A ride through the south; Despite improvements, Greenville still struggles with crime, drugs
The radio crackles with a police dispatcher's words: "Man with a gun." Police officers Harry Litchfield and Bobby Quish race to the corner of Neptune and Ocean avenues. They jump out of the sedan, grab two young black men, turn them around against the wall and frisk them. One of the black men is tall, sporting a blue backward baseball cap and blue jean shorts. The other is shorter and wears a now-fashionable 80s-style "do-rag" - a tight piece of cloth stretched across the head. By now, a swarm of five police sedans - all of the available cars in the South District - has converged on one of Jersey City's most notorious outdoor drug spots, one of many in this long crime-plagued section. Police are responding to an anonymous call that one of the two men at the corner of Ocean and Neptune had been seen with a gun. But the search turns up nothing. The officers then look at the back seat of the taller man's car, parked on the street. Suddenly, a police van pulls up on the curb. Out hops a crew laden with cameras and a boom mike. They race up to the shorter man, who is now standing in front of his car and is talking to the officers. The microphone, large and black, is thrust right under the man's face. He stares at it, silent. But the taller man instantly recognizes the camera's significance. "Oh, yeah!" he says, raising his arms in the air. "This is 'COPS'!" He grins goofily at the camera and starts an off-key rendition of the television police show theme song: "Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?" Exchanging glances, the cameraman and soundman head back to the van. Litchfield and Quish later explain that the FOX television show "COPS" is filming in Jersey City. Back at the car, an officer pulls a two-foot length of silver metal pipe from the back seat. "What are you gonna do with this?" he asks. "You live in this neighborhood?" shoots back the tall man, implying that he needs it for protection. No crime has been committed. The cops let the men go. The new south
While police know the area as the "South District," government types call it Greenville. And those who live in this 5.5-mile swath of the 14.7 square mile city know it as "The Hill." It's a haven for open-air drug markets and the crimes that go with them, say police, but there's less crime than there used to be, and statistics back this up. According to recently compiled police data, the south has seen dramatic drops in robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and car theft since 1991. It's part of a citywide and nationwide trend in falling crime. Homicide and rape are both at lower levels, but follow a rollercoaster pattern. In 1995, three murders were reported here, while in 1996 the figure skyrocketed to nine - accounting for 26 percent of all the homicides in the city - and then dipped back down to two the next year. In 1998, that figure was back up to seven and then down the next year to four. Rape follows a similar pattern. While the neighborhood is safer, it's not Hoboken, or even the Heights. Still, Litchfield, 35, a former Greenville resident, says the difference between now and five years ago is "night and day." "We used to get 10 calls a day here," he says, pointing to Currie's Woods, a cluster of lonely high-rise projects shadowing the Bayonne border. "Now, maybe one every other day. This was the call no one wanted to come out on." But Currie's Woods, originally seven towers seething with crime, are now down to three thanks to the wrecking ball. Eventually, there will be just one. New townhouse-style homes have replaced the towers, and the people now living there are less crime-prone, according to officials. Plus, a new shopping center that opened in the spring, along with a massive post office and a commuter rail stop to New York have combined to give this once-forgotten section of town some hope. Problems remain, including the aforementioned open daytime drug markets, shootings, and burglaries. Only two weeks ago, a man was shot and killed at 10 a.m. on a street in front of a multitude of witnesses over an apparent money dispute. Professionals on their way to work in Manhattan sometimes purchase heroin here or cocaine, police say. Afternoon
Passing through the narrow, often brutally-bumpy streets on a clear, cool July afternoon, past gated-down empty shops, vacant lots, dilapidated homes, children on bikes, and a parked van pumping out the Gospel of Luke, the officers spy a group of young men congregating on the corner of Rutgers and Stevens avenues. They're not there to socialize, says Litchfield. He had passed the same corner three hours earlier. "Here's the same group," he says, "They haven't moved." There's little that police in patrol cars can do, he says, unless they catch someone in the act of using or dealing drugs. Deals go down so quickly that unless an undercover agent is around to spot it, it goes undetected. Much of the officers' time is spent responding to drug calls phoned into the district station. The officers dutifully respond, but succeed in merely shuttling the dealers to another corner. It's wasteful, and Litchfield and Quish know it. "It moves the crowd a little bit," says Quish, 36, a former accountant. "It clears the corner. But in 10 to 15 minutes, they'll be back. It's like a little shuffle game. You move them and then they come back." The ones who deal best with the drug dealers are the city's community police force, once a separately run unit in the south, and undercover narcotics officers, Quish says. They, according to police officials, are the ones who monitor the dealers and help make life more difficult for narcotics offenders. Right now, the hot drug is heroin. "Heroin is big," says Quish, a former narcotics officer. "It's very big. It wasn't as big when I was first here." Litchfield then ticks off a list of other popular choices: cocaine, marijuana, and a new type of drug called "dip," a formaldehyde-like substance in which cigarettes, cigars or marijuana joints are dipped and then smoked. "The stench is unbelievable," says Litchfield. "It's just awful. You can't stay in the same room without getting sick." The drug makes the user "violent and crazy," according to South District Commander Robert Martin. "It's basically a mind-altering drug," he says. As the car slides through the darkening streets, and the radio plays a Mets game, the officers reflect on the best way to fight the drugs so rampant in the city. "By the time it hits the streets in Jersey City, it's too late," Quish says. He pauses, and adds, "By the time it gets to the U.S., it's too late." Litchfield sees another angle. "It's the lenience in the courts," he says. "You can't give a life sentence. But you have to make them more afraid ... This is an organization. It's a business." Quish points to Wegman Parkway and Martin Luther King Drive. "That's a hot corner," he says. "There are a lot of kids out here." Litchfield jumps in. "You've got three guys carrying, two guys on lookout." Adds Quish, "You'll see kids on bikes. They'll yell out, 'yellow' or 'Five-0,'" he says, a nod to 70s show "Hawaii Five-0." It means police on the way. "And when they see us, they'll start walking in different directions." "When Bobby and I first came out" in 1994, says Litchfield. "This was a drug haven. They didn't care." But the "shooting galleries," as police call them, such as the houses that were demolished when the CitiMarkets plaza was constructed, are being eliminated, say police. There are fewer groups fighting for prominence, says Litchfield. "There were a lot more turf battles, but they've consolidated," he says. The car heads east, toward the water, past condominiums for professionals who commute to Manhattan, into Liberty State Park, less than a mile from the center of Jersey City's drug capital. The officers come here often. "This is our safe haven," says Litchfield, gazing out the window at the green fields opening up to the Hudson River. "This is the only place we can go."