William Serries is carrying his daughter Carolyn to Sacred Heart Cacholic school in the  morning.  The 168th street steps in the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx is an important passage-way for the neighborhood, to work and the subway, a butcher and laundry mats below.

William Serries is carrying his daughter Carolyn to Sacred Heart Catholic School in the morning before heading off to play basketball. The 168th Street steps in the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx is an important passage-way for the neighborhood, to work and the subway, a butcher and laundry-mats below.

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.”

Diane Romero and her daughter Nina were hurrying to their jobs in Westchester where they help people with cleaning.  "They have flowers and its clean and here we have garbage," said Diane, comparing Weschester to this part of the Bronx. She said there was a dead dog in a black bag all summer long that was decomposing.

Diane Romero and her daughter Nina were hurrying to their jobs in Westchester where they help people with cleaning. “They have flowers and it’s clean and here we have garbage,” said Diane, comparing Weschester to this part of the Bronx. She said there was a dead dog in a black bag all summer long that was decomposing and no one came to clean it up even after calling 311.

Deltra Brown, 29, was walking back to the shelter where she lives when she stopped to have a cigarette on the steps.    Around a month ago her two children were put in protective custody in Queens because she said she had trouble filling out school paperwork and after an episode in which she was told to go pick up her daughter from school, but had been smoking marijuana

Deltra Brown, 29, was walking back to the shelter where she lives when she stopped to have a cigarette on the steps. Around a month ago her two children were put in protective custody in Queens after an episode in which she picked up her sick daughter from school, but had been smoking marijuana.

The man with the cane in this photo comes up to me after I'm done talking with Brown and tells me to be careful.  "Don't let these people get close to you," said the man who refused to be named.  "That's what happened to me.  They asked for the time and then they snatched my phone."

The man with the cane in this photo comes up to me after I’m done talking with Brown and tells me to be careful. “Don’t let these people get close to you,” said the man, who didn’t want to be named. “That’s what happened to me. They asked for the time and then they snatched my phone.”

A man who didn't want to be identified stops to roll a joint on the stairway.  He bought it for about ten dollars and says it comes from California.

A man who didn’t want to be identified stops to roll a joint on the stairway. He’s from the East Bronx but likes this side because the hills remind him of how all the land here used to be mountains and farms a century ago.

Pointing to the hillside, he said he likes to smoke here because "if anyone does come I have two escape points.  And I can see them.  Even if they do box me in, I can always run over there".

It’s a good spot to smoke, he says, because “if anyone does come I have two escape points. And I can see them. Even if they do box me in, I can always run over there,” pointing to the hillside.

Porforio Segura (right) works for the Highbridge Community buildings as a maintenance worker down the street.  He sees people come out of their buildings and dump their garbage just beyond the view of the building cameras.  Jaime Reyes, another maintenance worker, eats and feeds one of the stray cats that live on the steps.

Porforio Segura (right) works for the Highbridge Community buildings as a maintenance worker down the street. He sees people come out of their buildings and dump their garbage just beyond the view of the building cameras. Jaime Reyes (left), another maintenance worker, likes to feed tuna to the stray cats that live on the steps.

Jacquelline Rodriguez works at the building next door and keeps the sidewalk and the right part of the stairway clean, but she said in Spanish that the city is supposed to clean the other parts.

Jacquelline Rodriguez works at the building next door and keeps the sidewalk and the right part of the stairway clean, but she said in Spanish that the city is supposed to clean the other parts.

Sheila Perdomo, 15, lives in the building behind where the children are standing, waiting for their mom to come up the stairs.  She said that the lights have gone off sometimes at nine and she had to hurry into the gate because it was so dark.

Sheila Perdomo, 15, lives in the building behind where the children are waiting for their mom. She said that the lights go off sometimes at nine and she has to hurry into the gate because it is so dark.

Eddie Garcia, 46, is looking out for his ride.  He gets picked up around 10pm every night from his job in New Jersey.  A few minutes after a black man in a baseball cap responds to an interview request with, "This isn't the safest pale to be doing an interview.  Don't you realize where you at?"

Eddie Garcia, 46, is looking out for his ride home after work. He gets picked up around 10pm every night. A few minutes after this photo a black man in a baseball cap said, “This isn’t the safest place to be doing an interview. Don’t you realize where you at?”

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