Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Death of Monroe Avenue

I've blogged about life on my block of Monroe Avenue in Midtown, here and here for example. It was what they call a "transitional" street when I first moved here a decade ago, realtor jargon for "moving out and running down." But we had mostly decent people and even kids running around the street; lots of green, including an empty lot in the middle of the block under an enormous oak that acted like a small park; a sense of a decent, if poor, place to live.

In the past year, that's been unravelling. We've always had drugs on this street -- I've made my peace with that -- but it was peripheral, hidden away. No longer. Beginning with the guy who moved in behind me about this time last year, it's been a slow steady decline.

"D," as he's known, was low-key. But his traffic was unmistakable, and constant. Beginning about midmorning and running until well past midnight. They knocked out, loosened or stole the first-floor light bulbs to make it harder to spot them and their activities. They began to congregate on the drive into the building, under my kitchen door, and use the alley between out buildings for sex, drugs, eating, arguing, etc.

Then it quickly spread to the building across the street, which became a command post with video cameras, surveillance, monitors, etc. More lieutenants moved into a couple more buildings in the middle of the block, making for a network of spotters. You could call the cops to sweep the street, but the loiterers were always gone by the time they arrived.

The Metro Narcotics and Gang Unit busted the command post, but couldn't rout my neighbor. Things died a bit. But another neighbor, living at the opposite end of my building, was also a dealer. He and his wife were much lower key then, with only a little traffic. Mostly, they dealt out of their bedroom window in the back, facing the alley, where no one could see it. But he was a known quantity and managed to get busted three times in succession. He made bail the first two times, but the third one -- with five-figure bail -- finally stuck. He was convicted but will be out before the year is over. We can all hardly wait.

His wife stepped up. Her lease was due to run out back in September, but she somehow conned the secretary at the landlord's office into letting her put a deposit on the nice building across the street, where the resident manager had previously been doing a good job keeping trouble out of the building. She took up residence, after a fashion, though she also had one of the druggies staying there 24/7 to deal with drop-ins.

For the past couple of months now, it's been a steady flow between her apartment across the street, a druggie pair who stopped paying rent a while ago and are waiting for a court eviction, "D" behind me, and a new neighbor downstairs who is a friend and cohort of "D."

And a corner has been turned. The folks who used to rather evasively hang out in front of our building are bold now. They know they have the run of things and don't worry about the other residents. Across the street, where once no one hung around outside thanks to the resident manager, there is now a constant spotter and a small group always hanging about. The traffic is all day long and 90% of the people you see outside don't live on the street.

How bad is it now? Some of the homeless that Rickey Peete and the downtown crowd are chasing out haved moved onto our block. We have about four hookers doing business here; one was busted last Sunday for having sex with a customer in the back parking lot. There are always hard young men talking on cell phones standing around. Or the crack mother, who had her newborn taken from her just a couple of months ago, is always sitting outside, keeping an eye on things.

One example? That Sunday hooker incident I happened to watch. It was about 11PM and I was sitting outside enjoying the quiet and the very mild temperatures. Bennie, my cat, was running up and down the breezeway, keeping sentry duty on the street's feral cats. Four police cars, three with all lights off, come gliding up the street; three park so as to block the drive on my side and the other slides into the back from the other side.

They get out and start walking around. One asks if I've seen anyone suspicious. I answer, "All the time." After a while the hooker and her john are brought around. She's pretty smart-mouthed, wondering if the cops have ever had sex in a car, or at all. The john is very, very quiet. After talking with them, the police let them go and then leave.

They weren't gone two seconds and three men come boiling out of the apartment downstairs. One is talking a mile a minute on his cell wanting to know what happened; he mentions hearing about the police call on a scanner. The other two question the hooker about what happened. No one has noticed me yet, just sitting there upstairs. They all gather to talk strategy, how they need to keep someone posted on the corner steps to watch for cops, right outside my new college-aged neighbor-girl's apartment. For the next hour or so, there is a steady flow of traffic from the apartment across the street, downstairs and out back.

At one point, I hear a bird-whistle. Then a voice from the shadows in middle of the block asks someone on the street if "5-0" is gone, has "the bird flown?"

Today, the woman dealer just doesn't worry. She's now taken to hollering at people in the middle block about her business, or to make threats about neighbors who "snitch" on her to the landlord or the cops. She's taken to renting Hummers, Vipers and what-not to drive, just to show off. She likes to park them off the street in our drive. The word on the street is she's not much longer, as her behavior is causing too much problem, too much attention. We think she'll be attacked before the end of the year. She's had gun battles on the street, too, but now she lives across from us, meaning we'll get her overshots and missed shots. Great.

So you're asking where's the landlord in all this? Good question! He doesn't take resident calls any more. His selling/leasing agent is a nice guy who is appalled by all this, since it makes his job a lot harder, but claims he can't do anything, only Andrew can. And Andrew doesn't do anything at all.

When college-girl moved in downstairs, we joked about how long it would take for her to freak out and move. It was only a week before she complained, a lot, but she's still here. She keeps everything locked tight and rarely ventures out.

Across the street, we had a couple of women who were Hurricane Katrina refugees move in. After just two days, they were demanding to be let out of their lease, threatening to go to court if need be. They had heard about Memphis, but were appalled and afraid at the traffic outside their apartment. And they were from New Orleans!

And so we sit. Nothing from the landlord at all. The dealers are locking down and spreading, getting more bold and comfortable every day. It's only the cold snap this week that's keeping somewhat of a lid on things. One more neighbor family has moved out, and another is threatening to because of her young son.

The cops know all about it. They make the occasional drive through and will respond if you call. But since it's all private property and rental apartments, there's little they can do but roust people.

The cancer has metastasised. The patient is dying. And everyone just seems to stand around watching the slow death.

I've debated buying a gun for several years now. But no one has bothered me yet (the Big, Buzzcut Scowling Silent White Guy Effect, I've learned), nor has the opportunistic crime associated with drugs -- mugging and break-ins -- materialised. But I hate coming in at night, to be accusingly stared at by strangers trespassing on my property, in ill-lit walks and stairs, being surprised by strangers loitering in deep shadows. The only reason I haven't bought a gun yet is that I suffer from depression; mild these days, but who knows? The balance of risk is changing lately; I may have to change my mind.

Meanwhile, my block slowly withers and dies.

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