By Oliver Morrison
This past summer Diane Romero smelled something terrible.
She walked down a tall staircase on her way to work between Shakespeare Ave and Edward L. Grant and discovered a dead dog in a garbage bag next to the steps, rotting in the summer heat. She called 311.
“They said they were going to call the Department of Sanitation. But they never came,” said Romero, 48, who cleans houses in Westchester with her daughter.
Romero’s experience reflects a problem that has been plaguing the Bronx for more than a decade: the step streets aren’t cleaned on a regular schedule.
“Step streets” are tall staircases, often with more than 100 steps, which run between parallel streets that provide quick access for pedestrians in hilly areas. A majority of step streets are in the Bronx.
Step streets provide a place for children to play and the elderly to exercise, Highbridge residents said. But they also said some people use them to smoke drugs, urinate and rob passers-by.
“There are quick getaway points if the police are coming,” said resident Serena Walker, 24.
The city has been rebuilding these aging step streets one project at a time, the latest being a $2.2 million renovation of a step street on 168th Street in the Bronx, approved in September. While a lot of money has been spent on capital projects, the city doesn’t pay for a regular cleaning schedule.
The Sanitation Department monitors step streets on a daily basis but doesn’t clean them even on a weekly schedule. “In cleaning this area, there are no set schedules and it depends on many factors such as staff availability,” wrote spokesman Kathy Dawkins.
“They monitor and clean them as needed and that is kind of subjective, isn’t it,” said Earl McKay, who chairs the Housing and Land Use Committee in the Bronx community district that includes Highbridge.
District Manager Jose Rodriguez said the step streets are usually overlooked.
“I just think they prioritize step streets not even secondary but tertiary, something they’ll take care of once everything else has been looked at,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez also thinks that residents bear some personal responsibility. “People who live in those buildings should not be throwing garbage out of their windows,” Rodriguez said.
When he receives a complaint, Rodriguez calls the city and usually the Sanitation Department resolves the problem, sometimes by cleaning the steps, sometimes by issuing a summons to the building owners to clean them.
When the sanitation department saw photos of the garbage bags next to the Shakespeare Avenue step streets, the Sanitation Department issued a summons to the building owner because the garbage was leaning against the steps, but on the outside of them.
Rodriguez doesn’t know what the long-term answer is.
“I yell, I scream but I don’t want to burn a bridge with an agency,” Rodriguez said. “I can stand on a soap box and scream at the top of my lungs but I don’t know if it will be effective.”
Rodriguez cited the lack of cleaning in the community needs statement he gave to the city last year and plans to ask how much regular cleanings would cost.
“If we don’t pay attention to these quality-of-life issues, many of the major social ills that plague our community will only be compounded,” Rodriguez said.
The neglect of the step streets is symbolic of how the city wants to appear as if it is taking care of Bronx residents without actually doing so, resident Ronny Thompson, 29, said.
“Sanitation skips right past us,” Thompson said. “They say let them live in filthy and nasty. They’ll just clean up the outside streets where everyone can see.”