By Tara Kyle
CHELSEA — At 7 a.m. each morning, union workers file into a pen in front of the shuttered Empire Diner to wage their six-hour daily battle against non-union construction on a new building across the street.
The iron workers, plumbers and other union workers believe their four-month old protest against developer Equity Residential and the job at 500 West 23rd St. is critical to preserving their livelihoods, residents say it's dragging down the neighborhood.
"It's demoralizing," Shay Barry, 27, said at a Wednesday meeting with the NYPD's 10th Precinct. She added that she is the subject of catcalls when she leaves her first floor apartment at 466 West 23rd St.
Two floors above Barry's apartment, resident Keith Schweitzer said that noise from the protest, which sits directly across from a small park, has disrupted life for him, his wife and their poodle.
The situation has put the NYPD, charged with preserving peace on the block, but also safeguarding the rights of the protestors, in a thorny position.
"The tough part is, it's their right to demonstrate," Officer Mike Petrillo said at the 10th Precinct's Community Council meeting Wednesday. "It comes back to their constitutional rights… they are going to be there until that building is built."
Although nearby residents, whose concerns dominated conversation at Community Council meetings in both October and September, would like the protest pushed away from their homes, Petrillo said that every other space on the block is problematic because of a bus stop or ground level business. The NYPD is required to allow the protestors a space where they can both hear and see the construction site, which is on the West side of Tenth Avenue.
A move will, however, be necessary after a new restaurant from the owners of Union Square eatery Coffee Shop opens at the Empire Diner space.
On the street Thursday afternoon, protestors said they had taken measures to reduce noise. Interventions by the NYPD, which stations an officer next to the protest everyday, led them to halt the practice of loud whistling.
Harassment of women, which Schweitzer said left his wife afraid to walk around the corner, is the work of a few troublemakers, according to the protestors.
"We did have a couple knuckleheads, one guy was drinking on the corner, but that's taken care of," Ronald Ross, a 45-year-old iron reinforcement worker from the Bronx said from inside the pen on Thursday.
In order to help keep the peace on the block, Ross, who has been with the protest since day one in August, said he makes a daily effort to clean up the block, including trash not produced by the workers.
"We understand their concerns. We're cordial. We do respect the community," Ross said. "But we need them to understand that we're merely trying to preserve our jobs."