They Want to Clean Up Their Block. The NYPD Won’t Give Them a Permit.
“There’s been violence, and I’m not comfortable shutting down any street in that neighborhood for a block party,” a local cop told the neighborhood group.
2:32 PM EDT on September 25, 2023
Even though September 9 was the kind of sticky late-summer Saturday in the city that leads to sweat-drenched T-shirts and sky-high electric bills, the mood was buoyant on a stretch of East 19th Street in Flatbush, where a few dozen residents were out cleaning their block despite the heat. The conversation was breezy as neighborhood kids blew bubbles and drew anti-dog poop signs on pieces of posterboard and adults used trash grabbers to stuff cans and wrappers and other refuse into billowing green trash bags, courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" played from a speaker as neighbors of all ages munched on cheese pizza and slices of watermelon and guzzled water from tiny plastic bottles.
"I'm on a natural high right now," 61-year-old Gary Simon said, grinning into a microphone as he surveyed the serene, feel-good scene around him. Simon is an organizer with the 120 East 19th Street Tenants Union, the group that had put together the block cleanup.
"Everyone got involved," Simon said about the event, when we spoke a few days later. "Kids, adults, teens, seniors. The goal was actually to get people together that don't know each other and have people introduce themselves—meet a new friend, meet a new neighbor. To me, it worked like a charm. And the block is still clean!"
But the cleanup almost didn't happen, thanks to the Community Affairs section at the New York Police Department's 70th Precinct, which denied the tenants union a permit that would have closed off the entire street. When their request was turned down, organizers had to adjust their plans for the cleanup, scaling down, keeping children corralled on the sidewalk, and warning participants to watch out for cars throughout the event. And the 120 East 19th Street Tenants Union is not the only organization in the neighborhood that had a street activity permit application turned down by the 70th Precinct this summer. The official reason? The neighborhood, according to the precinct, is too "violent." It's an argument that the precinct claims is justified by Flatbush's crime statistics, even as neighboring NYPD precincts with roughly similar levels of crime appear to not be swayed by the same logic. The end result is a capricious policy of denying community events to a neighborhood that arguably needs them more than most.
In a phone call that took place five weeks before the cleanup, a recording of which was shared with Hell Gate, the 70th Precinct's Scott Nuzzi explained that reasoning. "There's been violence, and I'm not comfortable shutting down any street in that neighborhood for a block party," Nuzzi told Nathan T., a 12-year Flatbush resident and one of the organizers from the tenants union, during that call. (Nathan T. asked to be identified by his last initial only for privacy reasons.) Nuzzi, who is a Community Affairs Detective Specialist at the 70th, continued, "I have the right to say no to everything, because of violence. This is still Brooklyn, this is still New York City. This is not some rural town with 50 people in it. There is violence in these neighborhoods, and I want to be sure you're well aware of it, and that's why I make sure I'm very strict in what I do."
While Nuzzi declined to comment for this story, his partner in the Community Affairs section, Officer Natasha Moseley, did speak to me when she stopped by the tenants union's block cleanup, which Nuzzi did not attend. "If [a permit] gets denied, it's because of the history of what goes on in that area or that block," she said.
She also expressed concerns about what could happen—and who would be held accountable—if Community Affairs granted the tenants union the street closure permit they wanted. "We don't want nobody to get hurt. But we also don't want to take the blame for something," she said. "Because the mayor, they're gonna ask, 'Well, why did you close down the street? You know the history of this block.' For the police department, that's really what it is—statistics. If something has happened, it should have been a no from the jump."
But Moseley seemed to be swayed by what she saw. "Now that I'm here, I see that everything's going well, this is beautiful," she said. "We can have a conversation—I'll bring it back to my commanding officer, and we can go from there."
When Hell Gate asked the NYPD why the permit application was denied, a spokesperson for the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information sent Hell Gate an email echoing both Moseley and Nuzzi's logic, and noted that the decision came from the leadership of the precinct, Commanding Officer Inspector Bruce P. Ceparano, who assumed command in April 2022, after a stint leading the 121st Precinct in Staten Island. "In the interest of public safety, the Commanding Officer of the 70th Precinct decided against granting a block party permit this year given the fact that this block, in the vicinity of East 19th Street Albemarle Road to Beverly Road, has had one homicide, one robbery,  felony assaults including one shooting and two stabbings, one burglary and six grand larcenies just this year alone," they wrote, while also noting that "at no time was it stated by 70th Precinct personnel that the block was permanently ineligible for a block party street permit." They added, "The 70th Precinct Commanding Officer will reevaluate the location on an ongoing basis and residents are free to apply for permits in the future."
Simon, with the 120 East 19th Street Tenants Union, acknowledged that there is a history of violence on and around the block—Simon would know, as he's lived there for a total of 40 years, both for a portion of his childhood and again as an adult, when he moved back to the building in 2000. "New York is a violent place, a lot of violent things that take place, and there have been things that have happened on this block," Simon said. "But 90 percent of our block is decent, hard-working people. Most people in this block don't own guns, we don't hurt each other, and we know how to solve disputes. I feel like our block has been stigmatized. And I understand that police have a job to do, because it's their job to pay attention to security concerns. But this event, to me, would have been an excellent opportunity for the police to actually come here during the event and see what is taking place and bond with the community."
The cleanup on 19th Street wasn't the only neighborhood event denied a street activity permit by the 70th Precinct. A street activity permit application for an August 5 block party on Beekman Place, organized by Seniors and Students Against Violence Everywhere, Inc (SSAVE) and Women Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), was denied for the first time since the parties began in 2015, according to an appeal letter obtained by Hell Gate. (Representatives from SSAVE and WAMI did not respond to a request for comment from Hell Gate.)
A nearby block association also had its permit for a block party denied by the 70th Precinct this summer. David Jenkins, a Flatbush resident of seven years, told Hell Gate that he applied for a permit for a block party for the East 17th Street Block Association, to be held on September 23. When the CECM told him via email that the permit was denied "per the 70th Precinct, due to Public Safety Concerns," Jenkins said he went to the 70th Precinct to try to speak to Nuzzi in person, but ended up talking to a different cop. "As I was talking to the officer behind the desk, he was like, 'Oh man, this sounds like a classic Brooklyn block party, it doesn't sound like it should be a problem as long as you get all the paperwork in!' It was funny to have a regular cop be like, 'Yeah, I know that area, that sounds fun!' And then, I get a call from Nuzzi an hour later nixing it."
In order to close off a street in New York City for something like a block party, street cleanup, rally, or farmers' market, organizations need to submit an application to SAPO, a division of the Mayor's Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management (CECM). According to CECM's permit process page, prospective party-throwers fill out an application online and pay a non-refundable $25 processing fee. From there, according to the CECM, "the application is submitted directly to SAPO, NYPD, Community Board and the appropriate Plaza Partner when applicable."
I reached out to CECM, SAPO, Councilmember Rita Joseph's office, Community Board 14, and the Mayor's Press Office for further clarity on this process—how many applications are submitted per year, how approval varies by neighborhood, which decision-making party tends to have the final word on permitting—but I either received no response or was directed back to the NYPD. Still, it seems clear that in Flatbush, whether or not a permitted event can take place is often ultimately up to police discretion.
Set aside the question of whether denying community groups the chance to gather outside in the place they live, with the people they live alongside, is an effective crime-fighting strategy, and you're left with another whopper: How much "violence" has to occur in a neighborhood to make it too violent for a block party or a cleanup? A look at CECM data on approved street activity permits for the 70th Precinct and two neighboring precincts—the 67th, which covers East Flatbush and Remsen Village, and the 78th, which encompasses parts of Park Slope and Prospect Park—reveals that this crime-fighting strategy certainly hasn't been applied equally, and that a precinct's perception of a neighborhood as violence-prone may play a bigger role than actual crime statistics. The 67th Precinct has crime numbers that are significantly higher than the 70th Precinct, but police there approved nearly five times as many block closure requests from August to September of last year. That discrepancy is on track to be repeated this year, too.
The 70th Precinct has had 891 reports of violent crime like rape, burglary, robbery, felony assault, and grand larceny to-date in 2023—a lower figure than this time last year. The 67th Precinct has had 1,480 reports of violent crime so far in 2023, also a decrease from this time in 2022, and the 78th Precinct has had 892 reports of violent crime so far this year—an almost 10 percent increase since this time in 2022. Meanwhile, the 70th Precinct had 10 cleanups or block parties approved from August to September of this year; during the same time period, the 78th Precinct had 34 such events approved, and the 67th Precinct had 35.
On the phone with Nathan T., Nuzzi acknowledged that his no to block events was not a "no for the rest of [Nathan T.]'s life or my life," and expressed sympathy for the tenants union's goal of making their block a cleaner, safer place to live. But when Nathan T. asked Nuzzi how much time would have to pass after something like a shooting or a robbery occurred in the neighborhood for the detective to consider issuing a permit, the cop demurred. "I will never give you a timeframe on that, because then it'd be held against me in one way or the other," he said, before suggesting that Nathan T. and his neighbors would be more likely to successfully get a block party permit if they applied "during the dead of winter, because there's very minimal violence during that time period." At one point, Nuzzi noted that the call was being recorded by the NYPD, which is why he was trying to be respectful to Nathan T. while warning him that if he proceeded with the block clean-up sans permit, responsibility for anything bad that happened would rest squarely on the tenants union.
Jenkins, from the East 17th Street Block Association, didn't record his initial conversation with Nuzzi, but he took extensive notes during and after they spoke. "He was like, 'If I move one of these officers to your block party, and then a shooting or stabbing happens, I mean, you'd be liable, I'd be liable—imagine the tragedy!'"
Nathan T. and Jenkins both reached out to other officials who are technically involved in the permitting process, like Brooklyn Community Board 14 District Manager Shawn Campbell, CECM Executive Director Dawn Tolson, and a representative from City Councilmember Rita Joseph's office. Jenkins said that Campbell was helpful and sympathetic on the phone, but he ultimately got the impression that her hands were tied. "CB 14 is no longer making recommendations on block parties through the SAPO system," Campbell wrote in an email, after Jenkins let her know his initial permit application was denied. She added, "It seems that if your block could better organize and build community bonds, some of those public safety concerns might abate. I will also repeat my advice that you get to know the community affairs officers and the neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs) who cover your area. In my experience, a little familiarity goes a long way."
Missing from the 70th Precinct's analysis of the dangers of block parties and cleanups in Flatbush is the tangible impact of these events on the community members who attend them. "When you come out of our building, there's a lot of young dudes hanging out on that side over there. They were the main ones helping out," said Danan Fleary, a seven-year Flatbush resident and another organizer with the tenants union. "We were talking to them and explaining, hey, we have grants, things are happening over here, and they were like, 'Yo, that's amazing, when's the next one?' That was the best thing—the fact that people on the block actually care, when we didn't think they did."
Now, organizers worry that stymying these events could prevent them from building the kind of community they want to see in their neighborhood. Fleary said he worried that future permit denials could threaten grants for the 120 East 19th Street Tenants Union and a prospective block association, even those that they've already received from other City agencies—like the $3,000 the tenants union received from the Department of Sanitation. "You have to create three events within a year in order to continue to get the grant," Fleary said. "That's why we applied for three in advance."
When his block association's appeal was still pending, Jenkins said he and his co-organizers planned to move forward with their block party until they heard otherwise. "Our block has never had a block party before, and that was one of the reasons people got so excited," he said. "A lot of my neighbors, even in other buildings, are people who grew up on the block, who now have kids. They were the most excited for it—they really thought, OK, the block is cleaned up enough, I can give my kids something I never had. But four days before the party was supposed to happen, he received notification that the appeal was denied. When he spoke to Nuzzi again on the phone, the detective seemed resigned. (A recording of this phone call was provided to Hell Gate.) He explained to Jenkins that there was a recent shooting nearby, and that his supervisors, concerned about the possibility of a retaliatory shooting, had asked "if there's any planned events going on" in the area.
"The most I can do is read, see, look into it, and if there's crime in the area, I say no. If I look into it further and I see narcotics has set-ups, they have people on the street…[my precinct is] doing a lot of crazy stuff, and it's all above my pay grade," Nuzzi said. Finally, he told Jenkins to try again next year. "Listen, pick a date, and if it looks good, we'll do our best to make it work. If it doesn't look good, then it gets denied, and there's nothing else we can do about it."
When Nathan T. and Nuzzi signed off back in August, the detective had given the organizer similar advice: Call him again in 2024, and they could speak about the tenants union's two pending permit applications. But when Nathan checked the status of those applications on his phone halfway during the cleanup, he saw that one, for another block cleanup in September 2024, had already been denied.
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