Wisdom of the World
May 18, 1998

In Washington Heights, Drug War Survivors Reclaim Their Stoops

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    NEW YORK -- In Washington Heights, until recently one of New York's most murderous communities, a disturbing truth reveals itself in the empty stoops on West 162nd Street in late afternoon, in the thinly peopled parks overlooking the Harlem River, in the greetings not exchanged by lifelong neighbors on Audubon Avenue:

    The gunfire may recede into memory, but the fear hangs on.

    In 1991, there were 119 killings north of 155th Street in Manhattan. So far this year, the body count stands at just five. Yet while people in Times Square and other far less violent neighborhoods have greeted far less dramatic drops in crime with responses bordering on euphoria, hardly anybody is ready to celebrate in Washington Heights.

    Slowly, haltingly, after a decade and a half in a war zone, the survivors are beginning to emerge from their bunkers into the plain light of day.

    New stores are opening, and without shields of bulletproof glass over the counters.

    Police officers, once feared almost as much as the drug dealers themselves, have actually started hearing quiet thanks for their crime-fighting help.

    And finally, at the relatively advanced age of 9, Roselia Montalvo has learned to ride a bike.

    But at every step toward normal life, the memories, and the mistrust, seem to get in the way.

    Hundreds of people are still recovering from some trauma of war -- the state assemblyman who saw a man shot in the back of the head and still hears the screams of the victim's wife, the eighth-grader who remembers running for cover as a friend was gunned down by rival drug dealers, the woman whose 12-year-old son was killed because he had witnessed his father's murder.

    Some simply discount the Police Department's murder statistics. They point out the apartments in their buildings where drugs are sold and used, or the shadows under parked cars where they see people stash guns, as signs that the supposedly safe streets are just so much hype.

    Many more remain invisible, for want of a better word. Confined behind triple-locked doors, these battle-weary bystanders -- often single mothers, the elderly or immigrant couples with young children -- have yet to venture out and sense the difference for themselves.

    They know that things are somehow better, but real safety still feels out of reach.

    "Safe is when you could walk from the train station home, or from your corner to your building, or from the street downstairs to your apartment door, without nobody trying to bother you or follow you," said 15-year-old Ranflin Estrella. "They got a long way to go."

    A Drug Capital Where Gunmen Ruled

    The shooting started in the mid-1980s, when crack cocaine took hold in Washington Heights and gangs of recent Dominican immigrants established the area as the nation's largest wholesale drug market. Other neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, also had a strong local customer base for drugs, but Washington Heights was special.

    Fed by six bridges and three major highways, Washington Heights was accessible from New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut, as well as from the rest of the city. It had one of New York's largest and most thinly stretched police precincts, the 34th. And it had an economically desperate population of Dominicans, many of whom, law enforcement officials said, applied their rich tradition of entrepreneurship and their common language with Colombian cocaine suppliers to become the perfect middlemen for crack.

    Soon, the neighborhood was to drug dealers throughout the Northeast what the Hunts Point market in the Bronx is to the region's grocery stores, but with sedans instead of semitrailers, and tenement doors in place of loading docks. Operating independently, four or five drug crews might share a single block, their street peddlers swarming over cars with out-of-state plates, vying for market share literally side by side.

    That free-for-all competition often turned deadly. Isaac Sanchez, who is 15, remembers seeing one business dispute resolve itself in typical fashion several years ago.

    "You see that white church?" he said, pointing to the corner of 166th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. "This guy who was a friend of mine used to own a drug spot there. He was going to sell it to someone, and they started arguing over the money, and the guy shot him. I had to run inside the cigar store across the street."

    Today, Washington Heights remains the region's largest distribution center for narcotics, said Police Commissioner Howard Safir. Drug arrests there -- now occurring an average of once every hour and a half -- have yet to peak and, he said, are not likely to do so for some time. But the drug trade has been greatly diminished and, for the most part, forced indoors. The streets, he said, once again belong to the police.

    The change took the better part of a decade, a series of prosecutions of violent drug gangs, aggressive police tactics, money and manpower. The district attorney's office persuaded the owners of hundreds of apartment buildings to allow police officers to patrol inside, resulting in thousands of arrests a year. A new police precinct, the 33rd, with 200 more officers, was carved out of the southern half of the 34th in 1994, after a long community campaign. And in 1996, Safir organized a city-state-federal task force that pools intelligence data and responds to every reported drug incident in Washington Heights.

    Gun arrests, in fact, are already down, said Deputy Inspector John Romero, commanding officer of the 34th Precinct, which until April 28 had enjoyed more than five months without a murder.

    "People now aren't going to take a chance at carrying a gun, because we're stopping people for quality-of-life crimes all the time," he said. "And if they're not going out with guns, they don't have them when their tempers flare up."

    Other signs of change bear out the statistics.

    Edward Rivera, manager of the Rivera Funeral Home on St. Nicholas Avenue, remembers when occupied coffins would be left in the hall because the private viewing rooms were busy. "Out of every five calls we'd get, maybe three were gunshot victims," he said. "Mondays were really bad, after the weekend. And the days after holidays. In the early '90s, we could've had 10 or 15 homicides a month."

    Business is slow now, he said, adding: "I don't remember the last homicide we had."

    At Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the area's only hospital, gunshot victims once rolled in on gurneys almost nightly. But surgeons removed only four bullets last year. Today, kitchen accidents and sprained ankles receive the staff's full attention, said Dr. James Giglio, director of emergency medicine. The trauma surgery room is dark most of the time, its swinging door locked.

    Showing Symptoms of War Survivors

    Bodily trauma may be on the wane, but psychic trauma is another story.

    Marta Pepin recalls sitting in her rocker and watching TV one afternoon in 1988, when she heard five loud bangs through her first-floor window. She turned and saw a neighbor, Ricky Santiago, fall down dead a few feet outside on Audubon Avenue.

    Mrs. Pepin responded to the constant gunfire not by shrinking in fear but by organizing her fellow tenants to buy their building, in which drug dealers controlled five apartments. Four have since been evicted. But Mrs. Pepin is still afraid. Last year, the building hired a guard to keep out unwanted night visitors. The extra $16,000 a year is threatening to drive the building into bankruptcy, but Mrs. Pepin says she is loath to leave its security up to her neighbors and police.

    "You can't trust anyone," she said, sitting on a plastic slipcover in her modest but immaculate living room. "You don't know who people are. We've got nice people, but sometimes you think someone's nice, then you hear they're drug dealers. You just can't tell."

    Such doubts are all too common, said Dr. Randall Marshall, director of trauma research at Columbia-Presbyterian.

    "Once somebody's view of the world is that it's dangerous and threatening, it's difficult to change," said Marshall, whose clinic treats hundreds of residents, many with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness common among Vietnam veterans.

    In wartime, at least, "it's very clear who your enemy is, who your comrade is," he said.

    "The trouble here is that a lot of the threats are living within the community," he said. "People have learned that they can be exploited or harmed by anybody they come into contact with, and have to watch out."

    In Washington Heights, even the most upstanding extended families lost relatives to the lure of drugs or drug money, making it impossible to see one's neighbors as simply good or bad. Savvy drug dealers carried bags of groceries for the elderly, delivered toys and meals at Christmas, held block parties in warm weather and generally cultivated their neighbors' goodwill -- and their silence.

    Wary of one another, people hardly put their faith in police. Tensions between the two have been worse in Washington Heights than anywhere else in the city, from the full-fledged riots that followed a police officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed man in 1992, to the April 1997 death of Kevin Cedeno, shot in the back by an officer who was named "cop of the month" by his colleagues soon after.

    "At least the drug dealers are not here to hurt you -- they're here to make a profit," said Yvonne Stennett, who heads the Community League of West 159th Street.

    Old complaints about do-nothing attitudes and slow response times only gave way to more suspicion after the new 33rd Precinct brought in several officers transferred from the corruption-plagued 30th in Harlem. Since then, increasingly aggressive police tactics have convinced many law-abiding residents that officers see them as criminal suspects first.

    "Nobody's really ready to let their guard down too far," said the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of the Church of the Intercession on West 155th Street.

    Lessons learned painfully, after all, are not quickly forgotten.

    There are about 250 city blocks in Washington Heights and Inwood to the north. But aside from four "model blocks," where officers patrol 24 hours a day, there are few places where people seem to have relaxed. Parents still make their children carry beepers, or check in by phone every time they go from one friend's home to another. Teen-age boys stay away from parks that have supposedly been cleaned up. More and more stores are staying open in the evenings, but few women shop alone after dark.

    The local assemblyman, Adriano Espaillat, thinks a bicycle race might help. Espaillat, who like so many of his constituents once witnessed a murder in daylight, wants to hold the race this summer, to show outsiders that the neighborhood is safe to visit, but more important, he says, to prove to residents that it is safe to go outside -- a first step toward a more normal way of life.

    Some people think those first steps have already been taken, that the old twisted alliances and enmities are beginning to straighten out. Deputy Inspector Garry McCarthy, commander of the 33rd Precinct, recounted how two men he had stopped and frisked had actually thanked him afterward, once he showed them how closely they matched the description of two crime suspects. And when the police shut down five businesses on Broadway a few weeks ago for harboring drug activity, several passers-by quietly expressed their gratitude, he said.

    Even young people are reexamining their past loyalties.

    "The fun we had then -- now, I regret it," said Isaac Sanchez, talking about the days when his block was an open-air crack market. "Before, in the summer, the drug dealers used to do barbecues. Now, they're gone, and we can't do it any more. Nobody's got the money. But I feel guilty now. Because I used to take whatever anybody gave me. I never asked where they got it. I enjoyed it."

    Others are taking risks to insure that the cease-fire holds.

    Ramon Sanchez, who manages two adjoining buildings on West 162nd Street, stands guard outside, making sure that the front doors lock and that no one gets inside who does not belong. He points out a "crackhead" across the street; gestures at several men, loitering near a garage, who he says are dope peddlers; and fingers a hole in the masonry that was blown out by a .357 Magnum shell.

    One of the two buildings used to be overrun with dealers, said Sanchez, 58, who is not related to Isaac Sanchez.

    "Out of 24 apartments, 16 had drugs," he said. "Once I caught my super selling drugs. You couldn't walk into this building. You might get held up, or you might not come back."

    But he worked with police, turning in the superintendent, turning over a batch of cocaine that a postman found in a mailbox, keeping track of who was doing what where. A year ago, largely on the strength of his information, police hauled off 20 people living inside. Last month, again relying on Sanchez for intelligence, officers swept through the entire block and arrested 10 people on drug charges.

    Sanchez is tougher than most in Washington Heights. In 1990, his daughter was attacked by a New Jersey drug dealer after she informed against him. Sanchez, then a tradesman at Columbia University, drove to the dealer's home and shot him to death. He spent four years in prison on a reduced count of manslaughter.

    "I am afraid of nobody," Sanchez said. "But I was scared for my family. I was afraid to even send them to the store."

    Neighbors Emerge To Meet as Strangers

    The other afternoon, Alexandra Pena watched as her four children played outside their apartment building on West 163d Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway. Michael, 13, rode back and forth on his bicycle. Roselia, 9, danced around with a friend, announcing that she had just learned how to ride a bike herself. Justine, 7, tagged along with her sister. James, 6, scared his mother as he hung from a loose iron rail over a basement stairwell.

    An unremarkable after-school scene in most places. But until a few months ago, Ms. Pena and her family were prisoners of the violent drug trade in Washington Heights.

    "When Michael was 9 or 10 months old," Ms. Pena said, "we were looking out the window one day -- I was holding him -- and we saw a guy get shot in the head right here on the corner. That was Michael's first experience."

    There were plenty of others; their street was one of the most dangerous in the 33rd Precinct. Last August, Inspector McCarthy declared it the first of the "model blocks." After an all-out drug sweep, police created checkpoints at both ends of the street, posted officers there around the clock, painted over graffiti and helped residents organize tenant groups and a block association. The barricades have since come down, but an officer patrols the block at all times.

    And slowly, the fear has begun to lift on 163rd Street. People who for years would only leave their apartments in a hurry have begun to step outside merely to be outside -- first by peering out of a doorway, then by taking a seat on a stoop, then finally taking the plunge by striking up a conversation with a stranger next door.

    "We found people who lived across the street from each other for 25 years and had never seen each other," McCarthy said.

    Ms. Pena said, "We were hibernating like the bears."

    In safer parts of the world, her daughter Roselia might have started on a tricycle at 3, and moved up to training wheels at 5 or 6. But on 163rd Street, she and her siblings could not play on the sidewalk. They could not even play in the lobby of their apartment building, where no fewer than four drug dealers would meet customers.

    "I used to take them to school in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon, then take them to 101st and West End Avenue to play," said Ms. Pena, referring to her childhood home on the Upper West Side. "We lived here, but we didn't stay here. We'd come home at 8 or 9 at night. If we came too late, we'd be in danger. If we came home too early, we'd be bored, because we'd be locked up inside."

    For fun, Roselia and Justine played with Barbie dolls or took rare turns at the Nintendo set that Michael monopolized. These days, Michael rides his bike, Justine has learned hide-and-seek and tag and Roselia has discovered the other children on the block. "I've made five new friends," she said, pointing to their windows in three different buildings.

    Ms. Pena says her children, born into the violence, have already lost their fear. "They don't even remember most of this," she said. "The great thing is, they're getting a chance for a better life."

    She envies them. "I've got to get over my fear, too," she said. "It controls you. It does not allow you to be. It makes you feel like a prisoner when you have not committed a crime."

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