By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
UPPER EAST SIDE — The townhouse at 312 East 86th St., with its flaking façade and junk it its front yard, has long inspired curiosity, sympathy and disdain among locals.
The owner, Phyllis Battista, is notorious for her morning routine of yelling at people while sweeping the sidewalk and then dumping trash — which has, at times, included pigeon and dog feces — in front of the storefronts on this block between Second and First avenues, neighbors say.
But she's remained an enigma for the more than three decades she's been there. As stuff has piled up in front — and inside — rumors spread about Battista living in a nearby shelter. She's been spotted only a few times on the steps with her broom since the winter.
On Wednesday morning, passersby got a rare glimpse of the hoarding nightmare her house has become.
Police officers in protective gear went inside to look for Battista, struggling for more than an hour to gain access. They left the front door slightly ajar, revealing a massive pile of clothes.
MTA engineers working on a new station on East 86th Street for the Second Avenue Subway had obtained a court order from the city's sheriff office to gain access to the townhouse to make sure the building was structurally sound, explained Michael Markowitz, an engineer for the subway project.
Battista was nowhere to be found. The engineers were unable to conduct their survey in the mess.
"I've never seen anything like that," one officer said as he emerged from the building.
"This is a TV show right here," another officer said.
Hiroaki Tokunaga, the owner of the Japanese restaurant Tokubei 86 next door, knew about the hoarding and said he had called various city agencies over the years, to little avail.
He was friendly with Battista when he first opened his restaurant 32 years ago, he said.
"I don't know what happened to her," he said, adding that her behavior seemed to grow more erratic every year.
A decade ago, she dug a hole in her backyard that would cause Tokunaga's basement to flood during rainstorms, he said. He once snuck into her yard in the middle of the night to pour cement in it. But she then dug another hole, and the flooding has continued for years.
"No matter how much I fight, it doesn't work," Tokunaga said.
After spotting a rat infestation at the townhouse this summer, Maria Silva, the owner of the nearby Maz Mezcal took her complaint to the East 86th Street Neighborhood Network civic coalition, which prompted State Sen. Liz Krueger's office contacted the Health Department.
The department made an inspection back then, and then re-inspected the building last week. Inspectors found no rodent problem, but issued violations for the discarded boxes, containers, and debris on the property and sent the owner a five-day Commissioner Order to correct the violations, a spokesperson said.
Though that problem has abated, Silva said, she remains worried about wood planks that Battista had placed on the stairs to block access to the doorway.
"It's such a fire hazard," Silva said.
Battista owes more than $60,000 in back taxes, according to property records.
Residents on the block watched Wednesday's police activity with great interest.
"She's very sad. It's obviously not a normal situation," said Meryl, who lives on the block and declined to give a last name. "I haven't seen her in maybe a month. She's kind of neat-looking in her appearance. She's always well dressed, which is strange given the conditions."
Pat, who has lived across the street for more than 35 years and also declined to give a last name, said Battista would often whisk her broom to shoo away her little dog.
After the police left, a Department of Buildings inspector came and issued a violation for "failure to maintain" the building. It had four other open violations with fines totaling $3,360, according to DOB's website.