From New York Newsday
Deep Fears In Heights
December 8, 2003
People were filing into an elevator deep below Washington Heights early yesterday: teenagers in loose-fitting clothes; hospital workers in blue-green uniforms; bundled up dishwashers; and nattily attired club hoppers.
It was nearly 2 in the morning and, in upper Manhattan, the ride continues after the subway doors swing open. You trek to elevators through foreboding concrete chambers where the homeless sleep and drunks urinate. You come to a uniformed transit worker whose job involves pressing elevator buttons to lift you out of the deepest stations in New York.
"A free-for-all," the elevator operator at 168th Street was saying yesterday, predicting disorder at five upper Manhattan stations where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to eliminate 22 of 50 elevator operators.
As he spoke, the elevator filled with riders. A man urinating outside the elevator didn't see him. A young man said something to three teenage girls behind him. One of the girls cursed him. The young man threatened her. His buddies laughed. When the elevator operator glared at the pair, the tension dissipated.
"It's going to get crazier," he said.
A movement to keep the elevator operators is being headed by a group of residents who trudged through a driving snow Saturday afternoon to the five upper Manhattan stations on the A, 1 and 9 lines. Transit officials have insisted that one elevator operator will be assigned around the clock at each station, but residents said the plan will compromise rider safety because there will be less workers around. Each station has at least four elevators.
"It's a perfect place for a mugging," said Dan Fleshler, a 20-year neighborhood resident who helped organize the march, which attracted more than 150 people.
"The elevators will become death traps," said Mark Hamburgh, president of Hebrew Tabernacle, a synagogue on Fort Washington Avenue.
"You're going to destroy the neighborhood," said Mike Augenblick, an officer with the Hudson Heights Owners Coalition, which represents 2,700 apartment owners in the neighborhood.
The elevator cuts are among 1,077 transit positions to be eliminated next year, including cleaning and maintenance jobs. Even after implementing the steepest increase in history this year, the transit agency still faces yawning budget deficits. A state comptroller's report last week warned of another fare hike in just two years.
When the 33 percent hike was approved, MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow promised no service cuts, but that's what the agency is doing. The MTA has also been quietly dismantling dozens of part-time station booths despite Kalikow's assurances that it listened to riders' concerns about safety.
"They completely missed the message that was pounded into their heads during the hearings about the station booths: Riders want human beings in the subways," Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, said last week. "Riders see it as a matter of safety and decent service."
As they marched through Washington Heights on Saturday, residents distributed Spanish and English fliers urging people to attend a Dec. 18 meeting at the MTA headquarters in midtown, when the board will vote on the cuts.
Broadway divides Washington Heights along economic lines - with mostly white, middle-class apartment owners residing west of the thoroughfare, and mostly black and Latino working-class families east of there.
"The educated, middle class has registered this as an issue," said Miriam Stix, a Washington Heights resident since 1982. "But it affects everybody."
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.