Gay men (especially those who are fairly masculine and can pass for straight) are somewhat used to dealing with being “outed”. I deal with it by being open and honest with people – in that case I can never really be outed, ’cause everyone already knows I’m gay. And that’s one of the reasons why I love NYC – sexual orientation is pretty much never an issue here. But there are other types of closets, and I was “outed” from one of them at last week’s MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) meeting…
After “beating upwind” (sailing into the wind) with home renovations, the next phase of “beating upwind” for us became improving the neighborhood. It’s not like we came to Harlem with the intention of changing Harlem, but when you see heroin dealing and heroin addicts on a daily basis, when people repeatedly call you faggot, when they’re beligerant and threaten you physically, when people repeatedly rob your house, steal your iPad, when they tear the DOB permits off your construction fence, etc. – all in the course of a few short months – you don’t just rollover and be passive – at least Dan and I don’t.
So we started working with our block association and with MMPCIA. And as a result, the two of us are now in charge of MMPCIA’s Safety & Security Committee. That puts us in contact with people all over the Mount Morris Park Historic District and what we’re seeing is similar problems in other parts of the neighborhood. In addition to drug dealing, there are reports of crack houses, illegal gambling, even whore houses. Some residents say they’ve even received death threats. We’ve started working pretty actively with the 28 Precinct and the District Attorney’s office to clean up stuff like that from the neighborhood.
By the way – if you’re thinking of buying in Harlem – don’t let all of this scare you off. Most of the blocks in Mount Morris dealt with their problems long ago. Thing is, our block used to be the roughest block in the neighborhood – it was a literal drug emporium (e.g. our house was a full-on crack house). With three methadone clinics one block up on 124th Street, there continues to be a constant demand for drugs, so getting rid of the last bit of drug dealing on our block has taken more time than it has elsewhere.
Plus, when you do encounter a drug dealer chances are they’ll leave you alone – they don’t want you calling the police – it’s not good for their business. There are people who’ve lived here for years who never encountered what we’ve encountered despite walking past the same things we walk past. In fact they often don’t even understand what’s going on – they just see a bunch of guys hanging out. Other people know what’s going on but for one reason or another (the most common being the safety of their kids), they put up with it.
I’ve always heard neighborhoods change when gay men move in. I thought it was just because we made things pretty. Now I realize another big component is that the straight folks with kids let gay men do their crime prevention for them. I find it sort of amusing since gay men are often portrayed in the media as being weak. The media clearly doesn’t see us through the lens of Stonewall – when drag queens stood up to the NYPD and won.
Anyway… The outing… At last week’s MMPCIA meeting the sergeant who I’ve been working with very closely got up to talk. He’s been great. MMPCIA gave him a 3 page list of problem areas a month ago and since then he’s down the list hitting each area – often more than once. All in all we love the work he’s been doing in the area – he made something like 25 to 28 arrests just at locations mentioned on the list – and apparently his arrest outside the bar Paris Blues yielded a significant quantity of narcotics (and to be clear the owners of the bar were not involved in the dealing). He’s sort of a breath of fresh air since other people at the 28 seem to think we’re whiners since there are parts of the precinct that have far more crime. (All in all crime in the 28 is double to triple what you’d see in Washington Heights, but crime in the historic district is half what it is in the rest of the precinct). But the arrests he’s been able to make (especially the one at Paris Blues) show that there is real crime going on – even in our part of the precinct.
The problem was the sergeant we love so much repeatedly mentioned me and the MMPCIA president by name and then went into detail about exactly how we’ve been working closely with him. That wouldn’t have been a huge problem except there was someone in attendance who’s quite friendly with the drug dealers on our block (I don’t think he’s involved in dealing, but some of the dealers are his friends). He made a beeline to the front of the room at the end of the meeting and tried to get the 3 page list we gave the sergeant. Luckily he didn’t get to see it.
Going to bed that night my mind was racing – wondering what we should do now that the information was out. It felt a lot like being outed – only this time the consequence could be physical violence against me if the people we’re fighting are so inclined. By the morning my mind was made up – double down, don’t fold. If gay history has taught us anything it’s to stand up and be counted. Luckily the MMPCIA president felt the same way (after a period of thinking we should lay low).
Three days after the meeting, narcotics (not the sergeant I’ve been working with) did a major action on our block. They first arrested the drug dealer’s customers and got them to say who sold them the drugs, and then arrested the dealer (who deals out of his SUV). Actually, I don’t know for sure that he was arrested – he (and his wife) weren’t in cuffs when they left with the police. But that was early Friday evening and we haven’t seen him since (knock wood).
There still plenty more to be done in the neighborhood. We’ll be working closely with residents, NYPD and the DA’s office to identify and resolve the problem spots in the historic district. I can’t mention details that aren’t public, but there’s plenty to work on and we’ll continue to “beat upwind” to make our neighborhood better…
Before I end this topic – I’d like to ask you to support NYPD on Stop & Frisk. When you see a stop & frisk action it may look suspicious to you, but realize that often it’s based on information from credible witnesses the officers can’t reveal because it would put the witness at risk. Case and point, a homeless man was sitting next to a playground in the area stroking himself through his pants while looking at the children. He was clearly a pedophile and when confronted by a MMPCIA community member he refused to stop – in fact he was rather belligerent. The police were called and the bystanders didn’t understand what was going on – it looked like the police were just hassling a homeless guy. The police wound up having to be pretty rough with him and he charged police abuse which just fueled the suspicions of the bystanders. It looked bad, but the police were just doing their job – and stopping pedophiles from jacking off to children playing in a playground is a job I think we all want them to do. If you want to see Harlem improve, don’t take stop & frisk away from them – it’s a vital tool they need to do their jobs. That said, I do believe stop & frisk has to be done intelligently, and with “courtesy, professionalism and respect” – there are limits.
Ultimately I think stop & frisk is a problem because good people do nothing about the crime around them. I’ve seen a lot of this in Harlem – too often long time residents just feel powerless to change their community or they rationalize it by saying “it was here before I got here, it will be here after I’m gone”. They’ve stopped beating upwind and are letting the wind blow them and their community onto the rocks. I won’t judge whether that was a valid survival strategy in the past, but from what I’ve seen Harlem has changed a lot and the power is on our side now – we just need to utilize the power we already have. Most of the long-time residents want the community to improve, even if they feel powerless to bring the change about; and the vast majority of homeowners want things to change, even if they do nothing for fear something will happen to their kids. Even many of the renters want change – though they don’t typically have “skin in the game” the same way property owners do.
I really think block associations & neighborhood watches, working in concert with NYPD, can make a huge difference. We’ll never get rid of all the problems, but if we take back our streets, and stop at least the obvious problems, I think everyone’s lives will improve.
Interesting story, Jay, and I’m proud of you for standing up for what you believe in and not being cowed by threats. Keep it up. But please also stay aware and safe.
This is kind of scary. I was thinking about moving to 123rd and Lenox with my family, but is it really that bad? We have visited a few times and not seen any obvious scary characters, but perhaps it isn’t the best place for kids in their early teens (who you would obviously hope could have some level of freedom to walk around alone). Is this much different from say, the West Village in the early 90’s? We live in Tribeca now but spent the hurricane week up on 120th and Manhattan Ave and had a really good experience. Is it significantly more dangerous around the Mount Morris Park Area? Although I did see one scary guy with very red eyes, that was pretty much it for the week.
Erica – There is crime going on everywhere. Pull COPSTAT for the precinct you live in now and I bet you’ll be amazed at the amount of crime that’s around you without you even knowing. Don’t let what I wrote up stop you from moving to MMP. In fact I’d say MMP is probably even safer than 120 & Manhattan Ave. There are some pretty serious problems with “youth crews” (aka gangs) west of FDB. [Which you and your kids will probably never experience provided your kids stay out of the youth crews.]
Most of the crime that you would have seen say 15 or 20 years ago in MMP has been eliminated. I don’t feel unsafe walking down my block. If you’re really worried about it, I’d suggest talking to long-time residents about crime to find out which blocks are better than others. Many of the blocks in MMP have pretty much eliminated their problems completely. I’m guessing the others will have the remaining issues largely dealt with within 2 to 5 years.
Jay – I applaud you. Keep it up. We need more people like you in Harlem to help keep it clean. The petty crime, the littering, the loitering and the drugs are all around (and as you say, its not terrible, but it is there). It will take us all acting in concert to clean it up.
Jay, what would you suggest doing about the following:
1. just simple littering on the street – can we complain to cops when we see ppl just dropping food wraps and napkins as they walk?
2. people peeing (sometimes openly) on our block – can we complain to cops?
3. not picking up after the dogs?
4. people coming inside of our gated front yard?
As your black gay neighbor on the same block, I find this story unfair and inflammatory. I’ve lived on this block for 10 years and never experienced many of the problems you’ve outlined in your essay. I’m also deeply troubled by your support for the racially biased and unconstitutional NYPD “stop-and-frisk” policy, which disproportionately impacts African-Americans and Latinos and has not been shown to reduce crime. The key to community relations in a gentrifying community is to understand and work with your neighbors collectively. I suggest you try more of this collective community approach and less of the sensationalism.
You’re not experiencing the harassment because your black. Sorry, but there’s a fair amount of anti-white hatred in Harlem. I get where it comes from, but it’s wrong.
And as far as stop-and-frisk – when you look at descriptions of perpetrators (who the cops are supposed to be looking for when they do a stop-and-frisk) vs who was actually gets stopped and frisked, blacks and Latinos were UNDER-represented. I know the situation is more complex and nuanced than that, but it’s not the police’s fault that stop-and-frisk disproportionately affects black and Latino communities. And I’d also add the police should be more courteous, professional and respectful when they do a stop and frisk. They’re flat out wrong when they’re not.
Oh, and the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk was never fully argued in the courts. Only one low-level judge said it was unconstitutional. The fact that it continues to this day (at least in a reduced form) shows there is and was a constitutional basis to doing stops and frisks.
And I am active in my community. More active than most of my neighbors.