Perhaps it was when store owners said they wanted to hire armed guards. Or maybe when neighbors starting asking again how to buy pepper spray. But at some point Barbara Askins realized she couldn’t wait around for the city to do something.
Askins is president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. But in the depths of Covid-19, business improvement seemed a long way off.
“People were being killed on the street,” Askins recalled. “We had a person shot over there on Lenox Avenue. Drug dealing and killed. One of my sanitation workers just sweeping the street, he was shot. Right back in the butt somewhere. He hasn’t been able to return to work. People would come and just bash the windows and take all the stuff out of the stores. This was happening on a daily basis.”
Askins stepped in. Instead of debating big policies, like bail reform, she sat people in a room just short of a year ago–representatives of the police, the District Attorney, other city agencies, local property owners and neighborhood leaders–and delivered a blunt message.
“Everybody is working hard,” Askins recalls telling the group. “But guess what? We are all failing. Look at the street. So we got to do something better.”
Praise from Borough Pres. Levine and DA Bragg
Askins is now the toast of the town, hailed by the borough president, the District Attorney and her own neighbors for bringing people together and beginning the turnaround that the entire city is still in search of.
“She deserves credit,” said the Manhattan Borough President, Mark Levine, who drew attention to Askins work in a letter to City Hall asking to do the same thing in Hell’s Kitchen. “She sounded the alarm. She suggested this approach. And now it’s yielded results.”
At an anti-crime summit hosted by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Alvin Bragg, the district attorney, called special attention to the progress being made against crime along 125th St.
“This is my neighborhood, so I know we haven’t solved it,” Bragg said, “but we’ve moved the needle a whole lot. So, we’re looking to take that great idea—and I credit Ms. Askins for that—to other neighborhoods.”
He called the 125th street project “a model in interagency partnership” that, among other things, had produced “a strategy to more effectively target drug dealers with the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, coordinating efforts to appropriately address the small percentage of individuals who drive shoplifting, enhancing access to mental health services and increasing communication with local businesses.”
Neighborhood leaders and city officials are making pilgrimages uptown to learn her secret. “I did attend her meeting last week,” said Barbara Blair, head of the Garment District Alliance, the BID for the west thirties which, now that conditions on 125th street are better, has become the corridor with the most intense drug trafficking in the city.
“We are looking at her model with an eye to duplicating it here in midtown west. We have so many challenges that involve more than one agency. So the multi-agency response makes a lot of sense.”
Askins, former head of the Community Board, is bemused by the praise.
She is grateful for the notice because getting her approach off the ground was a heavy lift, rebuffed repeatedly by the deBlasio administration. His staff kept telling Askins, she recalled, that what she was looking for were policy changes, like redeployments of police and prosecutorial resources, that needed a citywide approach.
She saw it exactly the other way. If government agencies and local business and community leaders coordinated in a hyper-local way they could solve a lot of problems without waiting for policy to catch up, she insisted.
“We’re going to talk to the DA, and he says this. We talk to the police, they say that. We talk to consumer affairs, they say that,” she said to explain how disorganized things were.
“All of a sudden, I got this ping in my brain: We need to get everybody in the same room, so everybody could be hearing the same conversation. So we can all start figuring stuff out.”
The then newly elected Mayor, Eric Adams, agreed. He came for a visit and assigned his agencies, as he describes them, to work with Askins. On her wall is a poster with the emblems of the 12 city and state agencies that are part of her task force–everyone from the Sanitation Department to the MTA.
But while she is grateful for the notice, she also wonders if those who want to emulate her actually understand what she has done–in all its intensity and detail.
“The problems are overwhelming,” she explained to a visitor to her 125th street headquarters, a defunct Model’s loaned to her by a local property owner. “You have to analyze the area and prioritize what you’re going to tackle first.”
Wherever you start, she adds, you have to keep coming back and keep adapting. The neighborhood has 24 separate social service facilities that Askins says have had the unintended consequence of assembling a market for drug dealers.
“When we started clearing 125th street, people started moving to 124th and 126,” She recalled. “Then the community got upset because they see all the police, all the presence, and said ‘you’re just sending all this over here to us’. You can’t just clean up 125th .”
So at her weekly interagency meetings, they began developing a more strategic plan to avoid just shifting problems. Askins is now conducting outreach, for example, with ministers five blocks north and south of 125th street.
Askins agrees they have made a lot of progress. But work is no where near done.
Street crime and visible homelessness are considerably reduced. In fact, a restaurant will soon open in the first vacant store front she used as a headquarters, at Lenox avenue and 125th street, which a year ago was an epicenter of drug dealing.
But shoplifting inside stores remains rampant, for example, as in many parts of the city.
The walls of Askins’ headquarters are plastered with poster size sheets of paper on which she has written the name of an agency at the top and problems that she and others have identified that seem particularly relevant to that agency.
Under “District Attorney (Concerns)” is written Shoplifting, Drug Dealing and, among other things, Hybrid Bikes. Transit Concerns go on for two full sheets, with everything from “Violence against Transit employees and violence in the Subway” to “cleaning the 125th St and Lenox Avenue subway stop better.”
One word just leaps out on the Sanitation Departments list. Rats.
At each meeting, the agencies are asked to explain what they are doing about the concerns
“Everybody started looking at, ok, specifically, how do we address this working together? Which is what it comes down to. What I’m pushing is neighborhood focus.”
“What I am pushing is neighborhood focus.” Barbara Askins, head of Harlem Business Improvement District