By Albert Amateau
Concerns about recent shootings in the Alfred E. Smith Houses on the Lower East Side brought more than 100 neighbors to a town hall meeting last week called by City Councilmember Alan Gerson and attended by police, New York City Housing Authority executives and staff members of elected officials.
Residents demanded more police, working surveillance cameras in all 10 buildings of the complex, eviction of residents engaged in crime and support for renewing tenant patrols in the Smith Houses.
At the same time, they called for more youth programs with attractive alternatives to drugs and violence, and they urged each other to join an ongoing movement to combat crime.
“Our children are not safe,” said Aixa Torres, a resident of 7 St. James Place in the Smith Houses. “It’s sad to see these kids shooting each other. We need an agenda to protect kids and the elderly. My mother is 89 and she sits on the bench where one of these shootings took place; she could have been killed. We need to take our community back. We need to come together and put our differences aside. We are our brothers’ keepers,” Torres said.
Captain Edward Britton, commanding officer of Housing Bureau police in the area, said police are looking for Rolando Lugo, 25, of 20 Catherine Slip in the Smith Houses, a potential suspect in the Oct. 15 shooting in front of 7 St. James Place, where three people, a girl, 15, a woman, 42 and a man, 24, were injured. Police questioned the 24-year-old, Michael Benson, but Lugo was still at large this week.
On Oct. 14 around midnight, a man, 32, walking in front of 40 Madison St. in the complex, was hit by gunfire and taken to the hospital in stable condition. He told police he didn’t know who fired the shots.
On Oct. 3, the body of Narcascio Vargas, 34, a resident of 54 Catherine St. in the Smith Houses, was found on a 12th-floor stairway in a Catherine St. building with a bullet in his head.
“We know something is going on, and we’ve put new resources in the Lower East Side,” said Britton. “These isn’t strangers coming in and shooting; it’s people living in the neighborhood,” he added.
Gerson said that residents told him they believe gangs are active in Smith Houses and other Lower East Side projects. But Detective Sergeant Andrew Dietz, of Manhattan South Homicide, said there was no evidence that the shootings were related or that gangs or narcotics were involved.
More police, both plainclothes and uniformed, have come into the neighborhood since the shootings began, said Housing Police Chief Joanne Jaffe, and more are coming, to the Seventh and Fifth Precincts, as well as P.S.A. 4, the Housing Bureau police district that covers much of Lower Manhattan. Many of the additional officers are assigned to a 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. duty tour to cover the hours when the shootings have occurred, Britton said.
In a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said, “The residents of Smith Houses are rightfully quite fearful about their well-being following these incidents. While I am pleased to see additional officers have been assigned in and around Smith Houses, I urge that the heightened police presence remain at this location for an extended period to dissuade a recurrence of these shootings.”
Paul Goldstein, from Silver’s office, called for follow-up meetings to monitor the progress of neighborhood safety efforts.
Douglas Apple, Housing Authority chief of operations, said that Gerson has made $800,000 available for surveillance cameras for the Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers and Two Bridges houses. Apple said the cameras were being installed in locations where they are missing.
“We’ve agreed to getting all the money necessary to complete the installations [of surveillance cameras] in all the buildings,” Gerson said.
Although most of the cameras are not monitored 24/7, Apple and Jaffe promised to provide tenant patrols with rooms and training to monitor the cameras, especially during critical hours. Police and NYCHA officials nevertheless said that surveillance cameras do deter crime and that tapes have led to several arrests and guilty pleas.
“We know that defendants don’t want to go to trial when juries can see them on tape,” said Britton.
Linda Jones-Janneh, a member of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s community liaison staff, told the meeting that the D.A. has assigned two additional assistants to two of the shooting incidents.
“We’re confident that these efforts will result in arrests soon,” she said.
Smith Houses residents applauded Jones-Janneh when she said, “People in NYCHA buildings who use their apartments for illegal activities shouldn’t be there, and our office is committed to pursuing narcotics evictions.”
Apple agreed that NYCA would move to terminate the tenancy of anyone involved in illegal drugs and gun crimes. But he cautioned that those cases are delicate.
“It’s actually a slow process,” he said, noting that all eviction cases are finally adjudicated in Housing Court.
Residents also demanded the removal of the scaffolding over the sidewalks around 40 Madison St. The scaffolding has been up for a few years and serves as a cover for criminal activity, residents said. Apple reminded neighbors that the structure was to protect pedestrians from bricks falling from the building’s facade.
“We now have a contract in place to start fixing the building,” he said.
“There’s a drug problem here and somebody better admit that,” said John Quinn, a resident of nearby Southbridge Towers and a Democratic district co-leader. “We need programs to get people off drugs. This kid [Lugo] is not a tough guy; he’s a punk and we’ve lost him. We don’t want any more Lugos.”
Quinn said he grew up in 40 Madison St. and was saved from prison by two policemen.
“They were not my friends. They told my parents when they caught me doing something wrong,” he said. “We need police with a connection to the neighborhood. We need cops who speak Chinese and Spanish. We need to protect our kids instead of locking everybody up. Hey, that’s our kids we’d be locking up,” Quinn said.
Jonathan Gardenheir, 15, appealed for programs that would offer teens alternatives to the lure of crimes and violence.
Marie Quinonez, a longtime resident of 46 Madison St., was also anxious that police crime fighting might unfairly victimize neighborhood youth.
“We hear gunshots every single day,” Quinonez said. “But I don’t want my kids to be profiled, not all kids are criminals.”
Gerson called for a resident safety plan that includes high-tech security cameras, support and reactivation of tenant patrols, more effective gun collection programs and programs targeting criminal gang and drug dealing. Gerson also wants recreational facilities for youth, including restoration of the Baruch Houses Bathhouse, built in 1901 and sealed since the 1975 municipal fiscal crisis.