers, but you go after people who are sitting in front of a building.”

The NYPD reported 4,704 stops in the 83rd Precinct during the first six months of 2009. While that’s nowhere near the most in the city (East New York’s 75th Precinct, with nearly 15,000 stops, tops the list), the 83rd ranks in the top 10 for searches by population.

The police stops don’t occur only on the streets. There are also the vertical patrols that landlord Kormin praises, in which officers sweep through buildings, often making arrests for the charge of criminal trespass. In arraignment courts around the city, people busted for criminal trespass often claim that they were visiting a friend or even hanging out in their own building but not carrying identification. “The NYPD is engaged in harassment of the black and Latino communities. That’s not even debatable,” says Noel Leader, a retired detective and co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. “The impetus behind the vertical patrols was to attack the criminal element, which is wonderful, but what it’s become is a numbers generator for the NYPD.” Arrests for criminal trespass in New York increased 55 percent from 2002 to 2008. Only about 42 percent of people arrested on the charge are actually convicted of that crime.

In the first half of 2009, 95 percent of those stopped in the 83rd Precinct were black or Latino. Critics of the NYPD’s stops have pointed to its unequal racial impact, but the department counters that the stops reflect the racial breakdown of suspects. In the 8-3, for example, 99 percent of violent crime suspects in the first six months of this year were identified as black or Latino.

There are other explanations for the racial skew. High-crime areas like Bushwick are more likely to have more cops, thanks to the NYPD’s Operation Impact. They are also likely to have larger minority populations than other areas. More cops mean more stops in those areas, and since most of the people in the area are black or Latino, the people stopped are likely to be of color as well. It’s also true that the department is probably doing a better job of counting these stops, so some of the increase since 2004 might be explained by better record-keeping.

“Ninety percent of stops are just stops,” says the veteran officer. “We’re allowed to invoke our basic right to inquiry. It’s a person’s actions that push it further,” like if they “give me evasive answers or are just trying to be a pain in the ass.” Part of the point is to simply let people know that the police are watching. “You’re not going to screw around if you know you’re being watched.” The officer acknowledges that the tactic can stir resentment but adds, “It’s a tough line to walk. You don’t know what people are doing. That’s the problem. We don’t know everybody. We can’t know. This isn’t Mayberry.”

Most people stopped aren’t doing anything wrong: 92 percent of those stopped in Bushwick this year were released without receiving a summons or being arrested. The most common reason cited by police officers for stopping a person was that someone engaged in “furtive movements,” cited in 2,600 cases. In 760 stops, the person matched a description of a suspect.

About 1 in 20 people was stopped by the cops from January to June, compared with 1 in 250 on the Upper West Side. Crime is higher in Bushwick than on the Upper West Side, by a factor of 1.5. But the number of searches is higher by a factor of 10. For every violent crime in the Upper West Side, the NYPD search 4 people. In Bushwick, they searched 14.

To this officer, the real harassment comes from the other direction—in the form of complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) by people, he says, who are simply annoyed that they have been arrested. The vast majority of these complaints do not result in discipline against police officers. Many complainants never provide evidence beyond their initial complaint, and sometimes the target officer can’t be identified. Even when the CCRB determines an officer is guilty of misconduct, the NYPD gets final say on discipline, and it is lenient. And of course, some accusations against cops are baseless. But whatever their merit or outcome, CCRB cases eat up officers’ time and slow their promotions or transfers. The 83rd is the target of fewer complaints per officer than most other NYPD commands.

Despite those complaints, the officer feels the community in places like Bushwick is behind the NYPD. “Eighty-five percent of the people who back you always backed you. They may not do it publicly. Five percent you’re not ever going to please,” he says. “Ten percent you fight for. They may not be happy with our methods all the time, but they’re happy with what we can do.”

Police-community relations in 11237 took a hit in May 2007, when police detained 32 teenagers who were heading to a wake for a slain friend, who was a gang member. Police arrested the group en route, claiming they wanted to head off possible violence. The charges against the “Bushwick 32” were dismissed, and the city this year agreed to pay $260,000 to the group to settle a lawsuit. The NYPD did not admit wrongdoing.

Asked about concerns about overpolicing, Assemblyman Lopez says “there is a aggressive police presence” in the area but adds, “I don’t think it’s out of hand.” He recalls a night recently when he and some associates were sitting in his Bushwick Democratic Association office on Wyckoff Avenue at 1 a.m. A police car drove by. They shined their flashlight inside to see what was going on at that hour. Then the cops drove on.

* * * * *

For all that’s changed in Bushwick to make it safer, risks still abound. Lisette Jimenez will walk through Maria Hernandez Park during the day without a second thought, but not at night. “No. It’s basically drugs right here,” she says, pointing to Knickerbocker Avenue. “Heroin, crack. Some of my friends smoke weed. Here it’s mostly weed.” Curtis says the corner of Troutman Street and Knickerbocker, just west of the park, is still a bustling heroin market.

James Kelly, the pastor of nearby St. Brigid’s Church, says drugs are indeed a continued presence. So are gangs. “Crips, Latin Kings and Mexican gangs that nobody knows. Nobody seems to have a real handle on the very flexible relationship among the Mexican [gang members]. They seem to be a fluid kind of operation,” says Kelly, who still speaks in a heavy brogue despite some 48 years tending his flock in Bushwick. He winks. “It’s a movable feast, in liturgical terms.”

Drugs, says the veteran cop, are less visible but still available in 11237. “We’ve adapted to their methods, and they’ve adapted to ours,” he says of the drug dealers, who have moved their operations indoors, employing multiple safeguards against detection. “We’ve just got to learn to do our job better.”

Read the next chapter, or return to the series page.