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'Rat Team' Meets to Combat Rampant Rodents

By Patrick Hedlund | December 13, 2010 6:52am | Updated on December 13, 2010 6:57am
The Lower East Side has the second-biggest rat problem in all of Manhattan, according to the city.
The Lower East Side has the second-biggest rat problem in all of Manhattan, according to the city.
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Health Department

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

LOWER EAST SIDE — Rats are running rampant throughout the Lower East Side, making it one of the worst areas in Manhattan for the pesky pests.

Community District 3 — which runs from 14th Street down to the Brooklyn Bridge, between the Bowery and East River — had the second-highest rate of rats out of the dozen districts comprising the borough, according to recent data from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We have a tremendous amount of eating, drinking places, and in some areas we've become a destination nightspot," said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, who convened a "rat summit" on Thursday that brought together representatives from multiple city agencies to discuss how each can address the situation. "We don't have the infrastructure to maintain it."

The map from the Health Department shows specific sites on the Lower East Side, marked in red, with signs of rat activity.
The map from the Health Department shows specific sites on the Lower East Side, marked in red, with signs of rat activity.
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At Thursday's meeting — which brought together representatives from the Departments of Health, Sanitation, Parks, Environmental Protection, Transportation, and Design and Construction — Stetzer said the group brainstormed ways for the agencies to share resources to attack the problem head-on.

For instance, more garbage pickups and wastebaskets might be required on certain strips dominated by bars and restaurants, and in some cases the neighborhood's old tenement buildings didn't even have storage rooms for trash that instead ends up on the sidewalk, Stetzer explained.

The areas that had become rat hotspots in the district, she said, included the intersection of First Avenue and East Houston Street, which is highly trafficked by the nightlife crowd; the tree-filled medians along Houston Street between First Avenue and the FDR Drive, which are "heavily infested"; and portions of Avenue B.

"Our goal is for people to go out there and do their own inspections before we even get there," said Caroline Bragdon, the Health Department's education and outreach coordinator for pest control services.

"The safest way to treat rats is to prevent them from being in there in first place."

The preponderance of bars and restaurants across District 3 — which includes the nightlife-heavy Lower East Side and East Village, as well as restaurant-rich Chinatown — makes the area even more susceptible to rodents, due to excess food and refuse produced by the establishments.

Add to that a steady stream of new construction projects, which can disrupt rat burrows and send them searching for new nests, and the neighborhood has become overrun with the vermin.

According to the Department of Health's website, which maps infested lots across the borough, East 10th Street between Avenues B and C, East 3rd Street between Avenues C and D, and Chrystie Street between Houston and Delancey streets all have a handful of properties containing evidence of rats.

Only Community District 12, covering Washington Heights and Inwood, had a higher "failure rate" based on 40,000 inspections conducted by the department block by block across Manhattan.

Health inspectors looked for a number of signs indicating rat activity, including underground rat burrows in broken sidewalks, rat paths where the rodents regularly trod and left behind grease marks from the oil in their fur, droppings, and "runways" that have been flattened in grass or soil where the vermin travel, Bragdon explained.

"We encourage people to think about what rats need to survive," she noted of how tenants can combat the problem. "They need food, water and shelter."

Of course, one man's trash is another rat's banquet, so Bragdon suggested making sure garbage containers were sealed tight, not leaving food waste on the curb for more than two hours, and washing out garbage bins frequently. She even recommended filling up cracks or holes in the sidewalk with concrete to keep rat burrows from forming.

"Prevention is the cheapest form of pest control," Bragdon said, noting that it was illegal for property owners to apply pesticides themselves and that they needed to use certified exterminators.

Restaurateurs, for example, can recycle their leftover grease for free at the Lower East Side Ecology Center instead of pouring it down sewage drains.

Some innovative strategies already being explored included the use of "excluder mesh," or underground netting that prevented rats from burrowing, and surveillance cameras monitoring the sewers to identify rodent hotspots, Stetzer noted.

And since complaints to the community board about rats rank only behind grumblings regarding late-night noise in the district, she hoped the board would lead the way in running out the rats.

"There's a tremendous amount of education that needs to be done," she said.