HIGH BRIDGE — Winding up a leafy hillside, the stonewalled staircase at East 165th Street rises as high as the seven-story apartment building beside it, connecting elevated Anderson Avenue to Jerome Avenue far below.
It is one of 63 so-called street steps in The Bronx — historic staircases that link parallel roads separated by steep hills — which have often been allowed to fall into disrepair.
The stairs at East 165th Street are no exception.
Over the years, steps have crumbled, branches have overgrown, and illicit activities have thrived in the shadows. Last week, a visitor could find litter, beer bottles, condoms, feces and a dead rat on the stairs, which pass by a schoolyard at one end.
“Years ago, this was like paradise,” said Roger Hartley, 57, who has lived on Anderson Avenue near the stairs for nearly 40 years.
But now, he said, “It’s a total mess.”
Residents and community leaders said city workers rarely clean the steps or prune the greenery around them, leaving the staircase filthy and obstructed. Because of the conditions, many residents avoid climbing them — which makes them prime real estate for seedier purposes, such as sex and drug use.
“There’s always a lot of strangers there,” said Kilssy, 31, who lives in an apartment at 1055 Jerome Ave. next to the base of the stairs. She asked only to use her first name.
“They smoke, sometimes there’s partners there doing things they’re not supposed to,” she said. “I avoid them. I’m scared.”
Groups of men gather on the stairs at night to smoke marijuana, the smell of which wafts into nearby apartments, locals said.
The late-night crews are drawn to the stairs because overhanging branches block most of the streetlight and the police seldom patrol there, said William Cancel Quiros, 52, who lives at 1038 Anderson Ave. near the top of the stairs.
“In the nighttime, forget about it, no one goes on those stairs,” Quiros said. “You can’t use them because people are sitting there smoking and mugging.”
The top entrance to the stairs leads to a cracked pathway that runs besides the fenced-in yard of an elementary school, P.S. 73.
Yonali Sanchez, 11, who lives on Jerome Avenue and attended P.S. 73, said that many students go out of their way to avoid taking the staircase.
“They go around the block because they don’t like it,” he said.
People have long pressed the city to take better care of the stairs, neighbors said.
Hartley, the longtime Anderson Avenue resident, said that over the decades he has sought help from the borough president, the public advocate, 311 and the local community board. Even broken steps require many requests before they are fixed, he said.
“I had to fight like hell to get this done last year,” Hartley said recently, pointing to a freshly patched step.
Chauncy Young, an organizer with the nearby Highbridge Community Life Center, said that when he surveyed P.S. 73 parents several years ago about the school’s most urgent needs, many cited the stairs, which they said were unsafe. After raising the issue with various city agencies and elected officials, new lights were installed on the stairs a few years ago to increase security, Young said.
Residents regularly complain about the stairs to local Community Board 4, said Jose Rodriguez, the board’s district manager.
“I get calls at least two, if not three times a week about that particular area,” he said.
The board, in turn, requests extra repair and maintenance funds for the stairs in its annual budget priorities list, Rodriguez said. He said he also mentions the stairs whenever he meets with the Bronx heads of the Parks and Sanitation departments.
“The borough commissioners are not paying attention to these issues, so ultimately they’re responsible,” Rodriguez said. “It’s frustrating, to say the least.”
Normally, the Transportation Department tends to street steps, which are treated as roadways.
But the Parks Department is responsible for the East 165th Street staircase because the hill they climb, known as Jerome Slope, is a city park. The Sanitation Department also assists with the stairs' upkeep.
Both agencies plan to increase their presence at the stairs, said Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the Parks Department.
“Now that our busy summer season has ended, Parks will be able to devote more resources to maintaining this area and will send forestry staff to prune the nearby trees,” Feder said. “In addition, DSNY is scheduled to conduct another of its periodic cleanings there shortly.”
Rodriguez, the community board district manager, said that while the city should fulfill its obligation to clean the stairs, residents can help by throwing their garbage where it belongs.
"The city must do their part," he said. "But also the people who live here must do theirs."