West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues has had an active Block Association going back to the 1970’s. Unfortunately, much of the early history has been lost.
The earliest known record is a newsletter from September 1976. Among the news was the August 30th vote of the Camelot Tenants Association to go on rent strike, a block meeting at the Martin Beck Theater attended by then U.S. Representative Ed Koch, and a request to the NYC Department of Transportation to prohibit street parking overnight, the reason being that people — some selling drugs or prostitution — would sit on cars, loiter, and even turn tricks between parked cars.
New York City was a different place in those days, and many of the issues faced by the Block Association were related to prostitution and drug dealing. Local “establishments” included the Treasure Palace, Hungry Hilda’s, Pleasure Seekers Club and Gilded Grape.
We believe that at one time the Block Association ran from 8th Avenue all the way to 10th or 11th Avenue, as many local Block Associations do today. But, for some unknown reason, we understand the Block Association split in two. Our Block Association — since at least 1985 and probably before — runs only from 8th to 9th Avenues. This is reflected in our logo and official name. The “other” West 45th Street Block Association runs from 9th to 11th Avenue.
Around 1986, the reins of the Block Association were handed from Susan Edwards to Gordon and Renee Stanley, who ran the group through the early 1990’s. As with many local Block Associations, our group was loosely structured and leadership went to those who were willing to do the work.
In the late 80’s the crack epidemic (and the apparent lack of police coverage) was the most important issue. The Stanleys compiled lists of important phone numbers distributed throughout the block, had meetings with local precinct captains as well as Zone Commanders (that controlled several precincts). Some say the police were overwhelmed; others said they were limited by lack of resources or willingness. Either way, the block and the surrounding area was drowning in crack, heroin and prostitution.
The Block Association initiated a program called Good Guy Loitering in the summer of 1987. The idea was simple … control of the street was like to real estate. Whenever the “good guys” were on the street and spread out up and down the block, we had the turf and the bad guys could not control things. That meant that drug dealers, prostitutes, anyone taking a leak or engaged in any obnoxious activity, would evade the block with a strong citizen presence. It wasn’t easy. We had whistles and flash lights. We encouraged residents to “own” their stretch of the block (usually in front of their buildings), but to also not to engage with or get into the face of people that other wise might turn to violence. Whatever we did to draw attention to those engaged in objectionable behavior and drive them away, we did so from a distance. We also took the NYPD Block Watcher program training, which boiled down to: watch, report and don’t engage.
And it worked, at least to a degree. Sitting on the stoop was more than just spending time on a hot summer night. It was a control tactic. Many of us spent many evenings — sometime until 2 or 3 AM — controlling the block. It was our presence that mattered.
In the summer of 1988, the Block Association, along with other groups from other nearby blocks, asked the Guardian angels to cover the area. At that time the Guardian Angels were politically controversial. They were hated by the police. But they were needed. See our extensive coverage of the Summer of 1988.
Also in 1988 lights were installed at the Martin Beck Theater (now the Al Hirschfeld Theater) to discourage loitering. At our request, the marquee was left lighted until midnight.
Around 1992 the Stanleys handed over the Block Association to Jay and Jeanie Devlin, who lived in the Camelot. Around that time we saw a resurgence of crack cocaine after a few years of it being on the wane. The second time around the epidemic didn’t attract as many people as we saw in the late 1980’s. Nevertheless, the Devlins, with a core group, purchased a camera, binoculars and other equipment and helped the police in going after dealers. We know that the police had a few observation points on the block (usually someone who offered their apartment as a vantage point).
When it came to drugs, prostitution and illegal parking, our block seemed to suffer more than other nearby blocks. One reason for this was that the dividing line between Midtown North and Midtown South Police Precincts ran down the middle of the street. While the official NYPD position was that the block received “double” protection, in reality, police presence was about one-half of what it should have been. Officers from both precincts were reluctant to patrol the block claiming the other precinct covered the block.
We had a good number of instances where officers actually refused to answer a call making this claim. It was only when the Block Association went higher up the chain of command of the NYPD that we received any meaningful response. In 1986 then City Council Member Ruth Messinger officially brought the issue to the attention of Zone Commander Robert Burke.
In 1995 a proposal was made to change the boundary lines between the two precincts to help alleviate this issue. On 45th Street, we had serious issues to consider. The West 44th Street Block Association was also in favor of making the change but not because they had any issue with criminal behavior.
Hearings were held at Community Board 4 and a number of elected officials took positions in favor of making the change. Community Board 4 unfortunately misrepresented the concerns of block residents and held hearings in Chelsea, not in the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Board 4 made their request to the NYPD very weak, intentionally guaranteed to fail. So it was no surprise that the NYPD refused to make any changes. They claimed it would be too difficult to make the change (although they had done exactly that in Murray Hill a few years before that.
While we found a number of exceptional officers, we also endured NYPD doubletalk, especially when we met with Captains of the Midtown North and Midtown South precincts and with Midtown North Community Affairs (which seems to be on perpetual vacation).
One instance worth noting was our 1996 meeting with Midtown South Captain Robert King, who claimed that our complaints were imaginary, and that the officer assigned to the block, P.O. Buscarino, was there every night making rounds. As it turned out, Officer Buscarino and other officers at Midtown South Precinct were running a brothel instead of being on duty. See here and here and here.
Needless to say, Captain King was reassigned.
It was not only drugs and prostitution. The Block Association dealt with many issues including illegal parking by tourist buses, the Private Eyes nightclub (at the time it was much more rowdy than what it is today) the daily line-up of welfare recertification exams at HS Systems, film shoots and lack of police control or protection at the Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld) Theater.
It remains that every few years, the NYPD needs to be reminded there is a block that needs to be patrolled.
In 1997 Ron Colby moved upstate. Joanne Ebersbach took his place as Block Association Co-Chair. She, along with John Fisher, remain as Co-Chairs to this day.
Over the years interest in the Block Association depended on whether there was a real crisis. It’s always been like that, and apparently other block associations have had the same problem. To compound that, there hasn’t been a readily available meeting place we could use. For many years we actually met off-the-block at St. Luke’s Church on 46th St. But they charged a fee and many resident didn’t want to make the trip around the corner. And on occasion we met at the 45th Street Theater (354 West 45th St), but we were at the mercy of whoever had control of the building. They were hard to reach even to make the request. On one occasion after being given a few hours to meet, we discovered that the management forgot about us and locked up the building.
More to come on the 2000-2010 period.