September 14, 2003

Street Smart

Hunting Flaws on New York's Blocks,
and Bringing the Catch to the City

JUDY Schneider and Barry Schneider, an East Side couple united by marriage and by a tenacious civic activism, stood near the corner of 61st Street and Second Avenue in Lenox Hill, where they squinted at a bump in the road and tried to decide what to call it. Steve Kahn, their fellow member of the East Sixties Neighborhood Association, scanned a laminated list of almost everything that can go wrong on a New York block, from rat holes and trash bin odors to weeds and debris in trees. But the list didn't have a fitting description for the goutlike mound of asphalt in the middle of the street.

"How about a hummock?" Ms. Schneider offered.

"What's that?" Mr. Kahn asked.

"It is a rounding of the street," Mr. Schneider explained. Hummock, Ms. Schneider added, is a term used by the Department of Transportation, which would soon be hearing about the bump from the trio of amateur inspectors.

The three, who conducted their survey one June morning, were in a program in which volunteers wielding hand-held computers gather data about street-level problems. In the last two years, about 133 miles of street in 15 neighborhoods - 1,692 blocks - have been surveyed.

The effort, called Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking, is aimed at encouraging bureaucrats to take prompt action, something often elusive in a big and complex city. (Think of that crooked sidewalk pole long ago shorn of any sign, or the graffiti on your corner mailbox that seems as ancient as a hieroglyphic.) The program was devised by the Fund for the City of New York; funds come from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "We kept hearing that people judge the way government is performing by what they see in the streets," said Barbara Cohn, the group's executive director. The program is ongoing. A survey has just been completed at the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn, for example, and two are starting in Jamaica, Queens. (Readers interested in volunteering can call 212-590-9415 or log on to /comnet.)

Will the program make a difference? "Every community takes surveys," said Mr. Schneider, the retired owner of an ad agency and a former chairman of Community Board 8. "But they usually take six months to cover four blocks, and the results wind up in the bottom of a drawer."

Mr. Schneider said this program may work, however. The hand-held computers contain forms that are easy to fill out, compile authoritative graphs and maps and are fitted with digital cameras to snap evidence. The computerized system pinpoints which of the 17 city agencies that oversee many of the elements of a block is responsible for a particular problem, and collects data citywide in a uniform way.

"It turns the anecdotal into black-and-white hard fact that is identifiable and curable," Mr. Schneider said. Rob Walsh, commissioner of the city's Department of Small Business Services, agreed, and noted that 10 of the city's 45 business improvement districts are using the program to take a "block by block, light bulb by light bulb" inventory of conditions in their areas.

People who are savvy about government, like Mr. Schneider, can make good use of the computer survey, but so can high school students in a poor Bronx neighborhood.

A few days before Mr. Schneider's group was puzzling over the hummock, seniors at Bronx Regional High School in Morrisania set out on the last of a dozen surveys of local street conditions they had conducted.

Their first stop was the corner of Westchester and Rev. James A. Polite Avenues. One student, Betzaida Castilla, saw that a sewer was silted over with dirt and debris. Shatera Headen scanned the laminated list and announced the proper term, "catch basin clogged," and Benenge Richard dutifully entered the condition into the hand-held computer.

This is a recurring problem, said another student, William Hardnett, as are street lights with broken doors at their base. "People can steal electricity from it," Mr. Hardnett said. "Little kids can get electrocuted. And drugs get stashed in there." He then produced a map inherited from a previous class that showed 10 broken street lights in a four-block area near the school. All had been reported to the Department of Transportation. Six had been fixed.

photos & illustrations

Joyce Dopkeen, the New York Times

Inspecting the streets of Morrisania,
in the Bronx, high school students
found a clogged sewer.

click here for illustrations