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Crime Wave Makes Murray Hill Block a No-Go Zone for Locals

By  Mary Johnson and Joe Parziale | October 17, 2012 7:45am 

MURRAY HILL — Along a one-block stretch of Third Avenue, a hair salon employs a rotating crew of two security guards, workers at a clothing boutique keep a can of pepper spray behind the counter, and residents often avoid walking on the west side of the street.

Locals said they exercise extreme caution on the block between East 32nd and 33rd streets because the strip has been plagued by crime in recent years. Police have made more than 50 arrests in the area since January, largely for "quality of life" crimes and drug dealing, according to the NYPD.

Scaffolding that has hung over the west side of the street for three years provides a popular hangout for groups of people who panhandle and drink, often lingering throughout the day, residents and business owners said.

“They harass customers,” said Svetlana Vala, 25, the assistant manager at Essentials hair salon, which sits under the scaffolding.

“This is why I now have security,” she added, pointing to the store’s hulking, broad-shouldered guard. “Security — for a hair shop.”

Residents and workers said they have been battling unsafe conditions along this one block in an otherwise attractive part of Murray Hill for years, despite the precinct's relatively low crime rates. The 17th Precinct has seen fewer violent crimes and misdemeanor offenses so far this year than the four precincts that surround it, according to statistics from the NYPD.

Certain crimes, including robbery, felony assault and burglary, have increased since last year. Between January and September, there have been 57 felony assaults, 102 burglaries and 516 grand larcenies in the 17th Precinct.

But those numbers still fall well below statistics that neighboring precincts have reported.

The west side of that stretch — where the problem seems to be concentrated, occasionally trickling one block north or south or onto side streets, residents said — is home to a variety of businesses. Essentials and the clothing store Taroo keep company with nutrition store GNC, Jenny Craig, a barber shop, a liquor store, a cookie shop, a McDonald’s and a bodega.

A police spokeswoman declined to identify a specific cause for the block’s problems, nor would she elaborate on the crimes behind the multitude of arrests. But she noted that the commanding officer of the 17th Precinct, Capt. James Sheerin, is aware of the problem and is taking steps to address it.

Mark Thompson, chairman of Community Board 6, said the board has been working to unite residents and business owners with police to make the block safer in recent months.

He said the problems in that area don't have one specific root cause but steadily "snowballed" over time.

“It was primarily people who were taking advantage of a variety of situations on those few blocks, where they were able to intimidate people and create their own market [for illegal activity],” Thompson explained.

As the problem escalated, Thompson said residents and business owners began organizing their efforts to stem the crime wave and reached out to members of the community board for help.

“Once residents fought back," he added, "things started to change.”

Those living and working on the block agree that, in recent months, conditions have improved as police presence on the stretch has increased.  

“It is not at the level and number of bodies out there that it was before,” said one resident who lives at Third Avenue and East 32nd Street and has been working to clean up the block for years. “But I am not saying it’s over … because it’s definitely not.”

The resident, a mother of three who asked that her name not be used, said her building has installed exterior cameras and additional lighting, which have helped with security for residents.

But she said she is still forced to avoid the west side of that block when walking with her three teenage daughters. And several of her neighbors have moved because of conditions on the street.

Joy Hinck, who runs the Taroo boutique on the block, called the situation “horrendous.” She said her store has installed a buzzer system to control who enters, and she keeps a canister of pepper spray behind the counter, just in case.

“There’s one particular man that actually all of us are quite frightened by,” said Hinck, who is at the store five or six days a week. “He actually chased me into a taxi … and I’m not a fearful woman.”

Although she has seen police out on the street patrolling, Hinck said she is worried that not enough is being done to prevent something worse from happening.

“What upsets me is they need to do something permanently rather than just send these guys to jail,” Hinck said. “It’s not safe for women at a certain time to be walking down the street.”

Vala, who has been working at the Essentials salon for the past two years and lives in the neighborhood, said she has watched intoxicated men stumble into her store and beg customers for cash. She’s seen a man try to grab a woman’s dogs off the street, and she’s heard stories from others in the neighborhood about break-ins and robberies.

“Many women have told me that they cross the street because they feel uncomfortable walking on this side,” Vala said. “I don’t blame them.”

On a recent Tuesday, loiterers were scattered up and down the west side of Third Avenue between East 32nd and 33rd streets. Some stopped and chatted with one another, while others held out change cups under the scaffolding that hangs over the block's 24-hour McDonald's.

Dwight House, 55, said he hangs out near the Murray Hill stretch because of its proximity to a library branch at the corner of East 30th Street and Third Avenue.

"One of the best things you can have as a homeless man is a library card," said House, who moved to New York 10 years ago. "Sometimes I can just go inside the library and thaw out. And it's good libraries let you do that. Because they know what's up."

The Los Angeles native said he does see people being pestered by police on the block but added that he thinks cops would be better off using their resources elsewhere.

"They're out here busting people for open containers and urinating on public property when they should be trying to catch the rapists and dope dealers," House said.

"You're going to arrest me for drinking a beer?" House added. "I don't have any place to go. They'll waste everyone's money holding me there for 72 hours and processing me, and then what? I'm going to be standing right back here."

But those living and working on that stretch said they welcome any opportunity to keep people from panhandling and drinking on the street.

Cheryll Forsatz, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said that the owner of the McDonald’s branch on that block meets regularly with the precinct’s commanding officer and would welcome further collaboration with other community members.

“We’re always looking for ways to enhance the security,” said Forsatz. “It’s a collective community because we all live there and work there.”