October 15, 2012

Ithaca Neighborhood Where Police Officer Was Shot Is ‘Besieged’ by Drugs, Crime, Residents Say

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Ithaca’s West Village Apartments complex has become so overrun by drugs, violence and despair that even the shooting of a police officer there Thursday was hardly surprising, the area’s residents said.

During the daytime, people mill about the streets, conversing freely with neighbors as their children play on a grassy field nearby. But at night, when the sun descends and property management goes home, the apartment complex is transformed almost instantaneously into a drug den rife with danger, according to denizens of the West Village.

“I saw a girl get stabbed in the neck with a fucking steak knife,” said Brian, who has lived in the West Village Apartments, a series of low-income housing units about five minutes west of Ithaca’s Commons, for several years. Brian and other residents were granted anonymity by The Sun in part because they said they feared violent retribution from their neighbors.

Brian, who holds a steady job downtown and has an iMac, Nintendo Wii and about two dozen DVDs in his room, walked to the front steps outside his apartment.

“At the way end, right there, is one of the drug apartments … there’s a gentleman walking toward us, so I’m going to keep quiet for a second,” he said, pausing for a hooded figure who spat on the ground as he passed. “And then down there … that is the warring, other drug place.”

Like other West Village residents, Brian said the proliferation of drugs and crime has grown worse over the last two to three years, noting that his girlfriend will often not go outside at night alone.

“Don’t go there,” he advised when asked about visiting a certain section of the West Village complex at night. “That would be … counter-productive to your health.”

Crime in the West Village burst to the forefront of the city’s consciousness after Officer Anthony Augustine was shot Thursday night on 600 Chestnut Street, right beside the apartment complexes. Augustine suffered a minor stroke Sunday and may never regain full mobility in his arm and hand, Deputy Chief John Barber told The Ithaca Journal.

Jamel Booker, 22, was charged in connection with the shooting. Booker has a long list of priors, including an attempted murder charge, and was well-known in the West Village community, according to both court documents and interviews with residents.

But Booker is hardly the only person to be arrested recently in the West Village. The area is plagued by a paucity of job opportunities, an influx of drugs from New York City and high recidivism rates, city officials and local experts said.

And the situation appears to be getting worse getting worse, many of them said.

“The level of violent crime has increased substantially,” said Deborah Dietrich, director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources, a non-profit that helps the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in Tompkins County, while noting this phenomenon is not necessarily limited to West Village. “Over the last five years, the degree of violence, the frequency of it, has increased … We aren’t used to this level of violent crime in Ithaca.”

Dietrich added that an absence of help for former prison inmates may make West Village even more dangerous.

“West Village is home to a lot of people who have been incarcerated in the past, who continue to struggle to find employment,” Dietrich said. “It’s becoming increasingly ghettoized.”

That transition hit home for Linda, an elderly woman in a wheelchair who could be seen packing all of her belongings to leave the complex the morning after the shooting.

“It’s been like hell here. It’s horrible … A lot of people are afraid to come out because you don’t know who’s out there at night,” said Linda, who had been planning to move out of the West Village Apartments, after living there for eight years, long before Augustine was shot.

Others, however, are unable to escape.

Making meatloaf in her kitchen, Martha lamented that she and her 11-year-old daughter have been unable to afford a home in a different neighborhood and cannot move — even after they were assaulted by their neighbors.

“We got jumped, me and her, and got beat up really bad,” she said. “It’s very negative and very scary up here, but a lot of people like us, even after we got attacked, we can’t afford to move.”

Nearly every night, Martha said, she and her daughter can hear the couple next door arguing about how to sell their drugs.

“We hear them fighting constantly, like … ‘You’re taking from the stash when you should be selling the pills,’” she said.

The couple next door, she said, has a 10-year-old son.

Several other parents also lamented the sheer terror of raising their kids around the crime and drugs of the West Village Apartments.

One mother, Jane, pointed across the street and said that the area was completely off-limits for her and her kids.

“They are not allowed to cross the street; you do not cross the street,” she said. “It’s a completely different world … completely crazy down there.”

Common Council member Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward), whose district includes the West Village Apartments, said she is working to improve the circumstances of those in the complex.

“Crime and quality of life issues have concerned me in that area for quite some time,” she said, noting that she met with the mayor and other officials in August to brainstorm solutions. “Unfortunately, we have not made much progress since then; this continues to be a concern for me.”

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 added that the city sends officers to patrol and respond to crises in the area “extremely frequently.”

“I talk to a lot of families there who say they need help: They feel they are besieged by the drug trade, by the violence that surrounds the drug trade, and they’re looking for help,” Myrick said. “They’re also hoping their property managers will do something: [The property managers] need to step up, they need to do a better job of knowing who it is they’re renting to.”

When asked to comment on the state of drugs and crime in the West Village Apartments, property manager Brian — who hung up the phone before saying his last name — declined.

He also did not answer a question about an online advertisement for the West Village Apartments.

“Discover the thrill, excitement and glee of living in West Village Apartments,” the posting states.

Original Author: Jeff Stein