By Janet Allon
There were two stories West Side Spirit covered in great depth in the early 1990s that are knit together in my mind. Both concern homeless men. Both concern the street life of the city in a time that is growing remote.
It was a time when tourists and newcomers said New York brought to mind Calcutta. Before Disney took over Times Square. When squeegee men cleaned your windshield whether you liked it or not. And no subway ride was free of an interaction with a stranger asking for money.
One was the story of Larry Hogue, dubbed the “Wild Man of West 96th Street” on these pages. It was the odyssey of a mentally ill, crack-addicted man through the revolving doors of the criminal justice and mental health systems, and Upper West Sider Lisa Lehr’s efforts to confine him. The story was also about the neighborhood in the West 90s that, by default, became host and victim of Hogue’s irrational and often frightening behavior, a neighborhood that I once described as being like “a liberal who had been mugged.”
The second story was written and relentlessly reported by my colleague, Stacey Asip. It concerned the murder of an ad executive at a phone booth on Jane Street. A homeless man, William Emerson, was arrested for the murder, unjustly, as it turned out, and on the strength of an unreliable witness with questionable motives.
Both of these stories illustrated how the system was failing the city’s vulnerable people and neighborhoods. One story deprived a man of his freedom; Hogue has spent most of the intervening years at Creedmor. The other returned it to him; Emerson has disappeared into the mist of memory, as far as I know.
There was a kind of symmetry to the stories that made us feel like we were doing the right thing, looking at life on a case-by-case basis, with no political agenda clouding our view. Homeless people were not just one faceless mass to us, a point driven home to me when I later became editor of Street News and became genuine friends with several.
Sadly, the issues that Hogue and Emerson exemplified are still very much with us. The mental health system continues to fail the public. And the problem of innocent men being railroaded by the criminal justice system, and lying witnesses, is not likely to subside any time soon.
Janet Wickenhaver Allon, editor of AVENUE magazine, was the associate editor and then editor of West Side Spirit from 1990 to 1993.