Volume 78 / Number 10, August 6 - 12, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Laurie Mittelmann

David Poster in his Christopher St. “headquarters” last week, looked over the reams of letters he has written to local politicians over the years, calling for tougher enforcement against prostitution and drug dealing. Although he occasionally gets return phone calls and letters from some of the politicians, they have never adopted any of his recommendations.

‘Help us protect our streets,’ petition begs local officials

By Laurie Mittelmann

On the counter between a basket of jam-filled vegan cookies and the cash register at a coffee shop on Charles St. is a petition asking local politicians and the Sixth Precinct to help protect the streets from prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers.

Decades of rampant prostitution and crack use in the neighborhood and lack of response from officials have left most residents complacent about rowdy streets and interrupted sleep. But there are a few diehards who still call for intervention and elected officials who say they recognize that crime is a problem in the Village.

A well-known author of books on Village historic walking tours started the petition and a similar one last year. She asked that her name not be printed in this article for fear of retribution.

“I live alone,” she said.

The coffee shop’s owners also asked that they and their business not to be named, since they had heard that someone had punched and broken the glass door of Hudson Bagels after The Villager published a letter by its owner, Bob Orzo, about prostitution.

The petition, in turn, was sparked by another letter published in The Villager on July 9, in which a local resident described Greenwich St. as a “thug bazaar.” “[T]he action unfolds mainly from 2 a.m. till 5 a.m,” the letter stated.

“In these predawn hours, residents who must head out to work are harassed, sometimes followed, groped and threatened.”

The writer of the petition mailed it to local city and state politicians after it accumulated 360 signatures. She said that none of the elected officials responded.

“I think it’s time to be more proactive,” said Sarah Kimbell, a neighbor of the cafe who warns guests from out of town about the nighttime street scene. She said that she recently called the Sixth Precinct to lodge a complaint about noise and they told her to call 311, the city’s phone number for nonemergency complaints.

“I love it when it rains at night because then it’s more quiet,” Kimbell said in frustration.

David Poster, president of the Christopher Street Patrol, a volunteer neighborhood anticrime group, would like to see the city offer more resources to help the troubled youth who gravitate to the Village’s nighttime street scene. He is also chairperson of the Greenwich Village Block Associations’ task force on prostitution and unruly street behavior.

He praises The Door, a center on Broome St. that helps young adults obtain high school-equivalency diplomas and find jobs and which offers drop-in space for the gay youth who flock to the Village and the Christopher St. Pier at night.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Poster ventures out with one or two other residents and several members of the Guardian Angels. They survey the night scene, helping any person who looks like he or she is in danger, whether it be from harassment or a self-inflicted problem like a drug overdose. Poster tracks the number of people he suspects are committing crimes like prostitution and detains them for a police arrest if he sees them making a deal.

“I think we’re the only ones who really know what’s going on,” Poster said of the action on the streets.

He writes letters to local politicians, informing them of what he sees, what newspapers are reporting on and the relevant statistics he is acquiring from different city agencies. He copies each letter and stores them in his apartment, which he refers to as “the headquarters” for all of his work.

“Believe me, I need another apartment for all of the letters I have,” Poster said. “I’m making sure that elected officials know about the problems because they are accountable for them. They can never say that they weren’t made aware.”

A list of recommendations — none of which Poster said has ever been followed by the politicians — is attached to each letter. His G.V.B.A. task force recommends that groups providing outreach in the West Village “distribute behavioral guidelines to their clients.” The task force also backs the introduction of legislation “that will meaningfully deter the major prostitution problems.”

While local city councilmembers do not have the power to change criminal laws, Poster said that they could submit recommendations to state legislators in Albany, specifically to members who hold power in the State Senate.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender-rights advocate, said that the concerns of residents are overstated and that residents have been complaining about the same issues for years.

“They keep repeating them like it’s the Bible,” Sklarz said. “I see kids on the corner and the residents see gangs.”

She said there should be a space in Greenwich Village where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth won’t have to be afraid of the police and the residents.

“This population continues to be underserved, but now, according to the police, they are breaking far more laws than in the past,” she said.

Sklarz chaired the L.G.B.T. Committee of Community Board 2 for six years. During that time, she worked with the Sixth Precinct and social workers from The L.G.B.T. Community Center, focusing on prostitutes in the Meat Market.

Peter Vallone Jr., chairperson of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for six years. In 2003, as a councilmember, he introduced a resolution calling on the State Legislature “to mandate meaningful sentencing for prostitution recidivists” As a prosecutor, he said, he frequently encountered repeat offenders for prostitution in the courts.

Vallone’s resolution specifically referred to the negative impact of prostitution on quality of life in “certain communities, such as Greenwich Village.” The Queens councilmember’s resolution stated that the Police Department is limited in curbing illegal activity by current sentencing laws, and called for stiffer penalties for persistent offenders. Vallone further suggested mandating a life-skills rehabilitation program for arrested prostitutes; many streetwalkers are stuck in their situation, the resolution noted, because they lack job training, education, treatment for physical and emotional injuries and protection from pimps who threaten violence.

In 2004, Vallone reintroduced the resolution. Neither time did it pass out of his committee.

Vallone said, in fact, he never had high hopes for the resolution, because the issue of what to do about the problem is so controversial.

“Some say throw everyone in jail for a long time, and others say to make prostitution completely legal,” he said, in an interview with The Villager.

“I want to continue to call attention to the need for reform and focus on the people responsible for prostitution,” Vallone said, regarding both the johns who demand the illegal service and the pimps who arrange it. “There’s a violent subculture involved here,” Vallone stressed.

That violence frequently flares in the Village’s quaint, angled streets, including right outside the coffee shop that houses the current anti-prostitution petition. On a recent Saturday morning, a customer of the coffee shop noticed a prostitute leaning over a door of a car, speaking through the window to the driver. The cafe customer tried to take a photograph of the interaction with his cell phone, but the john inside the car saw him and stormed inside, screaming that it was illegal to photograph a person without permission

Sarah Gozalo, a student from Spain studying drama at The New School, had been drinking coffee before an early-morning rehearsal and was in the place’s bathroom at the time of the incident.

“He was screaming to the point where I was wondering if I should come out,” she said. “Mostly, it made me feel bad, because I thought he might come back and start something else after he left. He was almost out of control.”

The cashier said that she gave the customer who photographed the screaming john a free coffee because he looked so upset.

Arthur Schwartz, former Village Democratic district leader, said that for the last 15 years he has called the police whenever he sees illegal activity outside of his apartment. Schwartz, who is now the Village’s Democratic state committeeman, is not currently involved in trying to change legislation regarding penalties for crimes like prostitution and drug use. But he said if a resolution calling for such changes comes before Community Board 2, of which he is a member, he would support it.

“I stake out my corner,” Schwartz said, regarding his monitoring of the intersection of Bleecker and W. 10th Sts. by his building.

He doesn’t believe police are doing everything possible to stop crime, because he remembers when more officers patrolled nearby Abingdon Square on foot, displacing the prostitutes to where they operate now, further south.

“I’m not sure that the answer is in the court system,” he said.

Schwartz added that once there is a concerted effort to remove problems, they wouldn’t come back the next day.

“I’m not a moralist,” he said. “I don’t approve of prostitution as a profession. But the complaint here is about prostitution going on in a residential area. If the prostitution moved back to an area that was industrial, it would be less of a problem.”

Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2’s chairperson, the Village’s current Democratic district leader and an expected City Council candidate next year, said repeat offenders are a state issue over which he has no his control, and that calling for a police crackdown would not work in the long run.

“It’s my understanding that, at the moment, the precinct’s hands are tied,” Hoylman said, referring to the light penalties against prostitution.

He believes more outreach is needed to help prostitutes find ways to live outside of crime. He added that prostitutes are the area’s most vulnerable population, having the fewest resources with which to defend themselves.

“I don’t think they want to be prostitutes,” Hoylman said. “They live in the shadows. They are the most dispossessed people in our society. It’s the government’s responsibility to give them the services they need to get off the streets and reclaim their lives.”

Hoylman said residents in the far West Village have legitimate concerns about prostitution, and that he has been speaking with other local elected officials about the issue.

One regular visitor to the neighborhood has his own novel idea about how to address the stubborn problem.

Two weekends per month, Howard Raske, 45, from Princeton, N.J., stays at a friend’s place in the Village, sleeping on her sofa. On a recent afternoon, he stood outside of the coffee shop, which is near her apartment, leaning against his rental car.

Raske said that, even though his friend has air conditioners in her windows to muffle the sound, he still hears loud noises at night from the hookers and their activity.

“Obviously, we can’t throw water balloons at them,” he said. “But maybe we could get some really sticky Silly String — something that doesn’t come off too easily, so that they have to get out of the neighborhood and get cleaned up.”

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