The West Side Community Organization describes its mission as twofold: to “advocate for a restored quality of life for residents, visitors, and the small business community” and “advance safer and more compassionate policies regarding New Yorkers who are struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.” As its first official order of business, the hastily assembled 501(c)4 launched a slick campaign to vilify 300 unhoused men in its Upper West Side neighborhood as dangerous criminals, then succeeded in evicting them from the hotel the city had converted to temporary housing in response to the pandemic. Apparently it was the $123,000-median-income families of the liberal Manhattan neighborhood who were the real New Yorkers struggling with (the sight of) homelessness.
Now the men will be going somewhere else. According to The New York Daily News, the city is in the process of relocating other unhoused people, many with disabilities, from a Midtown shelter in order to make room for the newly placeless former residents of the Upper West Side. In a statement on the city’s relocation decision, the organization’s attorney Randy Mastro called it “a testament to community organizing.” The group that came together under the banner of WSCO had started out as strangers, he continued, but came together as a stronger whole “dedicated to saving their neighborhood.”
The inviolable power of private property defines the actions and attitudes that can create and destroy communities; in liberal enclaves like New York, this is done with language. Slippery terms like neighborhood and community are quietly and expertly carved out to exclude the people—nonwhite or ill or poor—who reduce property values. Evictions driven by wealthy residents and property owners become actions taken for the community, and for neighbors, rather than against them. The community “came together” rather than was torn apart. By cloaking the language of profit in the language of safety, these efforts are able to write out the poor and unhoused—those for whom the city is the most hostile and unsafe—from these most basic human identities.
One member of the neighborhood Facebook group that became WSCO told The New York Post that “our community is terrified, angry and frightened.” Their fear was “palpable.” Another resident who opposed sharing her neighborhood with unhoused others asserted that “we’re a progressive-minded community and we tend to be sympathetic to the homeless, but with sex offenders, draw the line.”
Elsewhere in New York, a woman whose neighborhood also saw an influx of unhoused people during the pandemic claimed that she never left her house without pepper spray. The founder of a civilian patrol group complained of “all kinds of chaos … assaults, vandalism, breaking and entering and lewd behavior.” More than 160 business executives wrote to the mayor that “there is widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness, and quality-of-life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions in commercial districts,” demanding a restoration of the “security and the livability of our communities.” An Upper West Side petition declared, “This situation is making life uncomfortable for residents and putting families, children, and the elderly in harm’s way.”