By Dan Rivoli
In a city as thick with media as New York, it’s tough for a small paper like West Side Spirit to turn up stories about questionable practices by city government. But on occasion, we do.
One such story arose after a routine review of community board meetings scheduled for February 2010: a transitional homeless shelter was being discussed for a building on West 107th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.
After checking the address and digging through the city’s Department of Finance records, I found out that the owner of the building, which had been operating as hostel, was a man accused of harassing his tenants. The Village Voice called this man the worst landlord of 1990, and reported that he got his moniker, the West Side Batman, for chasing tenants with a baseball bat.
The transitional homeless shelter would have given this landlord, Mark Hersh, a lucrative contract from the city to house homeless women in his building—which also had a few outstanding violations from the Department of Buildings. Worse, the community had gotten little notice about the proposal.
I called the Department of Homeless Services to ask about this pending deal with Hersh. When I finally heard back, I was told that the contract was being investigated because of his record of tenant harassment. Then the community board meeting that was supposed to include a presentation about the shelter was abruptly canceled.
Eventually, the city agreed to operate the shelter only until Dec. 1, 2010, with a separate non-profit, Help USA, being tasked with security and maintenance. Hersh, who had never responded to my inquiries or those from a few other news outlets that were following the story, phoned me out of the blue one day. He said he was getting out of the SRO business and moving to Florida, and that the harassment allegations of 1990 were a thing of the past. “I tried for last 25 years to do the right thing,” Hersh told me. “It seems your past just doesn’t want to go away. It’s not fair. It’s not right.”
The article, when published, never made huge waves, nor did it get picked up by any major newspapers. But it was good community journalism, an important issue for West 107th Street neighbors, and that was enough to satisfy me.
Dan Rivoli has been a reporter for West Side Spirit since 2008.