WHEN NIMBY MET MAGA

Liberals on the Up­per West Side wanted to oust hun­dreds of home­less men from a lo­cal ho­tel. Then Tucker Carl­son took up their cause.

New York Magazine - - IN­TEL­LI­GENCER - By Miriam Elder

by the time Alison Mor­purgo heard that 283 home­less men would be mov­ing into the Lucerne Ho­tel, just a few blocks from her apart­ment on the Up­per West Side, she was al­ready riled up.

It was late July, and Mor­purgo was ven­tur­ing out­side af­ter iso­lat­ing for months with her two teenage kids—walks in the park, the oc­ca­sional cof­fee with a friend. “It was like, Wow, this is amaz­ing. We’re out­side again,” she re­called. The Up­per West Side, where the me­dian in­come is al­most twice the city­wide aver­age, wears its lib­er­al­ism like a badge of honor, and at the start of the pan­demic, ges­tures of com­pas­sion abounded. Cozy Ital­ian restau­rants turned into gro­cery stores sell­ing es­sen­tial items. Peo­ple put up signs of­fer­ing help to those in need. A lo­cal stu­dent who de­liv­ered food to the el­derly was in­vited to ap­pear on Good Morn­ing Amer­ica.

But as the neigh­bor­hood came back to life, things felt … dif­fer­ent. Amid the out­door restau­rants and the cou­ples am­bling down Broad­way, Mor­purgo saw dis­carded nee­dles on the sidewalk and peo­ple passed out on benches. “The streets were start­ing to feel a lit­tle bit less safe,” she said. “We just didn’t know what was go­ing on.” Ev­ery­one around her seemed to be aban­don­ing the neigh­bor­hood. The streets were filled with mov­ing trucks; many res­i­dents who had fled dur­ing the pan­demic to sec­ond homes in Con­necti­cut and the Hamp­tons de­cided to leave for good.

Mor­purgo, who leads a team of reg­u­la­tory lawyers at one of the world’s largest banks, be­lieved there was a di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween the two de­vel­op­ments: the ar­rival of the home­less and the de­par­ture of the wealthy. As part of a plan to cre­ate more space for so­cial dis­tanc­ing at shel­ters dur­ing the pan­demic, the city had al­ready moved some 450 men and women into three empty ho­tels on the Up­per West Side. But the ar­rival of the men at the Lucerne was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” ac­cord­ing to Mor­purgo. She and other res­i­dents were alarmed to learn that many of the men were what is known in so­cial­work cir­cles as mica—short for “men­tally ill chem­i­cal abuser.” The day af­ter the men moved into the ho­tel, a new group popped up on Face­book to de­mand that they be re­lo­cated. The group called it­self Up­per West Siders for Safer Streets.

Who ac­tu­ally started the group re­mains a closely guarded se­cret. “It was a col­lab­o­ra­tive process,” the woman who pulled the trig­ger Op­po­site: Res­i­dents meet with Cur­tis Sliwa of the Guardian An­gels in Au­gust.

told me through an in­ter­me­di­ary. “Many neigh­bors, once strangers, came to­gether to cre­ate a vir­tual town square and ef­fect com­pas­sion­ate, con­struc­tive so­lu­tions.” Within a week, Safer Streets had more than 1,000 mem­bers. Mor­purgo, who had been in­vited by a fel­low par­ent, was among the first.

“There were so many posts about peo­ple leav­ing New York,” she re­called. “So I said, ‘Can we just make this about stay­ing? What we can do to make it bet­ter for any­one who ei­ther wants to stay or has to stay?’” She was asked to be­come a mod­er­a­tor.

But many peo­ple who flocked to the group, she quickly learned, weren’t in­ter­ested in any form of mod­er­a­tion. Mem­bers posted pho­tos of Black men gath­ered at the merid­i­ans on Broad­way, close-ups of fe­ces and con­doms on the pave­ment, and pic­tures of en­camp­ments set up by those sleep­ing in the streets. There was no ev­i­dence that any of it in­volved the men from the Lucerne, but that stopped no one. “We worked very hard to be here,” read one com­ment. “The home­less did not. They must me [sic] taken where they be­long.” Some in the group took to call­ing the men in the ho­tels “crea­tures.” There was talk of smear­ing neigh­bor­hood benches with mo­lasses to dis­cour­age them from sit­ting down. As the group bal­looned to 15,000 mem­bers, QAnon sym­bols be­gan ap­pear­ing in pro­file pho­tos. Peo­ple were shout­ing about “law and or­der.” Some didn’t live on the Up­per West Side at all. Oth­ers ad­mit­ted they were Up­per West Siders who were watch­ing things un­fold from afar.

The New York Post and Fox News quickly seized on the group. Mor­purgo had wanted press cov­er­age—any­thing to bring at­ten­tion to the is­sue—but this wasn’t what she had bar­gained for. Sean Han­nity and Tucker Carl­son de­voted seg­ments to dis­cussing how this nice, ex­pen­sive (read white) cor­ner of the city was de­scend­ing into home­less (read Black) an­ar­chy. The cor­re­spon­dents Fox sent “into the field” came back with sto­ries—but no footage—of men shoot­ing up in the streets. “A pre­view of com­ing at­trac­tions if Bi­den’s Amer­ica be­came a re­al­ity,” Han­nity warned. Paul Joseph Wat­son, a far-right YouTu­ber, fea­tured the neigh­bor­hood in a video called New York City Is a Sh*thole that at­tracted nearly 1 mil­lion views.

Mor­purgo and her lib­eral neigh­bors, it seemed, had failed to un­der­stand the cur­rent state of Amer­ica’s cul­ture wars. “When the men came into the Lucerne, it just ex­ploded in this ugly rhetoric,” said Corinne Low, a lo­cal res­i­dent who op­posed Safer Streets. “I was so em­bar­rassed to have that com­ing out of a neigh­bor­hood to­ward peo­ple who are in need.”

But it was also be­com­ing un­com­fort­ably ob­vi­ous that the rhetoric, while ugly, was clar­i­fy­ing. In the age of Trump, the line be­tween “not in my back­yard” and “go back to where you came from” has been all but oblit­er­ated. What is maga, af­ter all, but a glob­al­ized ver­sion of nim­by­ism, in­tent on chas­ing peo­ple of color off Amer­ica’s pris­tine lawn?

No one moves to the Up­per West Side for the drama. This is a neigh­bor­hood of re­li­able habits— of de­vout read­ers of the Sun­day Times, Fri­day-night din­ners at Cafe Lux, and af­ter­noon strolls in ei­ther Cen­tral or River­side Park (a ri­valry more con­tentious than Trump-Bi­den, in which ev­ery res­i­dent must de­clare a fa­vorite). Mor­purgo was stunned by the vit­riol that was over­whelm­ing Safer Streets, even if she agreed with the un­der­ly­ing goal. She had never even seen an episode of Carl­son’s show, and now here he was, ex­ploit­ing her neigh­bor­hood’s pri­vate pain for po­lit­i­cal gain. Only two months ear­lier, the Up­per West Side had been thrust into the na­tional spot­light af­ter a white woman called the cops on a Black bird­watcher in Cen­tral Park. But in Mor­purgo’s mind, the bat­tle over the home­less wasn’t about race—it was about pub­lic safety. Af­ter all, she had gone to Black Lives Mat­ter protests, and her kids were still march­ing. “I was re­ally wor­ried with some of the nar­ra­tive that’s been spun around this,” she said. “The last thing I want is for my teenagers to think I’m a bad per­son.”

With Safer Streets erupt­ing into chaos, Mor­purgo and four other mem­bers slipped away and reg­is­tered a non­profit called the West Side Com­mu­nity Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Known as WestCo, the group raised more than $200,000 through GoFundMe and pri­vate do­na­tions. In a sign of its de­sire to play hard­ball, the group re­tained Randy Mas­tro—the for­mer deputy mayor to Rudy Gi­u­liani—who threat­ened to sue the city if it did not move the men out of the Lucerne. Some of the group’s lead­ers met for the first time in the back­yard of a brown­stone be­long­ing to Dana Lowey Luttway, a realestate mag­nate who is the daugh­ter of Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Nita Lowey. “I just wanted to hug peo­ple, but you couldn’t,” said Mor­purgo, who was named vice-pres­i­dent. They or­dered sushi and sat six feet apart.

But while WestCo didn’t en­gage in the ug­li­ness lobbed around by Safer Streets, that didn’t in­su­late it from ac­cu­sa­tions of lib­eral hypocrisy. White peo­ple make up al­most 70 per­cent of the Up­per West Side, while Black peo­ple com­prise 58 per­cent of the city’s shel­ters. One long­time res­i­dent, Peggy Tay­lor, re­called the first thing she said when the men ar­rived at the Lucerne: “Now I’m not the only Black face on the Up­per West Side.” Low, who teaches eco­nom­ics at the Whar­ton School of the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, com­pared WestCo to seg­re­ga­tion­ists from the ’60s: “It’s about want­ing the Up­per West Side to be­come this more and more ex­clu­sive space.” In re­sponse, she founded a group called the Up­per West Side Open Hearts Ini­tia­tive, which or­ga­nized a se­ries of events in front of the Lucerne—do­na­tion drives to pro­vide the men with clothes for job in­ter­views, art projects where peo­ple chalked mes­sages on the sidewalk out­side the ho­tel: all are welcome here and yes in my back­yard. In­side the Lucerne, mean­while, things were rough, es­pe­cially at the out­set. Fights broke out in the mid­dle of the night. Few peo­ple wore masks. The hall­ways were filled with cig­a­rette smoke. Dou­glas Rowan, who has lived in one of ten rent­con­trolled apart­ments in the ho­tel for 35 years, took to leav­ing his home only to walk his mas­tiff and Shih Tzu poo­dle. “They brought 283 peo­ple into a build­ing with­out notice, did not en­force any of the pro­to­cols, and dumped them in the laps of ten peo­ple who are all se­niors with pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions,” he said. “Th­ese peo­ple have the right to be safe, but so do we.”

One of the tem­po­rary res­i­dents, who goes by the name Da Home­less Hero, was also un­happy with the way things started off at the ho­tel. In the first few weeks, se­cu­rity wasn’t do­ing its job. Men try­ing to stay clean were roomed with those still in the grips of ad­dic­tion. The smok­ing was out of con­trol. He un­der­stood why neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents were up­set, but he didn’t un­der­stand why they didn’t fo­cus on try­ing to fix things in­stead of evict­ing those in need. It was trau­matic be­ing shuf­fled from shel­ter to shel­ter. In one, Da Home­less Hero had con­tracted covid-19. Now he just wanted a place to sleep.

One day, he left the ho­tel and saw the mes­sages writ­ten on the pave­ment by mem­bers of Open Hearts. “I seen all the chalk on the floor and all the hoopla and stuff,” he said. “I’m just a straight shooter, so I sent a mes­sage to them—I ap­pre­ci­ate it, but get the fuck outta here. This ain’t gonna do noth­ing for us. They hit me back im­me­di­ately and said, ‘Oh, so glad that you reached us. Can you tell us what we can do?’”

Most res­i­dents, though, re­mained in­tent on evict­ing the men. In Au­gust, nearly 1,400 peo­ple tuned in to a com­mu­nity-board meet­ing de­voted to the is­sue—a Zoom record. It was a pub­lic and, for the Up­per West Side, fairly frank air­ing of griev­ances.

(“There have been a lot of ques­tions about what to do when folks en­counter—and I’m sorry I’m us­ing words that I never thought I’d use in a com­mu­nity-board meet­ing— they en­counter peo­ple mas­tur­bat­ing,” board chair Mark Diller said at one point.) By the end, the meet­ing had co­a­lesced into a sin­gle thought, lobbed in var­i­ous forms: What was the time­line? When would th­ese men be gone? It was as though ev­ery­one were re­ally ask­ing, When will this pan­demic be over? The Lucerne—and the men liv­ing in it—had be­come a stand-in for a city go­ing through a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion cri­sis.

it all re­minded Cur­tis Sliwa of the bad old days. As founder of the Guardian An­gels, Sliwa made a name for him­self in the ’80s as a vig­i­lante crime fighter, a man who took to the streets to make them safer, of­ten tar­get­ing peo­ple of color. But he was dis­cred­ited af­ter he boasted about mug­gings and fights with rapists that never in fact took place. Now Sliwa was liv­ing on the Up­per West Side with his fourth wife, still wear­ing his sig­na­ture red beret, still pa­trolling the streets, and look­ing to stage a come­back with a run for mayor next year.

Ev­ery morn­ing, Sliwa would go out and get break­fast, cat food, and a copy of the paper. Sud­denly, in the midst of the bat­tle over the Lucerne, lo­cal res­i­dents were com­ing up to him and shar­ing their con­cerns. “Peo­ple never had two words for me up there,” he said. “So I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m your neigh­bor. Let me look into it.’”

Sliwa was in his el­e­ment. He no longer needed to head to mid­town, to what he called the “Cor­ri­dor of Doom,” to hand out hand san­i­tizer to home­less peo­ple “so as to pre­vent, hope­fully, the trans­mis­sion of coro­n­avirus.” He could just put on his beret and walk out his front door. Soon, fly­ers seek­ing new re­cruits to the Guardian An­gels lit­tered the neigh­bor­hood. When the group held two open calls in Cen­tral Park, hun­dreds of peo­ple showed up. Be­ing highly ed­u­cated con­sumers of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, they pressed Sliwa on the de­tails. “I’ve never been ques­tioned so much about Guardian An­gels pa­trols and what we do than I have been on the Up­per West Side,” he said. “And I’ve been all over the world.” By the end, Sliwa en­listed about 70 new An­gels. Not one of them was Black.

Al­li­son Eden, an artist who has lived on the Up­per West Side for two decades, was one of those who signed up. “covid made ev­ery­thing weird,” she said. “There were all th­ese ag­gres­sive peo­ple who had moved into the neigh­bor­hood—an el­e­ment that seemed very dif­fer­ent and un­safe.” She saw “hook­ers and pimps” on the streets and al­most stepped on a nee­dle while wear­ing flip-flops. She didn’t un­der­stand why res­i­dents who wanted to re­lo­cate the home­less men were be­ing called racist. “Up un­til, like, June, everybody seemed to get along just fine,” said Eden, who is white. “I mean, I never saw any racism at all. I feel like New York City is a bub­ble— you don’t live here if you’re go­ing to be car­ry­ing a Con­fed­er­ate flag.”

Never mind that a cer­tain life­long New Yorker now serves as Amer­ica’s white su­prem­a­cist–in–chief. Liberals who op­posed the home­less felt un­justly ac­cused of racism. Per­haps, Mor­purgo thought, it was just a mat­ter of find­ing the right words. “Maybe some peo­ple—in­clud­ing my­self, be­ing al­most 50 years old—don’t have the lan­guage my teens have to say all this the right way,” she said. “Not ev­ery­one is there yet. And even if they have woke ideas, maybe they’re not ar­tic­u­lated right.” As the bat­tle over the Lucerne raged on, WestCo be­gan to shift its rhetoric. The is­sue, as they now framed it, was less about their own safety and more about “get­ting this vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion the ser­vices they so des­per­ately need”—some­thing that could not hap­pen in a con­verted ho­tel, WestCo ar­gued.

The city, for its part, only made things worse. In the first week of Septem­ber, Mayor de Bla­sio took a ride through the Up­per West Side. “What I saw was not ac­cept­able,” he de­clared, sound­ing more like Carl­son than the man who had vowed for years to “turn the tide on home­less­ness.” It was hard to know what de Bla­sio had seen. The out­door restau­rants brim­ming with din­ers? The crowds in Cen­tral Park? The kids hap­pily rac­ing around on pub­lic play­grounds? The mayor an­nounced he would be mov­ing the men from the Lucerne to the Har­mo­nia, a tem­po­rary shel­ter on East 31st Street. “He’s al­ways been very sen­si­tive to the ‘good liberals’ on the Up­per West Side,” said a for­mer se­nior de Bla­sio staffer. “He likes to do that sort of stuff to show we’re be­ing re­spon­sive to this vot­ing, rich, in­flu­en­tial area.”

But a week later, de Bla­sio abruptly backed away from his pledge, say­ing he would in­stead de­fer to of­fi­cials in charge of so­cial ser­vices. By that point, 17 home­less fam­i­lies had al­ready been moved out of the Har­mo­nia to make way for men from the Lucerne. The mayor, crit­ics charged, was en­gaged in a game of “domino dis­place­ment.”

On Septem­ber 25, af­ter a pro­tracted strug­gle, the city an­nounced that the men would be moved to an empty Radis­son Ho­tel, in the mid­dle of an empty Wall Street, in the mid­dle of an in­creas­ingly empty city. Mor­purgo, for one, was happy. Sure, it was an­other ho­tel, but there were al­ready plans to con­vert it into a shel­ter. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but res­i­dents on the Up­per West Side had won. The home­less would be gone.

The men at the Lucerne were re­signed but an­gry. Da Home­less Hero was “dev­as­tated” when he heard they would be moved. “The mayor said we’re not ac­cept­able,” he fumed. “He tar­geted us. He de­hu­man­ized us.” Ad­vo­cates say that shuf­fling peo­ple from shel­ter to shel­ter only adds to their mis­ery. “Be­ing home­less and be­ing in a shel­ter—that alone is go­ing to have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on your men­tal and phys­i­cal health,” said Giselle Routhier, pol­icy di­rec­tor of the Coali­tion for the Home­less. “Re­peated ex­pe­ri­ences of in­sta­bil­ity while you’re home­less just add more trauma on top of that.”

The group Mor­purgo helped found is now a fix­ture in the neigh­bor­hood. Res­i­dents in other neigh­bor­hoods where ho­tels are be­ing used as shel­ters have even reached out to WestCo for ad­vice. A new group, in fact, formed shortly af­ter the move to the Radis­son was an­nounced. It calls it­self Down­town NYCers for Safe Streets. Within a week, it had more than 2,000 mem­bers. ■

RES­I­DENTS TRY­ING TO OUST THE HOME­LESS MEN WERE STUNNED TO BE CALLED RACIST. “THE LAST THING I WANT,” SAIDONE,“IS FOR MY TEENAGERS TO THINK I’M A BAD PER­SON.”

Kal­man Brudo “Street rabbi,” Crown Heights

“Un­less the city gets new man­age­ment, we are doomed. It’s so sad be­cause I re­ally am still ad­dicted to the city.”

Ebonie Smith Bar­tender and stu­dent, Flat­bush, and Seth Abel Free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher, Park Slope

“It’s kind of shock­ing how it seems like peo­ple have lost their so­cial skills or just kind­ness. Nor­mally, if I go out to lunch, I like to min­gle. I’ll say, ‘I like your dress. I like your shoes.’ That used to be my thing. And now peo­ple just give you the death stare. I’d like to be able to have that again.” –Seth Abel

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