In the Shadow of the Ansonia

A homeless encampment on a busy Upper West Side corner challenges the idea that the city’s streets are for everyone

06 Jan 2020 | 11:31

Below the surface of the Great City a delicate and generally tolerable balance of rules and laws and social norms allows us all to coexist. But now and again, the delicate balance fails and the Great City feels as if it is spinning out of control.

That is what happened this holiday season on the northwest corner of 73rd Street and Broadway. It’s both a busy and a historic corner. To the south, Broadway and Amsterdam cross, forming two triangles, remembered by some of us as Needle Park, where drug-fueled panic marked an earlier time that balance in the Great City failed.

Above the corner of 73rd Street looms the legendary Ansonia, a faux Parisian pastiche three times the typical height and far more adorned than most Paris buildings, now enmeshed in netting, with scaffolding ringing its base.

These additions to the original vision of the Ansonia comply with local law 11, which counters the singular New York threat that bits of building will crumble off and plunge down on us. None of us in the neighborhood need reminding why this is necessary. Five years ago a piece of building crumbled off the Esplanade nursing home two blocks away and fatally injured two-year-old Greta Greene as she sat on a bench with her grandmother. We can expect to see much more of this scaffolding in the years ahead, the unsought legacy of a New York architect, Erica L. Tishman, who was struck dead by a plunging piece of building while walking along west 49th street last month.

An Intractable Challenge

Many New Yorkers offer a surprising fondness for how this scaffolding lets them stay out of the rain on nasty days, like an unbeautiful version of the enclosed passages of Paris. The glory of New York of course is that something available on our streets to one New Yorker is there for all New Yorkers to share. Which is no doubt why a group of homeless people decided to encamp at the corner of 73rd Street and Broadway, under the scaffolding, along the edge of the faux Parisian Ansonia, in front of the North Face store.

Even after booming development and gentrification, the West Side of Manhattan remains one of America’s more liberal enclaves, or progressive, as they now say. Which is why the appearance of these unsheltered New Yorkers, as they are now called, created such angst. If not quite existential, this angst has been both robust and dramatizing of one of the Great City’s most intractable challenges.

“I've lived on the Upper West Side for 15 years,” says Elizabeth Carr, organizer of NYC Moms for Safer Streets. “Never, until this year, did we have people sleeping on the street in groups, defecating on the side of buildings, and openly doing drugs.”

Carr is clear-eyed about the mix of people, mostly men, camped by the Ansonia and otherwise living on the streets. Some, she notes, “were on the margin and pushed into homelessness.” But others suffer mental illness, often blended with substance abuse. They “refuse services,” she notes, “flout the norms that keep society functioning, create public health hazards via drug use and open defecation, shout obscenities at passers by, call out to moms like me with strollers saying ‘Give me $1,000 or I'll punch you’.” The encampment featured a sign which read “give us $7000 and we will move.”

Layers of Urban Complexity

Being homeless is not a crime, the mayor regularly points out. Threatening a mom with her child might be. Swinging a lock on a chain in the lobby of the Ansonia and smashing a window, as one resident of the encampment reportedly did after police tried to move them, certainly is.

Last summer the Governor and the Mayor launched efforts, announced separately, to move the homeless out of the subways. The transit authority, run by the governor, emphasized the need to protect transit riders from harassment. The city’s announcements, by the same token (pun for older New Yorkers), stressed that homelessness was not a crime.

The push to push the homeless out of the subways added just one more layer to the urban complexity that created the encampment on 73rd Street in the first place. Several of the homeless on 73rd Street said they had lived in the subways but now found it harder to sleep there. Others said they had moved to 73rd Street because their shoes or other possessions had been stolen when they tried to sleep in the notorious 30th Street men’s shelter.

“I don't feel we've gotten a good answer from any elected official regarding why the conditions on our streets are changing or what they plan to do about it,” Carr said. “There's lots of ‘Well, it's not illegal to sleep on the street.’”

In the middle of December the mayor announced a renewed effort to move homeless off the streets. This has been greeted with both hope and skepticism.

“Clearly,” Carr said, “there needs to be both policy and legal changes and they should be compassionate and effective. The current posture on behalf of the city of allowing these encampments to settle into neighborhoods, make them feel less safe, and really disturb residents, is simply not okay.”

Meanwhile, police and their partners from city agencies and aid groups have managed to move the homeless encampment from the corner to a strip along 73rd Street between the wall of the Ansonia and a wrought iron fence. The sign seeking money to move has been replaced by one asking for hot food.