The Upper West Side has the highest number of rat complaints in the city.
Every Upper West Side resident has a story about their worst encounter with the furry four-legged beasts that roam the neighborhood. For the lucky ones, it revolves around a brief sighting as one or two rats scurry across the street or race along the subway tracks. For the not-so-lucky, the stories are about home invasions, constant scratching sounds, garbage attacks, litters.
Joseph Bolanos has heard dozens of these stories, and has a few harrowing ones of his own. He’s a building manager on West 76th Street and the president of the West 76th Street Block Association who made headlines last year for putting up “Rat Crossing” signs in his neighborhood as a way to call attention to the major infestation in the Upper West Side.
“Originally we had an infestation on our block due to construction on one particular building, a brownstone over on West 76th Street, and what happened was that a lot of workers were eating outside of the brownstone, they were throwing their garbage in open containers, and it really created a situation that the infestation was so overwhelming that the rats were running across the sidewalk at night without fear of pedestrians,” said Bolanos.
He asked the contractor at the construction site to keep a tight lid on food and trash, a request that was initially ignored.
“I was getting reports at first that people might be getting mugged or assaulted because people were hearing screams in the middle of the night,” said Bolanos. “The screams that were being heard were actually by people who had rats at times running right over their feet.”
Fed up with the city and the building owners not addressing the problem, he posted the little signs, which look like miniature versions of the yellow diamond pedestrian signs with a hulking black rat silhouette in the middle, and the story gained local and even national attention. Bolanos said that the media focus combined with the fact that construction on that site is now nearly completion has abated the rat problem on his block, but the fight is far from over.
The increasing number of rat complaints – according to Gothamist, there were around 1,000 calls to 311 about rats from the Upper West Side between 2010 and 2012 – has made Upper West Side residents particularly jumpy. (See our Op-Ed for one local resident’s take and proposed solutions.)
John Mainieri, who also belongs to the block association, confirmed Bolanos’ account of the rat proliferation in the neighborhood. He’s lived on the block since 1995, and said that he’s definitely seen the rat problem worsen over the years.
“The big problem is that the Health Department showed up after the rat crossing signs went up and all the media attention,” said Mainieri. “Suddenly the Health Department showed up and threw down a couple of poison pellets. This was last August; they have not been back since last August.”
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is the city agency responsible for keeping all pests, including rats, at bay, but the issue is complicated by the fact that property owners are also responsible for keeping their property clear of rodents. (DOHMH did not answer several requests for comment for this article.) Some critics of the city’s handling of the rat issue have pointed to the lack of inter-agency cooperation as a main culprit. The Department of Sanitation, for instance, is responsible for garbage collection but not for rat abatement, and so calls to have sanitation workers pick up trash on different schedules or to install expensive “rat-proof” trash receptacles have not been addressed.
City Council Member Gale Brewer has tried to address some of her constituents’ complaints by acting as a liaison to city agencies and allocating $50,000 in city funding to install solar-powered trash compactors in Verdi Square, a known rat hang-out. Last fall, Brewer wrote to Doug Blonsky and John Herrold, the president of the Central Park Conservancy and the administrator of Riverside Park, about the increasing number of complaints from alarmed parents who spied rats gallivanting around playgrounds in both parks, including Central Park’s Wild West Playground near West 93rd Street, Safari’s Playground near West 91st Street, Mariner’s Playground near West 85th Street, Diana Ross Playground near West 81st Street and the Hippo Playground near West 91st Street in Riverside Park.
“Playgrounds on the west side of Central Park present the unique challenge of being in close proximity to a subway tunnel, which facilitates rodent mobility and breeding,” said Blonsky and Herrold in the letter. “Accordingly, we have been conducting an aggressive rat control program through the use of multiple manual traps that are set inside tamper-resistant boxes and placed in playgrounds during closed hours.”
Part of the challenge is that traps can’t possibly catch them all, and poison – especially, for instance, near a playground – is dangerous not just to rats but to dogs, cats, all wildlife and small children. Rat experts also will point out that as long as there is tastier, more appealing “human food” – our trash – accessible to rats, they won’t even bother munching on the poison pellets.
Bolanos said that trash is the biggest culprit and presents the best opportunity to make a serious dent in the rat population.
“The city puts out garbage the night before. As long as you have 12 to 13 hours where you’re putting your garbage out in plastic bags, which is nothing for a rat to bite through, you’re going to have a problem,” he said. He also noted that the increase in new high-rise buildings on the Upper West Side is contributing to higher piles of garbage on the streets at night.
“Since Sandy, it’s gotten even worse, because all the rats had to move to higher ground,” said Mainieri. “Now even in the cold weather, when you don’t normally see them, you can see them running back and forth and they’re obviously crawling up into the warm cars.”
Bolanos hopes that the city will step up its efforts, going beyond the education efforts they’ve held in the past year and trying to implement real policy changes that might temper the rat population instead of responding to complaints once a neighborhood is practically overrun.
“The Department of Health has told me, well you know it’s very difficult to get janitor and maintenance people to take the garbage out in the morning versus the night before, and I always say to them, listen, 10 years ago when people said that they were going to ban smoking, which is a vice, in New York City, everybody laughed, and now it’s 90 percent smoke free,” Bolanos said. “If we can curtail a vice, you can definitely curtail the scheduling of garbage disposal.”
But as all New Yorkers know, rats aren’t going to completely disappear any time soon.
“Any rat expert will tell you,” Bolanos said. “Wherever there are human beings, there are rats.”
With additional reporting by Joanna Fantozzi & Vanesa Vennard
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