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Ask A Native New Yorker: When Should I Call The Cops On My New Neighbors?

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Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question is about resolving conflicts with neighbors.

Hi Jake,

I am a 32-year-old who has been living in NYC for 6 years. My boyfriend and I recently moved into an apartment in a predominately black and Latino neighborhood (we are white, and I promise this information will become relevant in a moment). We are friendly with the neighbors, and we make an effort to be respectful, courteous, positive additions to the community (as much as we can be anyway for being gentrifiers). Our apartment is a backhouse building behind a set of row houses.

The neighbors in the front building one lot over face the courtyard that we share with our immediate front-building neighbors, though the lots are separated by fences. Since we moved in, we have had a lot of issues with trash being thrown from the upper floors of the next-door building into our lot. Some of it is normal trash, and some of it is weird. Like, a cafeteria tray of pulled pork with a fork in it or used maxi pads weird. I have tried to speak with the folks in that building but I have only met the people on the second and first floors, and I am confident they are not the culprits.

This is a lot of background info I know. We can deal with the trash, fine. But this past weekend the neighbors threw an ENTIRE GRILL full of hot coals into the yard. The coals scattered everywhere and left burn marks on the wooden fences and rolled up to the house. We are extremely anti-calling the cops on POC. We are new residents on a long-established block. We do not expect anyone to comport to our norms, but when a Weber with flammable material in it is thrown at our house it poses a real fire danger for us and our front house neighbors. We have been unable to meet the neighbors on the upper floors and since we did not see where it came from we don't know who to approach about it. How do we deal with this?! I don't want to call the cops but I also don't want to die in a fire.

Help!

Grilling and NOT chilling in BKLN

A native New Yorker responds...

Dear GANCIB,

When neighbors are literally raining hell-fire down on your head, it’s time to call 911. Whether you’ve lived in the neighborhood for fifty years, or just arrived last week, humans are equally flammable. As Smokey the Bear says when he’s in New York, “Only You Can Prevent Garbage Fires”. This is not a responsibility you can put off, or dither about because of concerns about gentrification. When lives are at risk, you call, and keep calling, until hot coals are no longer falling from the sky. My guess is that one of your new neighbors needs a stern warning about public sanitation, or mental health assistance, or both, and contacting the authorities is the only way that's going to happen.

I was actually in this situation once myself. After college, my first apartment was down on Orchard and Grand, right where LES met Chinatown. We were the first gentrifiers in the building, and maybe on the block, in an old tenement densely populated by Chinese immigrants. The apartment next door had ten men sleeping in shifts on bunkbeds. So the sudden appearance of two white kids was noticed, and probably not entirely appreciated. The apartment itself was small, on the second floor with almost no light, but it did have access through the kitchen window to a tar roof of the store below.

We used to sit out there and drink beer in the summer, and every so often a lit cigarette or some household debris would come flying out of the windows above, usually just missing us. As in your case, I wasn't sure if this was just normal behavior for the building or was our new neighbors expressing their qualms about our arrival and the possible higher rents our presence might auger. This was in 2000; the city's 311 complaint line wouldn't arrive for a few years, and it never got to the point where it felt like a 911 emergency, so we let it go and tried to stick to the outer edges of the roof where the cigarettes were least likely to hit you in the head. I am sure, though, that if those cigarettes were lit coals I would've run out to the fire alarm box (remember those?) and called it in.

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A young Jake Dobkin and father on a stoop in Park Slope. (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)

You are clearly a thoughtful gentrifier, and not a destructive transient—you are aware of your own race and class privileges, and the anxiety your arrival might trigger in your new neighbors. You have already done the single most important thing to be a positive addition to the block, which is to reach out and talk to your neighbors. Yes, it would be better if the first topic of conversation was something a little lighter than "did you just throw a lit BBQ at me?" but you have to start somewhere. Maybe next you could ask how long they've lived there, or whether there's a block association you could join.

Not all new arrivals are so well-meaning. Buzzfeed just did an interesting data analysis piece where they showed a relationship between the amount of gentrification on a block and the number of calls to 311. Clearly calling the police on every friendly game of dominos at a card table, or on the old timers drinking a beer out of a paper bag whilst conversing on their own stoops, is a dick move, and liable to get you featured in a viral video or Twitter meme. It shows ignorance and disrespect for long held neighborhood traditions that are not hurting anyone. Quite the opposite, actually: having all those eyes on the street makes a block safer. No one is mugging anyone or breaking into cars while 20 people are staring at them.

There are of course affronts that fall somewhere in between a noisy domino game and arson; say playing a radio loud after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, or midnight on the weekend, where you will have to exercise judgement. Guided by a principle of respect for your new neighborhood's traditions, I'd advise erring on the side of being chill, at least for the first few months and for issues that don't make your apartment uninhabitable, while still doing your duty as a concerned citizen if you witness behavior that threatens life or limb—say dealing heroin out of the vestibule, or throwing beer bottles at passing cars.

One of the few upsides of gentrification is that it puts people of different classes and races face-to-face in a way that happens less and less often in our increasingly unequal nation, and gives them a shared goal: no matter how long you've lived there, all New Yorkers want safe, peaceful, and welcoming blocks. Seeing yourself as one part of a rich tapestry of neighborhood life, rather than as an individual whose needs must be served or else, is a wonderful way to cultivate empathy, depth of character and wisdom—all traits we could really use more of in this city, and in this country, right now.

To a more understanding world,

Jake

N.B. Backhouses are a fascinating relic of a time in New York before current zoning and health codes. Very few still exist, but the ones that do really force a level of intimacy between neighbors that's unusual even in a crowded city like ours.

Ask a Native New Yorker anything via email. Anonymity is assured.

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