Sidewalk swastika solution; Trying to pave over hate

By Bonnie Rosenstock 

It was a bright, post-blizzard, snow-cleared day that Tues., Jan. 12. I was walking home along the east side of Third Ave. when I happened to look down at that particular stretch of sidewalk between 11th and 10th Sts. for no particular reason that I can explain except maybe an intuitive predisposition to feel the hate. A swastika was glaring back up at me.

At first, I thought I was imagining it. I hadn’t seen one in the flesh since my trip to West Berlin in the late 1980s right before the two Germanys were reunited in 1990. There it was a common sighting, smeared grandiosely and menacingly on walls and ingrained into German minds, along with the words “Juden Raus,” a warning to those remaining few who had survived the Holocaust.

I leaned down closely and circled around this modest one, perhaps 3 inches by 4 inches, to make sure, looking at it from all angles. And, yes, there it was, carved into the hard cement next to two Jewish stars and some unrecognizable invented scratchings.

I got home, put down my grocery bags and slowly put away their contents while I mulled over my course of action or, as is sometimes the case, my inaction. What put me over the top, however, was an incident from a few days prior.

On Sat., Jan. 9, I went to a gallery talk on the Lower East Side. There I ran into a German-born photographer, who spent her first days of life in a bunker while the Allies were bombing the hell out of Berlin. As a long-time resident of the L.E.S., she chronicles the lives of poor Latinos. We learned that we had both been to the same art opening earlier that week at the Sol Goldman YM-YWHA on E. 14th St., but hadn’t run into each other. She groused about “the rude Jews” who had interrupted her conversation with an exhibiting artist, and since most of the attendees spoke Hebrew, she felt ignored. I muttered something inane and insipid. I now circled within myself to absorb her comment and my inability to give a proper response.

So with swastika identified and searing German slur as impetus, I called 311. The operator directed me to call my local precinct, which is the Ninth. In turn, the precinct instructed me to call 911 (the proper procedure) so that a patrol car would respond to the call. Within half an hour, Police Officers Gallagher and O’Brien from the Ninth rang my doorbell. I told them where to look. When I got downstairs, they had already found it on their own. The officers, who were extremely professional, took my statement. P.O. Gallagher tore out a slip of paper from a pad in which he had written, “graffiti criminal mischief,” a reference number and his direct contact number.

Two days later, a detective called to assure me that the case was being looked into. I don’t remember if he was from the Ninth or from 1 Police Plaza. However, on Fri., Jan. 15, as if by design, as I was walking down Third Ave. again, I saw someone sloshing water from a bucket onto the site. It turned out to be Detective Melendez of the Hate Crimes Task Force, 1 P.P., who wanted the odious symbol to pop out more for the photographs that she would take. She handed me the task force’s business card, which she filled in with her name and a case number. She said she would be doing a thorough investigation and that the Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of sidewalks, would be notified.

On Thurs., Jan. 28, I called Detective Melendez to follow up. She said she had called the Mayor’s Graffiti Removal Unit twice. She explained that the case was complicated because there is no separate unit for hate crime graffiti (maybe there should be?) further complicated by it being carved into a sidewalk and not spray-painted. Therefore, it might take quite some time as it awaited its turn on the graffiti list from the five boroughs. She also said that D.O.T. would probably not jackhammer the area to resurface it, but tar it over.

On Friday morning Jan. 29, I fast-talked 311 into connecting me to the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs via routing through the press office. I said I was both press and a private concerned citizen. I was put through to Ray Carrero, the director of quality of life, who said they were aware of the situation, and by way of confirming the point, he told me its precise location.

“The issue is how we are going to remove it and are working out the details,” he said. “We can’t paint over it or power-wash it. We are working with N.Y.P.D.’s Hate Crimes Task Force and D.O.T. We are sensitive to how it affects the community,” he added. As far as I knew, I was the only “community” being affected. No one else seemed to have noticed it, but I felt I represented everyone.

Around 2:30 p.m., I decided that after much hedging, hemming and hawing — my three favorite “H”’s — I would take my own photo of the damnable thing and alert the media. Seventeen days had passed. But the city responded. There was a freshly laid goopy mess of thick tar and what looked like sawdust or sand strewn on top of it. I watched a man almost step into it but catch himself in time. I didn’t tell him what was underneath. But every time I walk past this shiny black square of shame, looking like a tombstone, I am reminded of what lurks below, and no matter how often you pave over hate, it can rise to the surface at any time.