Long before you spot Eshete Woldeyilma himself, you'll see his Columbia Street empire rising from the greenway along the waterfront just south of Brooklyn Bridge Park. If you're heading through the neighborhood for the first time, you'll wonder what the hell that mountain of stuff is. If you're a local, you'll wonder what discarded wonders Woldeyilma has procured himself today.

The larger pieces—the desks, the couches—tend to come and go on a rotating basis, presumably as often as Woldeyilma can replace them after the Department of Sanitation hauls them away. Rarely, though, is his kingdom—located on a freshly installed slab of concrete at the foot of Kane Street—without at least a few piles of kipple. Mainstays include a couple of shopping carts heaped with a farrago of clothes, battered electronics and other assorted detritus collected from his regular tours of the neighborhood. A few months ago, a king sized mattress was the centerpiece; this week, he's got a Citi Bike, loaded down with shopping bags.

You, the approaching cyclist, will come upon this scene with some mixture of curiosity and apprehension, though the exact ratio will be largely determined by the amount of debris currently dumped in the bike lane, and whether Woldeyilma is in the mood for visitors. Having slowed to allow a congregation of feeding pigeons to scuttle out of the way, you'll now see Woldeyilma relaxing in an easy chair, wrapped in layers upon layers of raiment. The 14 stray cats that he loves like family are never far from his sight.

"They're very sensitive animals," he told me yesterday. "I want to save all the cats on the planet." His favorite is named Rico. "He engages you every second," he said.

An immigrant from Ethiopia, Woldeyilma has been an unshakeable—and highly divisive— presence in the Columbia Waterfront for the past eight years. But as the Brooklyn Greenway brings more and more pedestrians and cyclists to the once desolate stretch of industry lining the Buttermilk Channel, it's unclear whether Woldeyilma will be able to maintain his rule along the bike path. Over the summer, the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative moved forward with its plan to build a series of "open space nodes," small concrete plots off the bike lane between Kane and Degraw streets containing benches and bike racks. Before long, a $500,000 Columbia Waterfront Park will bring even more foot traffic to a neighborhood once defined primarily by its docks.

But it's not the scenic view of the skyline or the increasingly amenity-filed neighborhood that keeps Woldeyilma returning day after day. Years ago, when he lived in the building across the street, he began befriending the stray cats that roamed the area. He's since moved to a government-subsidized apartment on 42nd Street near Times Square, but it doesn't matter. He still commutes every day—rain or shine, sleet or snow—to care for his growing family of feline charges, which he feeds using his food stamps and a steady stream of donations from friends and well-wishers from around the neighborhood.

Susie Plaisted, who has owned Winkworth lingerie store at 119 Columbia Street for the past decade, knows Woldeyilma well, having bonded with him over their shared love of cats. She's in Woldeyilma's good graces, though she acknowledges that not everyone is so lucky.

"He's a difficult personality because he has really strong opinions about who's coming near him," she said. "He loves some people, he hates other people." If Woldeyilma doesn't like you, you'll know it by the stick he'll wave or the loogie that will sail perilously close to your person.

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(Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Others aren't quite so accepting of Woldeyilma's quirks, having been the target of his inexplicable ire. "I hate that guy," said one local, who asked not to be named, adding that Woldeyilma managed once to spit on her as she rode her bike by his encampment.

Craig Hammerman, the District Manager for Community Board 6, also does not mince his words when it comes to his feelings toward Woldeyilma.

"The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 but wasn't torn down until 1989. Just because something has been around a long time doesn't mean it makes a positive contribution to its environment," he wrote in an email, calling Woldeyilma a "tremendous nuisance who habitually menaces and terrorizes" residents. "I think people generally view him as an oddity, and a colorful character, and somebody who is very much a part of the Columbia Street scenery," Hammerman told me on the phone later. "But that doesn’t excuse the types of antisocial and illegal behaviors that he continues to engage in at the expense of our community."

Woldeyilma isn't particularly fond of the city officials, either, since they regularly haul away his things—things that he says he's collected for the well-being of his cats.

"Sanitation takes my stuff—they don't want me here," he said. "And the Greenway people! They mobilize like an army." Among the possessions that Sanitation has summarily destroyed include financial paperwork and photos from his homeland of Ethiopia, which he left in 1982 as a political refugee. (Woldeyilma says he came to New York in 1987, after five years in a Sudanese refugee camp.)

Brian McCormick, co-founder of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, said the group dedicates a significant number of resources to cleaning up after Woldeyilma. Routine litter removal and weeding are part of the Initiative's regular maintenance tasks, but hiring carting services, as it has taken to doing to pick up Woldeyilma's larger salvage, is an expenditure the group would rather not shoulder. He estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands of hours" have been spent removing garbage and other items from the site.

"It does impact our work," he said. "We just don’t have the resources as a nonprofit—and even if we did, we could expend them in more productive ways than just cleaning up after someone."

Asked for comment, a Department of Sanitation spokesperson said that the agency, along with Department of Homeless Services and the NYPD Homeless Outreach Unit, have conducted "cleanups" of the area, noting that another round of such cleanups has been requested.

"In cases like this, the Department of Homeless Services conducts an outreach with the homeless individual in an attempt to get him into a shelter which is a process that can take anywhere from a few day to two weeks," spokeswoman Kathy Dawkins wrote in an email. "Once that is completed a cleanup is coordinated with Sanitation, Homeless Services, and the NYPD Homeless Outreach Unit." I pointed out to Dawkins that Woldeyilma is not, in fact, homeless, but have not yet received an updated response.

Like him or not, Woldeyilma is a fixture on Columbia Street, an impossible-to-ignore character in a New York that's largely lost its patience for idiosyncrasy.

"He doesn't miss anything. He doesn't forget anything. I just really enjoy him, and I love talking to him," said Plaisted. "He's just watching a different movie than everyone else."