Fear in Alphabet City

New York Press
September 16, 2009
(Winner of New York Press Association “Best Crime Coverage 2009”)

TWENTY-SIX MINUTES after last call on August 23, a loud pop sent a wave of jitters through the weekend drunks, bouncers, desperate lonely-hearts and wide-awake cokeheads hanging out on the Avenue A strip between East 12th and 14th streets. Just as they settled back into their cigarettes and drawn-out good-byes, another bang! rocked them.

Craig Lopez was standing in front of Heathers on East 13th Street, holding back Vaca, his pit bull, when he heard the second shot. “The second time I knew it was for real,” Lopez says, explaining why he called 911. Screeching tires and screams filled the air as terrified people started running south on Avenue A. Caught up in the moment, Lopez ran the other way with his dog, against the flow of the frightened crowd, toward the sound of the gunshots.

As the first patrol car careered into view, Lopez stopped short at the sight he saw revealed by the streetlights. He recognized the muscular Hispanic man, who lay faceup, motionless on the double yellow line, a pool of blood spreading behind his head. He knew right away it was the bouncer everyone called “Taz.”

Crouched near the entrance of Forbidden City, a locals bar known for a mostly Hispanic and Asian clientele, another man—his neck ripped open by a bullet— muttered, “I’m not going to make it…” over and over.

A third man—one hand dripping blood because it had been grazed by a bullet, the other hand pressing a crimson-soaked towel against his friend’s neck wound—reassured him everything would be OK.

Minutes before he was shot in the forehead, 42-year-old Eric “Taz” Pagan, a single father who lived with his mother and daughter over on Avenue D, was socializing at Forbidden City, a place where he had formerly worked the door. A close friend of Pagan’s says that moments after handling “some tough-guy bullshit” that broke out inside the bar, “Taz was walking around the bar, clowning around.” Not wanting the night to end, Pagan told patrons he was going to cross the street and check out Drop Off Service, another neighborhood bar that was still packed with a late-night crowd.

Pagan never made it across. Two men sat in a white van double-parked on the opposite side of the street.They had been waiting for the guy that had given them the bum’s rush earlier that night in Forbidden City.

When they saw Pagan, they stepped on the gas and veered into a sharp U-turn. A drunken driver hurled threats at the van from his rolled-down window. Pagan pounded on the van’s quarter panel as it edged passed him. The driver slammed on the brakes, flung open the door and exited with a .45-caliber pistol in hand. He shot Pagan in the skull at close range.

Pagan reeled backward and dropped to the asphalt. The gunman then turned on two Staten Islanders—Robert Calbo and Salvador Moran—who had followed Pagan out of Forbidden City. Trying to shield himself from the shot, Calbo raised his hand. The bullet blew past it and then passed through Moran’s neck.

When they heard sirens, witnesses say the driver and a friend jumped into the idling van, revved the engine and took off north, then turned east onto East 14th.

The shooter in the van, according to the DA’s complaint filed on Aug. 24, was allegedly 29-year-old Louis Rodriguez.The Spanish Harlem resident was picked up later on Sunday in Gramercy Park and charged with second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree attempted murder. A guy from Rodriguez’s neighborhood describes him as “a cold-blooded fucking idiot.”

It took an ambulance nearly 10 minutes to arrive after Craig Lopez’s 911 call. EMTs tried to perform CPR on Pagan.They bandaged the two other men who’d been shot and got them in an ambulance. Fifteen minutes later, as detectives grilled Lopez and other witnesses, the medics were still trying to revive Pagan. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue.

Lopez is a stout, laid-back 43-year-old salesman who lost his East 12th Street storefront during the recent development boom. His scalp is closely shaved, and he has the colorless pallor of a bohemian nighthawk. On a recent evening, he was getting some air in front of his East 12th Street apartment building with Rachel Allen, his 26-year-old girlfriend. He’s still a bit shell-shocked at what he saw that Sunday morning. Shaking his head, he says, “There was just so much blood. It doesn’t get much more horrible.” He turns to Allen, who had followed him up to the crime scene, in disbelief. Letting out a heavy sigh, she agrees: “It was everywhere.”

Lopez has lived in Alphabet City since the early 1990s. Back then the moniker for the 45-square-block area south of 14th Street and east of First Avenue sent shivers down middle-class spines, conjuring up images of drug zombies and muggers. During the last decade, the term fell into disuse as wealthy new arrivals arrived, along with college bars and bistros. When the term finally ceased to register any fear, the rich claimed the Alphabets for themselves. In its 2007 Best ‘Hoods issue, Time Out awarded Alphabet City the dubious honor of being the “#1 Best ‘Hood.”

For further proof of the once-sleazy neighborhood’s gentrified success story: In Mayor Bloomberg’s Broadway re-election campaign office, red-and-white T-shirts reading ALPHABET CITY FOR BLOOMBERG sit alongside green and yellow ITALIANS FOR BLOOMBERG tees.

Despite the turnaround, Lopez says he preferred the lonely streets and coke bodegas to the loud “frat boy” parties that have invaded his neighborhood. “On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, it’s really bad,” he says, before breaking into an almost-apologetic smile. “I prefer the old way. I felt safer.”

Lopez’s crack about frat boys, however, masks darker fears. “Was I concerned that someone got killed?” he asks rhetorically, then shrugs. “Yeah. But I can’t say I was really surprised. There are shootings around here all the time.”

He ticks off the locations of five shootings he claims occurred within five square blocks of his apartment in the last two weeks. “People think it’s so safe here now,” he says. “But there are just as many shootings now as in the 1990s. Maybe more.”

While that may not be statistically true, in fact, East Village residents of all ages, races and classes worry that bullets are flying with increasing frequency these days.

Many have lived east of First Avenue for 10 years or more, so they know what a gunshot sounds like. Some claim that the crime statistics released from the local Ninth Precinct do not adequately tally all the shootouts. Others express fear that the uptick in violence will serve as an excuse for police to curb the civil rights of the locals.

To be fair, most of the bullets do not wind up hurting anyone, but a sense of fear exists among certain residents living east of Avenue A. Bob Arihood is a paunchy middle-aged photographer who wears a scruffy beard and loose-fitting dark clothing. He speaks an old-school newshound’s lingo dotted with hard-boiled terms like “second-story men.” He’s uploaded pictures of crime scenes and other contentious neighborhood activities on his blog, Neither More Nor Less. On it you can see crust punks and sidewalk scuffles outside bars. In one shot, a policeman has his arm draped, in a friendly fashion, around the shoulders of a streetperson. Arihood gets to the scene quickly since he obsessively monitors a police scanner in his East Fourth Street apartment. All his compulsive attention to the nearby streets serves to channel his anxieties about a fresh violent crime wave that, according to him, has gathered momentum in the last year.

“There are numerous gun calls all of the time,” he says in a world-weary tone. “There were several today.”

Arihood paints a perfect storm of social, economic and political factors, which combine to insure that successive waves of incoming NYU students, and upper-middle class tenants, remain ignorant of how bad things are in the ‘hood—thereby continuing to splurge on tuition and “million-dollar condos.” Poor aim makes it easier for precincts to allegedly maintain so-called favorable Comstats (community statistics) because, “unless charges are pressed, they don’t count.” Lopez echoes the point more nonchalantly, saying, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the precincts were practicing some fancy bookkeeping.”

Plus, most condo dwellers and students have probably only heard technically enhanced gunshots fired on episodes of The Wire. The crack of a gun outside their window may not measure up as a serious threat.

“NYU students and yuppies don’t know what’s going on,”Arihood says, with a snear. “They’re only here to party.”

Arihood posted an extensive—by blog standards—post about Pagan’s murder on Aug. 23. It reported early details of the initial investigation such as: “Police found one empty casing on the sidewalk which was covered with a
paper cup.”

He sees the murder as the latest crescendo in an orchestra of grievances. Arihood might easily be dismissed as an aging crank whom, after decades living Downtown, is slipping into deep-seated prejudices. Yet his assertions seem to hold up when others are questioned.

While eating lunch at Odessa, a diner on Avenue A, Shannon Dawson, a longhaired man in his late forties, also says he’s heard the gunfire. “Just Tuesday night when I stayed with my mom,” he says, referring to an apartment on East Seventh Street between Avenues B and C. “Then again on Saturday.” When his mother was called for confirmation, she also agreed that the gunshots are a frequent occurrence.

Dawson goes on to say that when staying at a friend’s apartment on Houston and Avenue D, he can sit on the roof and “watch shootouts all the time.”

Dawson was informed that at a May 13 Community Council meeting, a NYPD spokesman reassured a nervous Hispanic woman who complained of the gunshots that there had bee only one “shots-fired” call from January through May. Dropping his Reuben onto his plate he looks at me wide-eyed. “That’s bullshit,” he says. “That’s just not true.” Another man in his forties, who lives on Pitt Street between Rivington and Stanton streets, estimates he is woken up by gunshots, “two to three times a week.”

On a bright afternoon, a group of Pagan’s close friends agreed to speak about the circumstances behind his death. Sitting around a Stuyvesant Town basketball court, they spoke fondly of Pagan, who most of them knew for decades. Rick Melendez, a wiry 42-year-old grifter with portraits of deceased siblings inked on each forearm, is particularly upset. He and Pagan were tight before kindergarten, when their mothers both attended Spanish-language services at Immaculate Conception Church on East 14th Street. As teens they sometimes rode the M14 bus together over to Chelsea Vocational High. A pattern would emerge then that persisted until Pagan was snuffed out. “I’ve been hurt by a lot of women,” Melendez admits. “Taz would always be there saying, ‘Come on, let’s get drunk.’”

The Alphabets were a Nuyorican stronghold when the two friends were growing up; when people sat on their stoops and knew their neighbors by their first names. But gradually the Spanglish speaking mecca was pushed toward the projects near the FDR—like the Lillian Wald Houses where Pagan lived—now the Loisaida’s last stand. “The neighborhood has changed dramatically, dramatically,” Melendez says. So it’s not difficult to see why, toward the end of his life—as he saw his world disappear—Pagan began clinging to his ethnic roots. A red-white-and blue flag Puerto Rican flag was posted on the shrine that went up as tribute in front of Forbidden City after the shooting.

At 42, Melendez has remained in the ‘hood by staying with his mother in the Avenue A tenement where he was born. It is directly across from Forbidden City, and Melendez continued to see Pagan frequently, even as he stopped working officially as a bouncer.

“He liked going out, at least four days out of the week,” Melendez says. On Aug. 23 at 4:26, Melendez’s elderly mother heard shots. As she ran to the window, she probably feared for her son; still running the streets at 42, he was lucky. Instead, it was Pagan, her best friend’s son, dying near the gutter.

Many of the people I spoke with feel that such a well-publicized violent crime will bring new hassles to their lives on the streets. “With all the publicity that’s going on, the cops are going to start harassing people. It make everyone uncomfortable,” Melendez explains. “I’m afraid to be around my house, I just go upstairs.”

As if to prove his point, a short burst of walkie-talkie audio from behind the group makes them obviously jumpy. Bringing up the drug beefs over in Campos Plaza Projects—which caused bullets to fly—56-yearold Mike Shostak, says “[Once] weapons get involved, the cops don’t fuck around.”

Shostak, a gregarious 56-year-old, speaks in a hoarse monotone that fluctuates in volume, and has working-class Lower East Side roots. Despite sometimes veering wildly off topic with obscure references, he goes on to make some excellent historical points. “Twenty years ago, they tried to make it [upper-middle class], but they just couldn’t do it. Every
block you went to, there were drugs dealers and coke bodegas,” he says in his booming voice. Now, however, the stakes are much higher. “Rich people want the room now,” he says.

That leaves some very dissatisfied oldtimers, including Shostak, who has lived in the same rent-controlled Stuyvesant Town apartment for 40 years. “You have the people that are still here, they’re not happy about people coming to take their place, no one ever is,” he says. “We’re like the Indians.”

Like checkered cabs and smoky jazz clubs, the coke bodegas and open-air drug markets have been wiped out, which makes the wealthy more comfortable in the Alphabets. Bop through some of the regular haunts along Avenue A—Forbidden City, Habibi or Drop Off Service—a few times, and you’ll see a different version of an old cover. Alibis might change, but vice
remains the same. At Forbidden City, the night of Pagan’s memorial, coke dealers were allegedly easy to find: One, who witnesses described as a “big black guy with dreads,” sat at the bar with two girls standing around him, drinking Hennessey and fielding texts with a bored look on his face.

Despite slight differences between how the two main tabloids covered the murder, the narrative of how Pagan came to be murdered was boilerplate. The Post reported that he was “shot dead yesterday morning after helping a customer try to find his keys on the sidewalk…” The Daily News, without mentioning that he wasn’t working, used the murder as a jumping off point for an Aug. 23 story on the perils of being a bouncer. A quote in another Daily News piece on the same day set forth the role Pagan was to star in for the next few days. “He was a peacemaker. He was the nicest guy you’d ever meet…”

Pagan spent the last hour before he was killed traveling back and forth from Habibi to Forbidden City, where he had been talking to a young woman. He started gushing to Habibi’s bushy-haired Egyptian owner, about a new job. He was giving up bouncing. He was planning to continue working as an electrician. Then he told the owner that he had misplaced his canvas tool bag. Pagan thenwalked into the muggy early morning air, blithely unaware of his destiny.