“I have a really high tolerance for people doing stuff on the street,” said G Lucas Crane, a member of the Silent Barn collective. “I’m from Brooklyn, I just wanna see people do their thing, I don’t want to call anybody out– but when it gets to this level of saturation, the community needs to do something about it.”
The Silent Barn sits just a block from the intersection of Myrtle-Broadway, a hotbed for K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids that have been targeted by city officials. Now, a coalition led by Council Member Antonio Reynoso is bringing a new kind of attention and care to this bustling but problematic corner.
The “inter-agency intervention” aims to enact what Reynoso described as “comprehensive changes” and “beautification” to an area long considered an “eyesore.” This morning at the corner of Myrtle and Broadway, representatives from the Department of Sanitation (of which Reynoso is the Chair), Community Board 4, the MTA, NYPD, and Department of Homeless Services joined Reynoso as he outlined improvements undertaken in the past week, including better lighting, clearer crossings, and stepped-up policing.
For more than a year, there’s been widespread consensus that New York City is in the midst of a “K2 epidemic.” In mid-September, just prior to the City Council passing anti-K2 legislation, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released an advisory warning that “despite multi-agency enforcement actions at a number of stores selling synthetic cannabinoid products, emergency department visits have continued to increase and there is mounting evidence of these products’ widespread availability.” Since January of this year, there have been over 4,500 emergency room visits related to K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids. Since this spring, the City has seen a “dramatic” increase in these emergency room visits.
The Department also stated that “residents of shelters and individuals with a psychiatric illness disproportionately bear the burden of adverse health events associated with synthetic cannabinoid use.” Because K2 and related substances are so cheap (costing as little as $2 per hit) and have been difficult to prohibit until recently, the drug is widely available from bodegas, smoke shops, and street dealers.
Crane said he learned about K2 from hearing talk about it through his window. “The people who are smoking K2, when I’ve been watching them do it, in front of me, they’re completely oblivious. I’m right there on the other side of the window and they act like I’m not even there. When they pass out literally on the street in front of my shop, I’m like, ‘OK— you can’t do this anymore,'” he recalled thinking. “That’s got to be one hell of a drug. It must really chew you up, based on how they’re acting. It’s crazy how cheap it is. I hope they get the help they need.”
Back in September the Mayor’s Office announced the City was stepping up its efforts to crack down on the drug, including a multi-agency partnership with the DEA that resulted in a number of busts and seizures of large stashes of K2. Less than two weeks later, the City Council unanimously passed a package of laws aimed at strengthening law enforcement’s ability to crack down on synthetic cannabinoids. Until recently, it’s been difficult if not impossible for cops and lawmakers to keep up with manufacturers who have the ability to change the chemical composition of these substances just slightly, allowing them to squeeze past existing Federal Controlled Substance restrictions on known synthetic cannabinoids. The New York State legislature has failed to pass a bill that would make it a criminal act to possess, sell, and manufacture K2, and so control of the substance at the State level is still rather flimsy. It is possible to dole out civil penalties, however, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s decision to enact emergency Health Department regulations.
Despite the prohibition of the drug, people are continuing to use it out in the open (the immediately recognizable smell usually lingers with the stench of garbage at this particular intersection) and officials are still struggling to curb what appears to be increasingly rampant K2 abuse. “This block is something we’ve been trying to address for quite some time,” Reynoso said. “The K2 epidemic has hit us hard on Myrtle and Broadway and has made it very difficult for us to maintain the cleanliness and the type of environment that we want, to ensure this business corridor is well used and as beautiful as you could possibly make it.”
Attention to the area came after a slew of complaints. The presence of local businesses like Bizarre bar and La Lupe at the press conference drove home that open use of the drug has become a nuisance and threatens to drive customers away from nearby establishments.
Though Crane told us he’s been “waiting to see what happens” and so far hasn’t been “very vocal” about the K2 problems, he’s still concerned. “People get off the train and walk down here to go to shows [at the Silent Barn], so it affects us,” he said. “Sooner or later something bad is going to happen on our end and so I’m pretty worried about that, and that kind of worry creates this community-engagement necessity.”
The phrase “clean up” was invoked repeatedly by the press conference speakers, but thankfully not as a sticky euphemism for getting rid of poor people. “Everyone’s worried about change in Brooklyn, like things changing too fast,” Crane said. “But just being able to deal with this blatantly dangerous situation is important.”
Instead, “clean up” was a literal reference to efforts to make the notoriously trash-filled area a bit easier on the eyes. Reynoso highlighted the various efforts to repair surface-level infrastructural decay and bring resources to the area that other parts of the city have had access to for a long time.
“The department of transportation installed ten LED lights on Broadway– lighting was a huge issue over here,” Reynoso said. “We have repainted crosswalks on many of the intersections, it’s very important that people see where they’re crossing because this is an intersection with five different ways to come in.” The DOT has committed to install a quick curb to help bring order to the criss-crossing, often confusing streets. The improvements have been a long time coming, as Myrtle- Broadway is one of the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians.
Reynoso was careful to emphasize these efforts were not simply the result of a flash mob that would disappear after their week of work, rather this was going to be a continuing effort, thanks in part to funding from the City, outreach, and educational opportunities. “We were able to get secure funding to clean Broadway from Myrtle Avenue all the way to Havemeyer, he said. “So the cleaning that’s going to happen is something that we’re really excited about. We really think we’re going to be able to see a change in the cleanliness of the streets.”
The NYPD has also stepped up enforcement in the area. Their presence was a dramatic one today. I saw several plain-clothes cops with visible guns and badges dangling over forced-looking “street wear” and uniformed officers galore, including two officers handcuffing a guy in the street. But the NYPD’s efforts in the area have been ongoing. “Long before we started this movement or this comprehensive look at this block, the NYPD was facing a lot of trouble and they were doing everything they possibly could to ensure they were getting people the help they needed, especially if it was K2 related, making sure businesses weren’t illegally selling the product and also making sure that they fined the owners that were selling the illegal product,” Reynoso said. “They did a great bust here a while ago and I’m extremely excited to know the 83rd Precinct is here with us, making sure this area is safe. I want to thank the NYPD.”
“How we’re all working together is the way we’re supposed to deal with issues,” Reynoso said. “The way we address issues, especially this one, is not by working with one agency at a time, it’s not by doing it one week at a time, not by doing it— ‘We’ll do one thing this year, you’ll do one thing next year—’ it’s about addressing it all in one shot.
The idea that a neighborhood must superficially be clean for petty crime like public intoxication to be deterred is based on an important premise of Broken Windows, or “quality of life” policing. The logic assumes that making a neighborhood look cleaner, safer, and more orderly will drive would-be petty crime committers out of the area, or would deter them from committing crime in the area, which would in turn help discourage more serious crime. Some disorder leads to more disorder, is one assumption of Broken Windows (i.e. “if a window is broken and left unrepaired all the other windows will soon be broken”). Graffiti is often a target of these types of policies and representatives of the Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corporation, an anti-graffiti group that helped with the Myrtle-Broadway initiative, were present.
Crane seemed to agree there is a connection between rampant K2 use around Myrtle-Broadway and the environment. “Personally, I chalk it up to how these streets are oriented. Stanwick is such a no-man’s land over there. You go there and you’re just like, ‘I could do anything over here, there’s no rules because no one can see me,'” he said. “It’s a dead-end street between two big buildings. It’s just lots of little pockets–like Evergreen in front of the B&H Warehouse– these little spots around the neighborhood need to be looked at.”
The title of the written press release ahead of today’s meeting, “Quality-of-life complaints spur inter-agency intervention in Bushwick,” immediately struck me as odd, given that CM Reynoso has been an outspoken opponent of Broken Windows policing. In fact, the Council Member has regularly challenged the NYPD on a variety of issues — for example, he recently criticized the NYPD for a lack of racial diversity and even co-sponsored a bill, the “Right to Know Act,” last year that has the potential to change the way police officers deal with civilians.
I caught up with CM Reynoso following the press conference and asked him about what seemed to be a contradictory support of quality-of-life policing at Myrtle-Broadway on the one hand, and being anti-Broken Windows on the other. I wondered if he saw the project at Myrtle-Broadway as departure from quality-of-life policing.
“This is solution-oriented work, this is about finding out what problems people have— so you’re on K2, we’re going to try to find out ways to take care of you, what solutions there are for recovery. If you’re homeless, we’re bringing DHS out, so DHS can deal with that issue. If you’re selling K2 illegally, yes you’re going to get fined– that’s very important,” Reynoso explained. “Everything we did was solution-oriented, it wasn’t enforcement oriented– the Department of Sanitation didn’t fine people, they brought them trash cans. That’s how you fix problems, you address the underlying issues— not enforcing and giving poor people more problems with fines when they could be helping them out with solutions.”
But had the NYPD been cooperative in emphasizing “solutions” over “enforcement”? It was hard to imagine.
“[The NYPD] doesn’t only do Broken Windows policing,” he reminded me. “They do other types of work too. Our precinct, the 83rd, is very community-based– they get it. So over here, the work that we’re asking them to do, they understand is about finding solutions to problems, not only about enforcement.”
Note: Though G Lucas Crane is a member of the Silent Barn, his comments were made at a public meeting in the absence of other Silent Barn members and B+B was reminded that Crane’s opinions are not necessarily those of other Silent Barn collective members.