CLAREMONT — Half a block long and about seven feet high, the chain-link fence along Sheridan Avenue separates the sidewalk from a narrow no-man’s land atop a steep retaining wall.
To residents of that block, the fence is a mangled eyesore that cages-in unkempt trees and layers of litter and holds back a neighborhood they have worked hard to revitalize.
“The fence is the main thorn in our side,” said Charles Chesson, 65, the superintendent of co-op buildings across the street. “When it’s done, we can function as a community.”
The problem is that no one is entirely sure who owns the fence or the property it protects.
When residents ask city agencies, they variously deny responsibility or say the dirt strip atop the retaining wall belongs to the homeowners who live behind it.
In fact, some of those homeowners, whose houses face Selwyn Avenue, have been ticketed for conditions on the sidewalk along Sheridan Avenue — even though that sidewalk is about 12 feet above their back lots, on the other side of the retaining wall and the chain-link fence.
“It makes no sense,” said Oneil Dempster, 33, who lives on Selwyn Avenue and has faced fines related to the Sheridan Avenue sidewalk and fence. “But that’s how the city operates.”
The fence extends along a half-block of Sheridan Avenue between 172nd Street and Mount Eden Avenue, in the shadow of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital and steps from Claremont Park and the Grand Concourse.
Once cursed by speeding cars, grime and graffiti, the block has been transformed in recent years by building owners and tenants who staged cleanup days, repainted walls and planted flowers.
At residents’ urging, the city installed a new sidewalk and trees in 2009 and speed bumps earlier this year.
What remains is the dilapidated fence, which locals say attracts litter and dog waste and presents a safety hazard, since someone could potentially climb through one of its gaping holes and plunge off the 12-foot wall.
“That is so dangerous — any child could fit through there,” said Debra Myers, a resident who helped lead the beautification efforts. “We are in desperate need for that fence to be replaced.”
Myers said that contractors estimated it would cost about $13,000 to replace the chain-link fence, as well as the shorter wrought-iron one that sits behind it, and another $2,500 to remove the sick and dead trees the fence encloses.
Myers said she brought those estimates to local elected officials and the community board. Chesson, meanwhile, asked several city agencies for help replacing the fence.
Neither has been successful.
“Everybody tells me it’s not theirs,” Chesson said. “It’s the familiar runaround.”
The Mayor’s Office and the Parks Department did not immediately respond to questions about the fence. The Sanitation Department said it is not responsible for the sidewalk, but did comment on the fence.
The Transportation Department said the fence is on private property, but did not elaborate.
Residents from some of the eight private buildings along Selwyn Avenue with back lots facing the wall that leads up to Sheridan Avenue questioned how an inaccessible sliver of soil a dozen feet above their lots could be construed as their property.
They also noted that the city has not treated that property as private.
Several residents and the Community Board 4 District Manager said the Transportation Department erected the fence on that parcel.
Also, the Sanitation Department has posted “No Dumping” signs on trees in that strip and Parks Department workers have pruned them, residents said.
Still, Denise D., who asked to use only her last initial, said she received a $400 Sanitation Department ticket for failing to clean the sidewalk — not in front of her home on Selwyn, but behind and above her back lot on Sheridan, an area only reachable by walking around the block.
She said she contested the ticket and won. The Sanitation Department did not respond to a question about the ticket.
“Common sense,” said Denise, 54. “Sometimes they don’t have it.”
Dempster, who lives in a Selwyn building his aunt owns, said she received a similar ticket for snow removal on the Sheridan sidewalk, which was also dropped.
A Buildings Department inspector in 2011 issued Dempster’s aunt a $1,000 ticket for failing to maintain the rear retaining wall, the top of which was starting to crumble, records show.
At a hearing, Dempster and his aunt argued that the damages were caused by trees in the property atop the wall. When they had tried to uproot the trees, Parks Department workers said they sat in public property and could not be removed, Dempster argued.
The ticket was dismissed, though a vacate order for the back lot stands because of the condition of the wall, records show. The Buildings Department did not respond to questions about the tickets.
In effect, one agency told the family it was responsible for the plot and the sidewalk beside it, while another said the city controlled the property, Dempster explained.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said.
While the city agencies appear to send mixed signals about the strip and the fence, residents continue to work around it, dreaming of the day when a sturdy new barrier will take its place.
“We do as much as we can,” said Myers. “But the city has to step in and do its part.”