Gangbangers peddle drugs in plain sight, hustlers resell cheap booze on the street corner — 50 cents will get you a capful — and prostitutes lead johns to the boarded-up husk of what used to be a Taco Bell.
This is Tompkinsville Park on Staten Island’s North Shore in 2018 and, to area residents and merchants caught in its heroin- and K2-infested vortex, this is a battlefield.
“Every day you see muggings, prostitutes, people smoking crack and shooting up heroin,” said Xhafer Gjeshbitraj, 52, who owns a building across the street from the tiny, triangular park bounded by Bay Street and Victory Boulevard.
“It’s a war zone, in the truest sense of the word.”
In the nearly four years since Eric Garner was killed in a struggle with an NYPD officer across the street from the park, locals claim the area has gone to the wolves, with cops hesitant to lay down the law at the risk of igniting another firestorm.
“Guys are not going to risk their jobs anymore,” said one high-ranking law enforcement source familiar with the precinct. “We’ll just let you have that area.”
Feeling they’ve been left to fend for themselves by the NYPD, residents of this embattled pocket are fighting to hold on to their community.
“Please don’t sell heroin on this stoop,” artist friend and tenant Alexis Scott painted on the blood-red door of Gjeshbitraj’s Bay Street building one day during a particularly rapid phase of the area’s downward spiral.
The next morning, Gjeshbitraj found a pile of used syringes waiting on the stoop, he says.
“Every couple of months there’s new addicts that hang out in the park,” said Scott, a 22-year-old nursing student who moved onto the block about three years ago.
“The park just swallows them,” said Scott. “It’s like the Bermuda Triangle.”
Most of the dozens of lost souls milling about what some locals now call “Needle Park” are actually from other neighborhoods or boroughs, sucked into its orbit by the abundance of cheap drugs and booze, said Scott.
“You’re worried about leaving your house,” she added. “You have to hide.”
That fear is justified, according to an area halal food vendor who said he was sucker-punched by a mugger last month near the park.
“He broke my nose,” said the vendor, who would only identify himself as Fred.
“Every day there’s a fight over here,” added Fred. “Every day there’s drugs. It’s a mess.”
‘This is the heroin capital of Staten Island.’
The latest to take a crack at cleaning up the mess are the Guardian Angels — but the effort has gotten off to a rocky start.
In mid-May, Gjeshbitraj invited a 10-member chapter of the red-jacketed crime-busters to move into the first floor of his building rent-free.
He could spare the space — the previous tenant, a medical office, recently broke a 10-year lease, fed up with its patients being hassled by the area’s riffraff.
“You would really think you were put in time back to the early ’80s,” said Deezo Strong, leader of the chapter.
Their next-door neighbors, Strong says, are a band of Latin Kings, who frequently go toe to toe with the Angels for trying to bring order to the park.
About 10 days ago, a bike-riding gangbanger slugged Strong in the head for trying to break up a fight, the Angels said.
When cops arrived, they refused to take a report, the Angels claim.
A Post reporter accompanied Strong and two fellow Angels — who go by the nicknames Bam Bam and Legacy — on a recent tour of the park.
The patrol consisted mostly of checking on the park’s booming population of addicts and asking if they needed help.
Bam Bam pointed out two empty baggies atop a bed of mulch, noting that they likely once contained either crack or heroin, the park’s drug of choice.
Marijuana, K2 and Xanax are also prevalent in the park, locals say, but heroin is king.
“This is the heroin capital of Staten Island,” said Gjeshbitraj.
The situation only worsened, and by mid-June, Gjeshbitraj had asked the Angels to clear out their clubhouse.
He said it was because the Angels’ confrontational run-ins with the area’s gang enforcers only added fuel to the fire.
But Angels founder Curtis Sliwa believes that Gjeshbitraj made the decision “under duress” and while facing threats from the Latin Kings. Even without the headquarters, the Guardian Angels continue to patrol the park.
In July 2014, the 0.42-acre park on the northern tip of the so-called Forgotten Borough found itself in an unfamiliar position: under the spotlight.
A few doors down from Gjeshbitraj’s building, Eric Garner was killed when NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold while trying to arrest him.
Garner had been selling individual “loosie” cigarettes at the time — a common hustle in the park to this day.
The Post reported in the months following the death that enforcement plummeted in the area’s 120th Precinct, with higher-ups ordering cops to use a light touch to avoid agitating the already on-edge community.
The spotlight has faded, but law enforcement sources say cops are still unwilling to take charge of the park and risk rekindling tensions.
“I wouldn’t do any work over there,” said one police source. “You’d have to be crazy.”
The precinct’s ranks recently received an influx of 25 extra cops as part of the NYPD’s Summer All Out program, but the source said one of the additions he spoke with wasn’t exactly thrilled with the assignment.
“He said he had to go to the precinct where Eric Garner was killed,” the source relayed. “He said, ‘I don’t want to deal with that s–t.’ ”
The borough’s top cop, Assistant Chief Ken Corey, acknowledged problems in the park’s recent past but insisted that things were headed in the right direction.
“The precinct commander and neighborhood policing officers are aware of the historical problems in the park,” said Corey, who became borough head in January.
“They continue to work with the public to address specific issues, concerns and conditions that arise from time to time,” said Corey.
So far this year, the park’s immediate vicinity has seen increases in both directed patrols — 609 versus 137 last year — and arrests — 39 versus 27 — according to the NYPD.
“We expect our officers to solve problems, and that’s what they have been doing at Tompkinsville Park,” said Corey.
Trusting their own eyes, locals tell a different story.
“[Cops are] all over the island, but they won’t touch Tompkinsville Park. The higher-ups would rather have this place go to s–t than risk having another incident like Eric Garner,” said one block business owner, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. “And I don’t blame them.”
Whether the answer is to come from Angel red or NYPD blue, the question is the same: How can you police an epidemic?
Despite making up only 5.5 percent of the city’s population, Staten Island residents accounted for 7.8 percent of New Yorkers to die from overdoses in 2017, according to preliminary city Department of Health figures.
The island’s northeast corner — which includes Tompkinsville Park — not only paced the borough but had a 2017 overdose death rate on par with the city’s hardest-hit areas, including the South Bronx and East Harlem.
In an effort to stem the tidal wave of city overdose deaths — a record 1,441 in 2017, topping the previous high of 1,425 of just one year before — Mayor Bill de Blasio recently approved the opening of four supervised injection centers, pending hearings in the host neighborhoods.
None is on Staten Island.
“It’s a perfect storm right now of all the ingredients that are going into this recipe for disaster,” said Strong.
“It’s only going to get worse,” he said. “The summer’s right around the corner.”
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