EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 4, 2013

At a Cedar Street duplex, a young family walls out what ails the city

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — From the backyard deck of their tidy Cedar Street home, Alex Serrano and his wife and three young children have a clear view into the belly of the beasts that roam this city.

Addicts toss bloody hypodermic needles to the ground like cigarette butts or jab them into the back of the fence Serrano put up last year to wall off his children’s pool and swing set from the destitution that unfolds daily on the other side.

Prostitutes bring their johns to mattresses scattered around the vacant lots and the alley that surround his duplex on three sides, occasionally flinging their condoms under the fence.

Midnight dumpers also appear to have unfettered access to the weedy lots, including one that is owned by the city. Mixed in with the 10 or 12 sopped and filthy mattresses scattered around the lots and the alley are piles of shattered television sets and broken liquor bottles, several tires, a sofa and overstuffed plastic bags of household trash spilling out their contents, including used diapers.

On a recent morning, after Serrano, 30, and his wife, Lillian, 28, thought they’d seen it all, Lillian Serrano saw one thing more, in broad daylight.

“Two days ago, my wife heard a noise,” Serrano said. “When she went to the second floor, she could see a couple having sex (on a mattress in the alley). It was in the day. I think it was 9 in the morning. It was early.”

The duplex at 38 and 40 Cedar St. is a perfect storm of conditions that attract illegal activity in Lawrence. The house is just half a block from the boarding houses that line Broadway in that part of the city. The weedy lots that surround it on three sides provide a small bit of off-street seclusion to whoever might need it. The alley in the back has been abandoned for more than a decade, making it difficult to enforce trespassing laws, and is so overgrown that police patrols can’t drive through.

A year ago, just before the Police Department reconstituted a narcotics unit that had been disbanded for two years because of budget cuts, the visits by prostitutes, addicts, vagrants and illegal dumpers became so frequent that Serrano erected the solid six-foot fence on all sides, giving his home a fortress feel.

Serrano recently began asking for help from City Hall, where he’s gotten mixed results from a city that sometimes seems overwhelmed by the challenges it faces on the street in the state’s most impoverished municipality.

Police visited the properties three times over the last week after Serrano called to report men and women injecting drugs or smoking what he said appeared to be crack cocaine, but there have been no arrests. On Tuesday, two people scattered when police approached and a third was issued a no-trespass order. No drugs were found.

“The alleyway is an ideal spot for drug use since the overgrowth shields the suspects from the street view,” Officer Ariel Montas said in a report he filed after visiting the properties Friday. “I will address this issue with (the Department of Public Works). Extra checks of the area are requested from all shifts and the narcotics unit will be notified as well.”

“I walked that alley,” Captain Roy Vasque, chief of the narcotics unit, said yesterday. “I did see hypodermic needles all over the place. Mattresses. Some clothing. I feel for the homeowner, no doubt about that. We told him we’d keep an eye on it for him. If we have to lock people up, we’ll do that.”

The response from the Department of Public Works was more delayed.

“The man who picked up the phone said, ‘There’s nothing we can do because we don’t have enough people,’” Serrano said about his first round of calls to the department. “I said, ‘Excuse me? What do you mean there’s nothing you can do? What if one of my kids (picks up) a needle and because they don’t know what it is, they get hurt?’ He said, ‘What do you want me to do? If we go in and clean that, in less than a month it’s going to be back to trash. Because that’s what people do in Lawrence.’”

The response Serrano said he got when he called is “not a standard response at all,” DPW Chief John Isensee said yesterday.

“When we find hot spots like that, where people are dumping on a regular basis, we move (surveillance) cameras in place,” Isensee said. “We’re dying to catch people like that.”

Isensee followed up an interview about conditions on the Cedar Street property with the Eagle-Tribune yesterday by dispatching a crew to clean up the three lots, a job that required a front-loader, a bobcat tractor and a truck.

The Department of Inspectional Services also visited yesterday. Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette said inspectors tracked down one of the illegal dumpers by searching the trash for envelopes and other identifying information. Blanchette did not identify the man, but said he is a Lawrence resident and was issued a citation and a $300 fine, the maximum allowed.

Blanchette said he also will track down the owners of the lots to charge them for the cleanup an assess a fine.

To deliver the citation to one of the owners, Blanchette won’t have to leave City Hall.

Lawrence acquired the 3,214-square-foot lot that adjoins the Cedar Street duplex on the east in a tax taking in 2006, according to records on file with the Northern Essex Registry of Deeds.

On Tuesday, the City Council scheduled a public hearing for April 16 on a proposal to tighten regulations on vacant or foreclosed properties. Among other things, the rewrite would require their owners to maintain the properties “in accordance with all the applicable sanitary codes” and to inspect their properties monthly.

Councilor Eileen Bernal, who chairs a committee that proposed the crackdown, said she was not aware of problems at the lot the city owns on Cedar Street, which is outside her district. But she said she believes Isensee responds quickly to fix problems on properties anywhere in Lawrence, noting the cleanup that occurred last year when several people were found encamped under the band shell on Campagnone Common.

“Should we hold the city to the same standard that we hold every other property owner to?” Bernal said. “Yes, we should.”

The alley in the back of the Cedar Street home is one of scores in the city last owned by the Essex Company, which helped found Lawrence in the 1840s. The company legally abandoned the alleys in 1992. There is now no owner of record.

The lot on the west is owned by James Maroon, a former real estate investor from Methuen who said he is no longer in the business. He said the city has begun foreclosing on the property, which he said he is not opposing.

In the meantime, Serrano, who works at a Whole Foods in Bedford, said he is considering selling the house he bought five years ago and moving to Haverhill, Methuen or Andover with his wife and kids, an 8-year-old boy and 7- and 2-year-old daughters.

“It’s disgusting,” Lillian Serrano said. “What if the kids get stuck with a needle? They’re kids. They don’t know what those things are.”