With a clipboard and checklist in hand, Laura Spalter inspects a step street at West 229th Street between Kingsbridge Terrace and Sedgwick Avenue, and then another at West 229th Street between Kingsbridge Terrace and Heath Avenue.
Spalter, the chair of the environment and sanitation committee with Community Board 8, looked to see if the area had overgrown weeds, if trash was lying around, or perhaps graffiti scrawled along the sides of adjacent buildings.
It is part of the Step Street Conditions Report, a pilot project the committee launched earlier this month to gather data on the cleanliness of local step streets after hearing from residents they are not well kept.
“We established this so we can collect data on all the different step streets so that we would better be able to speak to the (New York City) agencies,” Spalter said.
“We would be able to monitor to it better. Our goal is to discuss with the agencies their responsibilities, the protocol, schedule for cleaning, and maintenance.”
A step street is a flight of stairs between hills for pedestrian use. CB8 has 26, the most in the Bronx, Spalter said. Volunteers will join committee members in dividing up and inspecting all of them. Yet, the committee only is evaluating the area for cleanliness like trash and overgrown weeds, as well as safety concerns such as railing conditions, lighting and graffiti.
Step streets fall under the jurisdiction of the city’s parks, sanitation and transportation departments. A 1983 memorandum sought to define exactly what each department was responsible for, but who actually is supposed to run all of it was not clear, said Joshua Stephenson, the community liaison to Councilman Andrew Cohen, last February.
Spalter and Stephenson are now working to bring all three agencies to discuss the results of the committee’s findings. For graffiti removal, Spalter plans to reach out to the city’s Graffiti-Free NYC program, which removes such vandalism at no cost.
Until that happens, there continues to be conflicting information as to which department is responsible for what. A transportation department spokeswoman said it was responsible for the steps, but picking up trash and debris fell under the sanitation department.
Periodically, the transportation department uses people from its community service program to clean step streets. A sanitation department spokeswoman said the agency was responsible only for trash inside the railings.
A parks department spokesman redirected questions about step streets to the sanitation and transportation departments. However, one sanitation department official told CB8 last January the agency is responsible for trash inside of the staircase railings, and the transportation department handled litter along the sides, or shoulder areas.
Reporting concerns about the area also is tricky. The non-emergency number 311 to report concerns to city agencies cannot process a request that does not have a specific address.
“It’s funny. When you call 311, you often talk to someone who really doesn’t know what a step street is,” said Margaret Groarke, vice president of the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association.
“If you don’t live in the West Bronx or northern Manhattan, you may never have seen one.”
Groarke also is one of the volunteer evaluators looking at neighborhood step streets.
In January, Groarke contacted a city department to cut tree branches that remained the area for months as well as weeds that grew to at least 10 feet tall and resembled “gigantic weed trees” on West 238th Street between Cannon Place and Orloff Avenue. Today, she said, between the efforts of the community board, the transportation and sanitation departments and members of her group, the area is much cleaner, and conditions in the area have improved significantly.
One way Spalter is trying to stay on top of step street problems is by encouraging people who call 311 to complain to also reach out to CB8. That way, the committee can collect data and follow its progress.
If someone is not able to register their complaint with 311, they should notify the community board of that as well at (718) 884-3959, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
West 239th Street between Cannon Place and Orloff Avenue received the most complaints when it came to step streets, according to the community board.
Step streets at West 229th Street between Kingsbridge Terrace and Heath Avenue, and West 229th Street between Kingsbridge Terrace and Sedgwick Avenue, had issues like trash lying outside of the railings, broken glass on the stairs, graffiti on the sides of buildings, and overgrown weeds, yet CB8 received no calls.
“This is a long-term project,” Spalter said. “This is not something that you solve in one season. We’ll continue this next year. This is a big initiative.”