The first thing you notice at Morris Mesa Park is the noise. Located just above the Cross Bronx Expressway and just below the Grand Concourse, the sounds of screeching cars and honking horns fill the air. At the corner of Morris Avenue and 174th Street the noise and mayhem make it almost impossible to keep a conversation going. At ground level, the fenced-in lot paved with asphalt looks just like any other deserted space, a common sight in this part of the Bronx.
But tucked away behind what used to be a green park with swings and seesaws is a totally different scene. It is quiet there, as an elderly black man with a graying beard is seated on a box, surrounded by trash, and smoking crack. The ground is littered with broken glass, empty bottles of booze and condom wrappers. Flies swarm the corner and the air reeks of the stench of feces and urine.
A few minutes later a thin middle-aged black woman approaches the park. Once behind the lot, she drops her pants and begins to urinate on the patchy grass. She then joins the man in his little hideout and pulls out her own dose of crack cocaine. They stay there together, in silence, for several more minutes.
Watching all this unfold from his apartment above, Sidney Flores shakes his head in disgust. He says this scene is repeated on almost a daily basis.
“I see it all the time, people shooting up, smoking crack,” said the painter and community activist, who lives and works in the high-rise Grand Concourse apartment building that overlooks the park. “I’ve seen live sex acts down there. It’s disgusting.”
One month ago Flores decided that he had seen enough. He dispatched a formal letter to local authorities alerting them to the drastic deterioration of Mesa Park and its surroundings, describing the park as a “haven for prostitution where drugs are exchanged for sex” and “a garbage dumping ground.” The Parks Department has responded to Flores’ call, arriving to clear out another piece of land filled with garbage on the Grand Concourse. But little has changed at Mesa Park, which faces crime-infested Morris Avenue and is farther away from public sight.
“These are quality of life issues,” he added. “A lot of people around here are hard working and pay their taxes. Nobody wants to raise their kids around this.”
Flores believes that heightened police presence is necessary to secure the area, especially with a school located just across the Expressway. At PS 70 elementary school, parents and staff are also concerned with ensuring the safety of their children. Elizabeth Cespedes, the parent coordinator at the school, has collected 50 signatures from parents who have voiced concerns about the park. She needs an additional 75 signatures to raise the issue for debate at the next educational board meeting. In the meantime, Cespedes, who has three children at the school, said more parents have started picking their kids up after school and students have been asked to avoid walking by the park.
“I worry about my children and the other kids,” she said. “I’m hoping that the city will clean it up.”
Carmen Cruz, a community coordinator at Bronx Community Board 5, said in response that “all the authorities are aware, the issue is being addressed and we hope that things will start moving soon.”
In the meantime, however, she has managed to witness the troubling phenomenon firsthand. On Oct. 8, the district service cabinet took a bus tour of the region after its regular meeting and made a stop at Mesa Park. The cabinet members arrived to find a man shooting up and alerted the police, who promptly made an arrest. But such arrests are few and far between. Cruz maintained that everyone knows what needs to be done.
“Our first priority is to clean it up of garbage and clean it up of drug use,” she said. “Later we can figure out what to do with the park.”
However, locals say that police presence has hardly gone up in the past month. Part of the trouble is that Mesa Park literally falls between the cracks. The adjacent Cross Bronx Expressway serves as a physical border between local community boards and police precincts. PS 70, which falls under the jurisdiction of Community Board 4 and the 44th Precinct, is just one block away from Mesa Park, which falls under Community Board 5 and the 46th Precinct. The police themselves seem equally confused. When asked to address the issue of Mesa Park, a Special Operations officer from the 46th precinct replied: “that’s not our precinct.” When pressed on the matter, and assured the park indeed falls under their jurisdiction, the officer said: “We are trying our best. I’ll go over there now and take a look.”
Cruz maintained that the 46th precinct had been notified about the state of the park. Several phone calls were placed to enquire if stepped up patrols have indeed been implemented around the park in the past month. The officer in charge of the matter did not return reporter’s calls.
Councilwoman Maria Baez also received Flores’ letter dated Sept. 17. Her office did not return phone calls either.
Meanwhile, Flores has continued to fight for his neighborhood, demanding equal support for his section of the Grand Concourse. He said the resources exist but have been funneled to the southern and more politicized areas of the boulevard. He has also continued to care for Mesa Park, often cleaning and sweeping the area himself.
“I’m hoping and expecting change,” he said. “I’m hoping that Mesa Park becomes a park again.”