As recently as last week, refuse - empty auto oil containers, food wrappers and even urine-filled plastic bags cast off by taxi drivers too harried to stop - lined the planting rings around the sidewalk trees and peeked out from under the untrimmed bushes that skirt the red-brick building at 96th Street and 23rd Avenue. Livery cabs were using the location as a staging area. And the gate to the parking lot sat semi-ajar, making the asphalt area behind the building a fertile breeding ground for prostitutes looking to ply their trade at night, neighbors said.
"It's an eyesore in the community," said the Rev. Llian Ferguson, who has lived in the neighborhood for a decade. She was among the more than 15 people who turned out July 21 to voice their concerns about the site they say has been without a tenant since Grumman relocated its East Elmhurst employees to another location last winter.
"Whenever any place is vacant for a while, you find people that gravitate toward it," Ferguson said.
According to city property records, the building at 96-10 23rd Ave. was purchased by Brooklyn-based 618 Realty in December, just about the same time Pat Thorpe, who rallied her neighbors to draw attention to the site's condition, said the once well-kept building stopped receiving regular maintenance.
Brian Berry, a representative of the real estate company, visited the site last Thursday after Thorpe lodged complaints with the Sanitation Department, Community Board 3, members of the media and politician. Berry arranged to have the location cleaned up, hiring two neighborhood men to remove the refuse for $200.
"There was a problem there with debris and we took care of that," Berry said in a phone message. "It's been all cleaned up." Berry did not return phone calls requesting further comment with regard to the company's plans for the location, but Thorpe said he asssured her a new tenant would arrive soon.
But Thorpe said she is worried that without constant vigilance, the site will just return to its previous condition.
Neighbors said upkeep at the building had never been a problem before it changed hands and defense contractor Northrop Grumman left last winter.
A maintenance man kept the sidewalk clear of a debris and "they kept the flowers nice," Thorpe said. But now, the community activist said, things have changed.
"People now are getting so they throw their garbage, too," Thorpe said. "Look at this, garbage everywhere."
During the winter no one showed up to clear the sidewalks of ice and snow, Thorpe said. And since the building was shuttered, livery cab drivers have turned the stretch of road less than a mile from LaGuardia Airport into an impromptu staging area. Neighbors pinned a lot of the blame for the trash on the drivers who park in front of the building.
Parked outside the building, a livery cab driver who identified himself only as Mr. Singh acknowledged that drivers use the area to wait for airport calls but said he usually only parked for a few minutes at a time and never littered.
"We are like this," he said. "We have a job ... just wait for a minute, then we'll go," Singh said, adding there was not sufficient space in the LaGuardia livery cab lot for everyone. Of the trash that neighbors complained about, he said, "That's definitely a bad thing."
Meanwhile, the site appears to be attracting more than just cabs.
Charlene Landrum, who grew up nearby, said she had never had a problem with rodents until her cat dragged one into her house a short while ago.
And Carlos Castro said he found two rats in his backyard for the first time in the 24 years he has lived there.
"The cats grab them in the area," said Castro, who worked for the city Department of Transportation for 21 years. "We've never seen it this dirty. ... (People) use it as a toilet and a dumping ground."
Thorpe said mice aren't the only thing the site is attracting.
The gate to the rear parking lot was not locked when a reporter visited last week. And the sheltered area, out of site of most passing cars, has become a prime location for prostitution, Thorpe said, adding that she saw a woman "soliciting" in broad daylight just a few days before.
Castro said calls to the city's complaint hotline at 311 have been fruitless and complained that the 115th Police Precinct, which covers the area, has been unresponsive.
Residents fought the building's construction when it went up decades ago, said Reginald Best, who has lived in the neighborhood of single-family homes since 1958.
"It never should have been here in the first place because this is a residential neighborhood," he said. But, he conceded, "there's not much you can do."
The neighbors just have to live with it, Best said, but he and others would like to see it maintained.
"We're just wondering, 'Does anybody care?'" asked Sharon Lightbourne, who runs a restaurant next door. "It affects the business because of the garbage and because of the smell."
Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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