WNYC has been reporting on the North Shore of Staten Island, an area on the cusp of change. Over a billion dollars of development is being spent around the ferry terminal, and the city plans to rezone and revitalize a stretch of Bay Street just south of there.
In the middle of it all is the spot where Eric Garner, a black man accused of selling loose cigarettes, was placed in a fatal chokehold by a white police officer in July 2014. His death grabbed headlines, sparked outrage across the country, helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement, and led to broad changes in the city's police department.
But years after the incident, local business owners say they're struggling with the legacy. They say shoppers avoid the notorious block and that crime has increased.
Bay Street landlord Gjafer Gjeshbitraj said Tompkinsville Park across the street from his building attracts drug addicts and alcoholics who spill onto the sidewalk and scare away customers. He used to call 311 for help; some say those calls led to Garner’s death. Gjeshbitraj has defended himself and said he did complain about someone named Eric, but not Eric Garner. He believes the police have pulled back in the area since Garner’s death.
Police department statistics for the precinct — which covers much of the North Shore — show felony and misdemeanor arrests are up since Garner died, although the department said it doesn't track this data at the block level. Deputy Inspector Robert Bocchino said the police are doing their job. He agrees there are problems in the park, which he believes are related to the opioid crisis on Staten Island. He said that’s why the department has assigned two officers specifically to that spot.
But Gjeshbitraj wants more attention to the problem. Last fall, he and his tenant, artist Alexis Scott, put up a controversial sign: "This block has been overrun by criminals, violence and addicts. We are slowly being choked and we can't breath."
Some find the sign disrespectful. Doug, who didn't want to give his last name, sells odds and ends from some outdoor tables on the block. "I think it's horrible," he said, "because he went a little bit too far when he added 'Now I can't breathe.' I mean, come on." Doug said he made the real memorial to Eric Garner, which includes photos, flowers and a pan-African flag in a plastic box at the spot where he died.
Meanwhile, city planners want to rezone a section of Bay Street starting at the park to allow more housing and retail.
"Having the rezoning, more residents and businesses in the area, gives an opportunity to both rethink and reprogram the park and make it a real town center that it should be as opposed to a place that people try to avoid, sadly, today," said Leonard Garcia-Duran with the Department of City Planning.
Business owners on this block, however, have mixed reactions to what they’ve heard about the city's plans. Some believe development will make the area safer, while others worry it will simply push the addicts — and the local businesses — somewhere else.
"I just don’t feel very hopeful that the money will go to create what’s needed to help the social problems," said Katie McCarthy, who is the co-owner of Everything Goes bookstore and cafe, another business on the block.