Step streets overrun by ‘weed trees’

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This is the second in a series of articles about roads, sidewalks and step streets in the northwest Bronx and the debris, potholes and decay that plague them. The first in the series, “Wait for street repairs now exceeds two years,” was published on Jan. 26.


Step streets are overgrown by “weed trees” reaching more than 10-feet in height. Stone stairs are littered with debris. Steps are uneven. And city agencies issue conflicting information on which of them is responsible for correcting the problems.

Those were some of the complaints local residents expressed about an array of outdoor staircases—step streets—that run up and down the many hills of the northwest Bronx.

The area served by Community Board 8 has 26 step streets—the highest number among all the communities in the Bronx, according to the board’s environment and sanitation committee. And most of them are in disarray, local residents and board leaders say.

The step streets that have drawn particular complaints from residents include a stretch of Summit Place between Heath to Bailey avenues, a succession of steps on W. 238th Street between Cannon Place and Orloff avenues, and yet another one along W. 238th Street between Waldo and Irwin avenues, said Laura Spalter, the chairwoman of the environment and sanitation committee of Community Board 8. Her panel plans to focus on step street maintenance and will develop “report cards” for the 26 steps streets, rating them for cleanness, she said.

Margaret Groarke, a vice president of the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association, said the steps at Summit Place are of different sizes, making navigating awkward—a difficulty that is further exacerbated by dim or broken lights in the area.

“You don’t feel comfortable walking by yourself, because it’s dark and since the steps are of uneven size, it can feel a little bit like you can trip,” Groarke said in a telephone interview.

Some time last November, either the Transportation or the Sanitation Department—she could not recall which—trimmed the overgrown trees around the staircase, Groarke said. But the branches remain at the bottom of the steps months later, waiting to be picked up.

On 238th Street between Cannon and Orloff avenues, stone slopes on the side of the street are overgrown with grasses and trees that have taken root between the stones.

“Those steps sometimes have a collection of litter on it… But the big problem there [are] these gigantic weed trees,” Groarke said. “They are 10 feet tall, at least… We have asked repeatedly to have them trimmed down or cut down and we have been very unsuccessful.”
“These step streets are a regular sidewalk for us. People in my neighborhood use these two step streets to walk down to Broadway and it just makes a regular path that you go on unpleasant,” said Groarke.

She said that she called 311 to complain, but found out that “it’s very difficult to make a complaint about a place that does not have an address,” she said.
Along another step street, between Irwin and Waldo avenues, the area is littered on most days by fallen leaves and debris tossed by passersby.

“There is always debris. There [are] always leaves. There is always littering, beer bottles,” said Elijah Negasi, who runs up and down these stairs once per week for exercise. “Usually, on the weekends, you see food or you see vomit, mashed beer [cans], alcohol, liquor bottles,” he said.

The area gets “cleaned regularly,” but new garbage keeps arriving quickly, he said.

A spokesperson for the Transportation Department said the agency was responsible for keeping the steps safe, but making them clean was the job of the Sanitation Department.

“While DOT is responsible for keeping Step Streets across the city in a ‘State of Good Repair,’ the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is responsible for cleaning,” the spokesperson said in an email to The Press. But the Transportation Department cleaned the step streets in the neighborhood as recently as December or January, some of the streets on several occasion, the email said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Sanitation maintains it is only responsible for the steps located inside the railings, its community affairs officer Ignazio Terranova told a Community Board 8 committee in January, according to the meeting’s minutes provided to The Press. Cleaning and maintaining adjacent slopes that flank the stairs outside the railings was the job of the Transportation Department, Terranova said, according to the minutes.

At the same meeting of the board’s environment and sanitation committee, its chairwoman quoted a former Bronx transportation commissioner as saying last fall the Sanitation Department was “responsible for all step streets, and the possibly the Parks Department if weed trees are growing through cobblestone or cement cracks.”
The Parks Department redirected The Press’ inquiries about the step streets to the Sanitation and Transportation departments.

“The question is who is responsible for cleaning up the spaces on the sides?” said Joshua Stephenson, an aide to Councilman Andrew Cohen.

Cohen’s district includes the step streets at Summit Place, Heath and Bailey and Cannon Place and Orloff, which Spalter said received the most complaints.
In an email to The Press on Feb. 2, a Sanitation Department spokesperson said the agency “cleans the actual steps” and had done so “in both January and February.”

On Feb. 3, two men dressed in vests with the Sanitation Department’s DSNY logo were at work on 238th Street between Irwin and Waldo, sweeping the steps and shoveling dried leaves that had fallen outside of the stair railing.

But while some work is being done, the areas remain in disarray.

“The Board has been getting many complaints about the conditions about the step streets—the lack of maintenance,” Spalter of the community board’s environment and sanitation committee told The Press. “Different agencies are responsible for different parts. The trash. The weeds.”

The mixed communication as to who is responsible for the step streets dates back to the 1983 Leventhal Memorandum that sought to delineate the responsibility among different city departments but left its jurisdiction unclear, according to Stephenson.

“There is no concrete physical agreement as to who is responsible for the 26 step streets,” he said.

Stephenson added he is trying to facilitate an agreement and set up a meeting with the heads of Parks, Sanitation and Transportation departments, so they could speak directly to local residents and the community board—and spell out which of their departments is responsible for what.

City agencies say they depend of the Department of Probation and Community Service for labor, but that can be in short supply, according to Community Board 8’s minutes. The shortage does not help matters.

“The fact that the Sanitation Department does not go beyond the railing and saying that’s the DOT’s responsibility. The DOT does not do it [which] is very difficult. The fact that they depend on the Department of Probation and Community Service for labor, that we don’t have anyone from Sanitation… it’s just unacceptable,” Spalter said.

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