Once again, the NYPD 67th Precinct in Flatbush had parked a car on the sidewalk. Again, neighborhood residents sprang into action, coordinating dialing 311 to lodge yet another complaint via WhatsApp chat groups. Commandeering public sidewalks to park police squad cars is one thing. Then, another wrecked car—instead of being taken to a tow lot— appeared on the same sidewalk by the Snyder Avenue station, as if a portal from a different dimension had opened in the sky, dumping battered and booted cars on this majority-Black and working-class section of Brooklyn.
“The cops have taken over a majority of the blocks by putting abandoned, booted cars. So we’re hoping to see if they could take the booted cars and put them in a tow lot and clear up [parking] spaces for more of the residents,” said Adrian Césaire, 42, who has lived on Snyder Avenue for over 20 years.
The trash and wreckage of bashed-up cars left by the NYPD is not only an eyesore; it’s an affront amid pandemic-related budget cuts in 2020 totaling millions of dollars, which hurt both the jobs of union sanitation and municipal workers and left residents to clean up litter-strewn streets. While across the country states like Minnesota are pushing to enact ambitious reforms, including the disbanding of police departments, Brooklyn residents have more modest aims. They want the NYPD, whose budget is one of the largest in the nation, even after a modest reduction to $98.56 billion for the 2022 fiscal year, to stop trashing their neighborhood—another way, as far as residents are concerned, the NYPD makes their lives more difficult while displaying their contempt for Black working-class communities like Flatbush.
On a gray Saturday in August, I spot a black Mercedes sedan with tinted windows on that sidewalk, its bottom fender hanging off like a busted lip, the Mercedes-logo grill pressed up against the windshield. Next to it are a large dumpster, a white refrigerator, and two black office chairs with exposed padding.
“Before these dumpsters, the garbage was leaking to the streets and everything,” says Kevon Nesbitt, 40, who has rummaged through garbage at the precinct for over 10 years.
I find Nesbitt diving into the dumpster, masked up and gloved, sorting recyclables to collect the deposit on bottles and cans. He sports a blue T-shirt spelling out his day job as a porter in one of the newly erected buildings that replaced the two-family homes that once lined these streets.
“I have kids. It helps a lot,” he says, describing how many residents turn to recycling as their “bread and butter.” He explains that at least the refrigerator wasn’t put inside the dumpster because a sanitation truck picking it up would compress it and cause an explosion.
He sounds sanguine about the neighborhood. “As the years passed, they turned around and got dumpsters and that makes the place look a lot better, even though you have one or two casualties.”
The “casualties” are the refrigerator and office chairs on the sidewalk. Asked whether that’s illegal dumping, he says it depends on who’s responsible. “Cops?” I ask, after hearing residents speculate on the provenance of office furniture and other big items. “They have the right to do that, but if someone else in the neighborhood was to do that, that’d be a problem.”
In an email statement, the NYPD acknowledged an increase in wrecked cars, blaming changes in the chain of command, and referencing the hiring of a new commander, Deputy Inspector Gaby Celiba, in January. “At that time there were more than four dozen vehicles at the location awaiting transfer to the tow pound,” an NYPD spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the number has now been reduced “to less than a dozen as of August 28.” Calling a spade a spade is something I believe in, and I saw more than half a dozen totaled and booted vehicles on Aug. 28.
Brooklyn residents voted the 67th Precinct the worst in a March Streetsblog NYC survey and ranked it a top contender along with the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights and 114th Precinct in Astoria. In the last week of July, the New York City Department of Sanitation doubled the number of trucks going out in the area from six to 12 a week, and put Sanitation Department enforcement officers at hot spots for illegal dumping, according to reports from The City.
From July 25 to Aug. 7, across East New York, the Sanitation Department issued 24 summonses for illegal dumping and nine for improper disposal of garbage, and 15 for littering from a car. They also carried out 16 vehicle impounds, according to a department spokesperson.
Data from 311 requests for litter baskets show a whopping 1,076 calls from Brooklyn residents for fiscal year 2021 in comparison to 373 (Manhattan), 314 (Bronx), 486 (Queens), and 124 (Staten Island).
In response to the NYPD’s 67th Precinct allegedly dumping furniture outside the station house, the Sanitation Department said, “All New Yorkers are our partners in keeping the city clean, and all have an obligation to put trash in its proper place.” But the department found no evidence of illegal dumping, which involves leaving bulk refuse on public or private property. Items such as refrigerators can be picked up by calling 311.
The NYPD responded to dumping allegations, saying that “trash items were placed next to the dumpster for trash collection.” A neighborhood resident confirmed that the refrigerator and chairs had been collected.
It’s hard to conclusively settle the allegations of cops engaging in illegal dumping—short of the Sanitation Department putting sentries near the Snyder Avenue station house to surveil them. Penalties for illegal dumping range from $4,000 to $18,000 if the trash is dumped from a vehicle.
After the pandemic hit, the Sanitation Department’s budget was slashed by $106 million, according to a department spokesperson. The funds have since been restored for fiscal year 2022, starting July 2021. In response to the cuts, food scrap drop-off sites were closed in March of last year. Composting was restored in April of 2021, with more than 100 sites in operation and more on the way.
Brooklyn community residents interviewed for this story describe the Sanitation Department as responsive, and they note that coordinated street cleanups are happening. But faced with budget cuts that were only restored a little over a month ago, the department had its hands tied. The result has been heaps of uncollected garbage, a wasteland of towering piles of trash bags. No neighborhood has been spared. As of August this year, the city had received 27,631 complaints, almost certain to surpass the 27,835 complaints residents filed in 2020, according to data reviewed by The City.
The department’s roughly 10,000 employees remove about 12,000 tons of trash from the streets daily, says department spokesperson Joshua Goodman.
“So the idea that one neighborhood would feel their trash collection is ‘poor’ is certainly distressing, given the amount of work involved in giving all New Yorkers the clean and safe streets they both expect and deserve,” he wrote in an email.
Another issue is that the Police Department has commandeered entire blocks to park their squad cars, using the city’s “combat parking” law, which allows squad cars to be parked perpendicularly to the curb. The rationale is to be ready to bolt to the scene of an emergency, but in practice, it gives the appearance of an occupying force.
The practice is even more egregious in Flatbush. Cops park directly on the sidewalk, blocking stroller and wheelchair access.
“I don’t really condone that because it’s a mess,” Nesbitt says, pointing to combat-parked cars. “A woman with a stroller can barely even walk through here. What if someone hits a car when someone’s walking past and that car just hits the person and squeezes them in the back? That’s just ridiculous.”
Police also put booted and wrecked cars on the street, blocking sanitation trucks from cleaning all the way up to the curb.
Alexandra Schmidbauer of the Flatbush Community Association can’t remember the last time cops moved the cars to make way for the brushes of a sanitation truck.
“It is up to the 67th Precinct to enforce alternate-side parking so that the street sweeper can have access to clean the street,” she wrote in a July 3 email to community affairs police officer Remy Jean-Francois. She offered to help put up signs to ask people to move their cars on alternate-side-of-the-street parking days, so they could avoid getting tickets, but said a big part of the issue is “the booted cars that belong to the precinct which are often totaled and should be in a city tow yard.”
“We only get our streets cleaned when its [sic] for a precinct event,” Schmidbauer added. “I have lived and worked in many different parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I have never seen anything like this. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the fact that this is a predominantly black/brown community, and a lot to do with predecessors in your position because I believe you would like to help make it better but you are probably told that this is just the way it is right now. Anytime I step outside my neighborhood, I am reminded that this is not how it is for most other Brooklyn neighborhoods.”
“Mr. Jean-Francois does not reply,” she wrote in August to Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte’s office.
Schmidbauer has made similar pleas to other elected officials, including City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, whose district office is on Rogers Avenue south of the 67th Precinct. Most recently, she spoke to someone at Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ office.
What she was told was deflating, she said in a text message on Aug. 29: “There is virtually no hope for the current administration to hold the precinct accountable, and he would try to help me but basically wait for [Eric] Adams to come in.”
As we stroll through the streets near the precinct, on Snyder Avenue, Erasmus Street, and Albemarle Road between Nostrand and Rogers avenues, we encounter booted cars, the refrigerator outside the precinct, car seats, an oversized restaurant menu with no listed price for lamb over rice, and an odd assortment of homespun paraphernalia in black trash bags.
Schmidbauer sends me an image from her extensive collection of snapshots of litter piling up alongside the curb where the sweepers can’t reach, cataloguing before-and-after pictures of how long trash has been left to fester.
We meet longtime Flatbush resident Versel Talbert, 56, outside his home on Snyder Avenue with a broom and dustpan in his hand.
“If I come in at night, and see debris around, I clean it up before the morning, from what I see. So I grab my broom and clean. I try to keep the environment clean,” he says, adding he doesn’t wait for the city to do it, even though it’s the city’s job.
That’s a common sentiment among Flatbush residents—a hard-nosed self-reliance that largely absolves government of its obligations to provide public services for residents.
I ask Schmidbauer about the pitfalls of bootstrapping it with community cleanups and other beautification projects instead of demanding good upkeep with public services like street cleaning.
“If there was someone else to pick up the trash and plant things and maintain the streets, and constantly ask the precinct to move cars and enforce parking, I would be happy to let them do it,” she says. “But in my experience, I think that there’s nothing being done here. Because this is a neighborhood of disenfranchised people.”
That earnest commitment to community stewardship lends itself to an urban policy that favors market policy solutions and is hostile to unions, treating public austerity as fixed rather than as a contested political arena.
Take, for example, the city’s Clean Curbs program, a collaboration between the sanitation and transportation departments, to enlist private entities like business improvement districts, widely considered vehicles of gentrification, in the administration of public services. “It’s a bit like streeteries, but for trash,” wrote Curbed’s Alissa Walker last year, describing the cumbersome requirement for applicants to design and install decked platforms with sealed containers up to eight feet wide and five feet tall and 20 feet long.
Other alternatives include a community garden Ray Beth Maye, 70, and her neighborhoods maintain on Tilden Avenue to promote a sense of community ownership. Over the course of 19 years, Mama Maye, as her neighbors affectionately call her, has seen overbuilding on the block trammel the quality of life of the community, taking away what she calls “the assorted amenities of life” like laundromats, schools, supermarkets, and parking. As a founding member of the Flatbush Community Association, Mama Maye is hopeful about people coming together.
“There’s a rule you say, ‘if everybody did what I do, what would the effect on the world be?’” she asks. “I would like to see more people do what I do and what Alexandra does, which is taking responsibility and taking ownership.”
“And I think when you get the energy of the young people with whatever nuggets of wisdom we’ve managed to gather over our years of living, and you get those [those two] working together, then you really have hope for a solid future. Because you give each other hope. That would be my hope that we keep working and expanding,” she says.
She points to practical changes of the mulch for tree guards, cantaloupe, and beans harvested from the community garden to feed the neighborhood.
It’s of course more complicated than an either-or choice about whether to contribute to a community or press demands on the municipal government. Instead, it’s about what demands to make in the first place, and what contributions build collective power as opposed to undermining it. That’s hard work. But Black people shouldn’t have to beg and plead to the city government for clean streets that New Yorkers in whiter and more well-heeled neighborhoods take for granted.
There is a tangled web of interests at play in this kind of volunteerism, which may appear on the surface as magnanimous and big-hearted. This year, Schmidbauer graduated with a public health degree from Brooklyn College, and her academic interest in urban sustainability coupled with the daily experience of walking her dog through a neighborhood strewn with trash provided the impetus to get involved in improving it. The Flatbush Community Association won a $1,500 “Love Your Block” grant from the Mayor’s Fund.
“The irony is incredibly strong that we would get money from the Mayor’s office to basically combat gentrification issues, but then not get any help with the root of the problem,” she says.
Irony, indeed. It’s as if the institutional body of municipal government took the right hand to gouge out the left eye. Add the NYPD, and it’s the right hand taking a gun and blasting the Sanitation Department’s efforts to rein in illegal dumping to smithereens.
The Flatbush Community Association also got a $1,000 grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City.
The Citizens Committee for New York emerged out of the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis. It intended to rally corporate and real estate interests in an effort to reorganize municipal government away from the reigning postwar social democracy and towards a market ethos and technocratic decision-making. They rejected the proposition of an activist government intervening to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, embracing instead an ideal of corporate social responsibility buttressed by rugged individualism and austerity.
Historian Kim Phillips-Fein writes in Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics that the 1970s were the turning point when the city was transformed into the “highly stratified society it is today—a city of apartments bought as investment properties for the wealthy of the world even as almost 60,000 New Yorkers live in homeless shelters.”
The city government also reorganized the public sector, beginning to privatize work previously done by municipal workers in unions. “The City pioneered the use of welfare recipients and volunteers to undercut lower-skilled unionized civil service jobs, and it began to forge partnerships with nonprofit organizations to farm out responsibility for managing public amenities to the private sector,” write John Krisky and Maud Simonet in Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office offered volunteers who need to complete community service to help with cleanup, Schmidbauer wrote me via text in September. At an NYPD Build the Block event that same month, she raised concerns about heaps of garbage and bashed-up cars. In response, the NYPD, she says, told her to launch a petition directed at the Department of Sanitation.
Schmidbauer says her commitment to grassroots activism was inspired by reproductive justice activist Brittany Brathwaite, with whom she took a class at Brooklyn College. But she was also fed up with the experience of logging in complaints to 311 and hitting an impasse with city agencies. She had to turn elsewhere for support.
“I just saw that it wasn’t happening for us, and that this neighborhood was just a little bit more ignored than the other neighborhoods I’ve lived in Brooklyn, and that it probably wasn’t going to happen without some grassroots action,” she says.
Schmidbauer and other members of the Flatbush Community Association have been going door to door to talk to their neighbors, searching for solutions and power in each other without relinquishing their ability to exercise power over the city’s governance.
They have powerful models to draw from. In the summer of 1969 in Spanish Harlem, the Young Lords, a militant group of local Puerto Rican activists who modeled themselves on the Black Panther Party, bagged up trash for the Sanitation Department to haul away.
“We had bags and bags and bags of trash. We said, ‘You going to come clean this trash up now or what?’ They refused,” recalled former Young Lord Hiram Maristany, a photographer who documented what came to be known as the Garbage Offensive.
The Young Lords hauled rusted refrigerators, old cars, mattresses, and furniture to Third Avenue near East 110th Street, and set them on fire.
Pablo Guzmán, another member of the Young Lords, described what led to the conflagration in a 1995 article in the Village Voice.
“All we had been trying to do after sweeping up the streets on previous Sundays was talk with Sanitation about once-a-week pickups and nonexistent trash cans, and about how to decently treat people asking for help instead of blowing them off,” he wrote.
Much as New Yorkers are now drawing on tactics from the 1930s to stop evictions during the pandemic, will Flatbush residents emulate the Young Lords in fighting the degradation of their neighborhood by the NYPD and the real estate industry?
“We have enough new housing that people can’t afford,” says Schmidbauer. “The police have enough of a budget. The rights and the control are slipping away from people’s hands. And it’s affecting our quality of life. So it’s just time to make ourselves heard and say ‘enough.’”