Disputed Territory

“As a 22 year old going into the force, you expect to deal with drugs, crime…not terrorism. You can’t plan for something like that.” Police Officer Michael Lewis was a first responder for 9/11. He’s close to six feet tall, with dark-brown hair lightly peppered with grey. Thirty-five, Caucasian and married—a plain gold band is on the ring finger of his left hand. A native of Yonkers, he was only 22 when he joined the city’s police force. Lewis initially worked in the Bronx, but for the past 10 years, he’s been patrolling the Fourth District.

“Police-wise, it’s about the same,” he says. “There’s a lot of bad things that happen here.”

52 Yonkers Avenue, 1985. 82-year-old woman found strangled to death. Unknown as to how long she remained inside her apartment.

51 Linden Street, 1986. Drug kingpin Sami Annabi sentenced to 25 years and fined $100,000 for involvement in heroin ring. His wife and 12 others also arrested and charged.

August 2011. 65 alleged gang members are arrested and charged for drug, murder and firearm possession. The gang, led by 25-year-old Steven Knowles, is allegedly responsible for distributing crack in the Elm and Oak Streets vicinity.

April 2012. Gambling debt spurred a gang feud, which led to three shootings and a stabbing within one week in the southwest side of Yonkers.

April 2013. After a series of burglaries in the southwest, a Yonkers teen is arrested. He is believed to be involved in a bigger crime spree in the Bronx.

Though Lewis maintains that the City of Yonkers is generally a safe place, he says there are still some unsafe areas. Around 2008, the Yonkers Police Department led a cooperative joint effort with the Federal Government to clean up the city’s streets—mainly in the southwest. “The waterfront’s a lot calmer than what it was,” he says. At the beginning of the 20th century, Yonkers was “the industrial part of Westchester County, with 129 factories counted in 1912.”

The city’s waterfront was once home to several of these factories, such as the Otis Elevator Company, the Yonkers Power Station. But once they ceased operations, life around the waterfront slowly deteriorated.

The closing, according to then-Chamber of Commerce President Joseph J. Harding, was “one of the worst catastrophes that has ever fallen” and would “deprive the city’s economy of a $170,000 weekly payroll.”

No money for residents of the southwest meant no customers for businesses, which created empty storefronts. Eventually, those vacant buildings were either demolished or left to rot, leaving skeletons of former commercial success and barren patches of land—later “garbage-strewn eyesores”—in their wake.

The corners of Palisades Avenue and Elm Street are disputed gang territory. Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings. GMF and GMB. Most have music videos on YouTube. A small gas station, a pizza parlor, a parking lot and a fire station sit on each corner of the intersection. It is steps away from Getty Square, down the block from the William A. Schlobohm houses–a cluster of tall, low-income apartment buildings.

“A lot of drug activity happens around here. It’s a game of cat and mouse.” Police Officer Anthony Varela has only been working with the Fourth Precinct for three years. Before becoming an officer, he was an investment banker, down on Wall Street. The stress from that job, he says, became unbearable. Since many family members were officers, the career switch didn’t raise an eyebrow.

He is young–barely 30–and tall, around 6’4. He has clear olive skin and short, dark brown hair. Though familiar with Yonkers due to family residing in the city, he grew up in Northern Westchester. Varela discusses the area’s spike in crime during the summer months, changes in the downtown over the years–including a rise in gang activity. “There’s so many local gangs in Yonkers,” he says. “It’s hard to keep up.”

According to Varela, the two most dangerous and notorious gangs in the area are the Elm Street Wolves and the Strip Boyz, who at one point, were at war with one another—and literally were only one block’s distance apart.

He says that Elm and Oak streets are some of the highest crime areas in the city. They are amid the other “tree streets”–Oak, Elm, Spruce, Alder, Walnut, Beech, Maple, Ash, Poplar, Willow, Linden. These thoroughfares aren’t shaded by lofty green leaves—instead, extreme poverty is entangled in the neighborhood’s roots. They’re well-known battlegrounds by police and a source of cheap housing by those in search of a better life–often single mothers and their families—often through the Department of Social Services. Though the area falls into the Third Precinct, those in the Fourth Precinct are still familiar with the neighborhood.

It’s a tough area to patrol, Varela says. Still, according to him, not all of the southwest side is undesirable.

“The waterfront is nice. They’re really trying to fix it up. But it’s tough because trying to attract the middle class…” his sentence trails off. “When Getty Square closes up at night, there’s nothing really over here.”

The waterfront is home to luxury apartments, upscale restaurants. There is artwork installed along the boardwalk next to the Hudson River. A former parking lot site is a small park. All of this is within a four-block radius. Past those four blocks, however, the neighborhood has not been gentrified.

“They’re not paying New York City prices, but they’re paying a lot to live in southwest Yonkers,” Varela says.

Rent for the new waterfront apartments ranges from $1,650 to about $3,200, for one and two bedroom apartments. Conversely, a four bedroom apartment on Woodworth Avenue–a street close to the waterfront in an older neighborhood in the southwest–is currently advertised for $1,850.

Currently, you would need to earn at least $30.02 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Westchester County at Fair Market Rent, in order to avoid spending 30 percent of your gross income on housing. In other words: You would have to gross approximately $62,440 a year to comfortably live in the county. A household would have to work 166 hours a week earning $30.02 an hour–to avoid being “housing cost burdened,” as HUD puts it.

And if you receive public assistance, work a low-wage job, are unemployed or faced with any other financial strains, you are limited to only a small amount of affordable apartments.

“The majority of homeless people we help typically don’t have mental illnesses,” Varela says, “but we see a lot who do.” Deinstitutionalization, or the decrease in long-term mental health hospitalization in the 1980s, allowed many people with severe mental illnesses to avoid extended hospital stays. Community-based mental health centers took the place of asylums; the effects and costs of continued hospital stays and the improvement of psychotropic drugs caused state and county facilities to shutter their doors. But those who weren’t able to find their footing amid this newfound exodus toward freedom wound up living on the streets.

Most of the homeless population stays in southwest Yonkers for a few reasons, Varela continues. For one, there are several nonprofits in the area, as well as the Department of Social Services and shelters.
“But after the programs close, people have to find somewhere else to go, something else to do,” he says. “And we’ve had a lot of… different things happen down here.”