Street Hassle

New Skool Versus Old School in Greenwich Village

At a post-9-11 meeting, Berk, a former publicist, had announced that she was forming a new group called Residents in Distress, or RID. She had named it after a louse killer, Berk explains. Its mission was to combat crime. But Berk herself has a criminal record. She has been arrested three times, stemming from a series of altercations with a neighbor. She is suing the police for false arrest, charging among other things that they conspired with her neighbor against her. But whatever their bias, Berk was tried and convicted by a jury on three counts of aggravated harassment. The case is on appeal. Worth knew this, Berk says, but he didn't find her record fit to print. (The Timesdid not return requests for comment.)

The paper of record eventually published a second piece, by Denny Lee, that dug deeper into gay youth culture in the Village, and it included more reassuring crime statistics. But by then the die had been cast. The precinct received 23 new officers, the police commissioner announced a new West Village Initiative, and Berk became a quality-of-life celebrity. She claims to have answered hundreds of requests for interviews, and her days of trembling whenever a police car passes by are over. Now she is immersed in police lore, and she boasts that the precinct commander "calls me all the time."

Berk is out at all hours documenting quality-of-life offenses. She says she has made some 200 reports to the police in the past month alone, resulting in more than 30 arrests. But fame has its price. Berk claims to have received numerous death threats ("I've applied for a gun permit"), and when she met this reporter, she had just come from the precinct, where she complained about a neighbor who disrupted a filmmaker's interview with her by shouting, "No one knows what a bitch you really are." Her enemies, she says, are jealous of her renown. Some are drug dealers or prostitutes, and as for the rest: "People hate me because I'm suing, I'm not gay, and I'm not a transvestite."

The party that is Christopher Street: Kids call it freedom; residents call it an offense to the quality of life.
photo: Staci Schwartz
The party that is Christopher Street: Kids call it freedom; residents call it an offense to the quality of life.

On two quality-of-life walkabouts with Berk, one by day and the other by night, this reporter was alerted to the following evidence of criminal activity: A used popper bottle was mistaken for a crack vial, a panhandler was spotted holding a bank door ("I'm targeting him for arrest"), a busy porn store was described as a drug den, and virtually every black man on the street was sized up. Some were regarded as drug dealers; others were not, depending on whether they "look you in the eye." Dealers, Berk explained, have a blank stare.

image
photo: Staci Schwartz

In recent months, lees and berk have made the rounds of community groups, drumming up support for their final solution to this crisis: a three-strikes-you're-out law for repeat offenders. A bill, which recently passed the state senate with Governor Pataki's backing, stipulates that the fourth class-A misdemeanor committed after three others can be treated as a felony. On February 14, Lees and Berk met with a staffer from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office to propose that he support that statute, along with a bill that would raise the penalty for public urination, putting it on a par with prostitution. A spokesman says Silver hasn't dismissed the idea, but he expressed several concerns: It could clog the courts and increase the prison population. Besides, there's been no groundswell of quality-of-life complaints from around the state. "We haven't even heard about this issue from folks in other parts of the city."

Lees says she isn't wedded to the three-strikes quota: "I assume it would be more like four or five. The problem is recidivism. They go back on the street time and time again, and there's no tool for the police." Yet the proposed law will have a limited impact on quality-of-life crime, since the misdemeanors it applies to don't include disorderly conduct, public lewdness, or even hooking. But one thing is clear: Ever since Giuliani time, there's no political liability to cracking down on petty crime. And Lees is widely regarded as an ambitious politician. In 1999, she ran for the City Council seat won by Christine Quinn, and since then she hasn't stinted on accusing the elected officials who represent the Village of being indifferent to the quality-of-life crisis.

As she goes from meeting to meeting organizing around her agenda, Lees gets a warm reception, especially from longtime residents. These holdovers from a more liberal era are a major contingent in the quality-of-life crusade. In the 1960s, they fought developers and got Greenwich Village declared a historic district, and today they are the first to squawk about unwanted change. But they've seen their cherished community altered in uncontrollable ways. They cannot stop the proliferation of tourists, or halt the flow of development, especially west of Hudson Street, where the boundaries of the historic district end. And as the waterfront park nears completion, veteran watchers of real estate see a building boom in the making.

One local politico describes "an absurd number of variances" being granted by the city around West Street south of Christopher, and to the north a struggle is being waged to keep the meat market from being eviscerated. These are major quality-of-life threats, but nothing can be done about them. In the pro-business Bloomberg era, soaring rents, endless traffic jams, and incessant noise (which has always been the number one complaint to the quality-of-life hotline) are here to stay. The residents are helpless before the real engine of change. What can be controlled is the class and race of visitors, especially when developers and residents share an agenda about who belongs on the street and who does not.

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