Noah Rosenberg

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The New York Times: Keeping a Watchful Eye on a Part of the Bronx

February 22nd, 2011 · No Comments · Article

By NOAH ROSENBERG

Maybe it was the sudden screech of the bus’s brakes or the orange flash of its hazard lights. But something caught Sidney Flores’s attention on a recent Friday night. Something was not right. Mr. Flores quickly made a U-turn and came to a stop behind the bus on East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

Mr. Flores dialed 911 and, as if on cue, the bus’s electronic sign suddenly displayed a disturbing plea: “Call Cops.”

Mr. Flores is not a police officer. He is a handyman and a painter in his 24th year of working at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center.

But the episode with the bus, which turned out to have only mechanical problems, was typical. In the Mount Eden section of the Bronx, Mr. Flores, 52, seems to have taken the role of unofficial neighborhood “mayor” to a different and perhaps obsessive level.

He describes himself as the “eyes and ears” of the community and a “411 on wheels.” Whenever he is not working, Mr. Flores is usually on patrol, calling the city’s 311 line about a pothole, an abandoned vehicle or a missing stop sign. If he spots a fistfight or what he suspects to be a drug deal, he calls the police.

He relies on an emergency scanner to show up at scenes of fires or crimes, distributing snacks to people forced out of their homes by flames and even carrying yellow crime-scene tape should an officer need extra.

“This life isn’t just about you,” Mr. Flores said. “It’s about reaching out to other people as well.”

It started in 2004. Mr. Flores had been keeping sentry over the blocks near his apartment on the Grand Concourse when he decided to be more ambitious about the crime and decay that he said extended well beyond his doorstep.

His sliver of the Bronx had recovered from its crime-ridden nadir of the 1970s and ’80s, but plenty of problems remained. Drugs and prostitution were common, burned out streetlights were left unreplaced, there were more rats than residents and doctors at Bronx-Lebanon were all too often assaulted on the streets surrounding the hospital.

“I said, ‘Wow,’ ” Mr. Flores said. “There’s work to be done in my community. There are quality-of-life issues that are going unseen, unreported.”

Mr. Flores is most proud of his grass-roots efforts, including leading a petition drive, to help clean up the Morris Mesa Playground next to his building; it had been infested by drugs and prostitution. His handiwork is also evident in a number of other neighborhood cleanup projects and numerous antigraffiti and curb-your-dog signs that he has put up.

He often delivers hot chocolate to the 44th and 46th Precinct station houses. Lt. Edward Gonzalez said he had been impressed with Mr. Flores while formerly stationed in those precincts as an officer and a sergeant.

“Sidney is never looking for anything in return,” Lieutenant Gonzalez said, recalling Mr. Flores’s neighborhood cleanup efforts. “His work is based on all goodness.”

Mr. Flores digs into his wallet to pay for his self-appointed role as Mount Eden’s guardian, relying on his hospital salary of $50,000 a year. He has put together a sort of precautionary pantry, including safety lights, cones, fire extinguishers, flashlights, bottles of water, hot chocolate and crime-and-safety pamphlets.

Despite suggestions from police officers and other community members that he run for office, Mr. Flores, whose mother and father were active in local politics, maintains that he has no interest. A devout Roman Catholic, he said he sought no recognition for his charity other than from “the guy upstairs.”

Nevertheless, community leaders have taken notice. Xavier Rodriguez, the district manager of a local community board, said Mr. Flores managed to show up whenever there was an emergency in the neighborhood. Though, he added, “it’s not like he rips off his clothing and he’s got a big ‘S’ on his chest.”

Adolfo Carrión Jr., a former Bronx borough president, recalled how Mr. Flores worked hard to bring attention to the Morris Mesa Playground’s neglect. “What I’ve always said is the difference between success and failure of these investments we make as government, what makes or breaks them, is local leadership,” said Mr. Carrión, who now works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “And Sidney really represented that.”

Mr. Flores, who has never married, lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment amid the incessant crackle of police radio chatter.

He admits that his near round-the-clock volunteer work might have contributed to the end of at least one relationship, and some might question his motivation. Yet Mr. Flores, those who know him say, is genuinely selfless.

“I believe that when you give of yourself,” he said, “it comes back to you somehow, some way.”

And on Jan. 1, 2005, it did. Mr. Flores had a winning lottery ticket that day. He said he used part of his roughly $81,000 payout to buy an all-terrain vehicle, with which he clears snow in the neighborhood.

He also bought a Toyota Highlander sport utility vehicle that he uses on his watch duties. Mr. Flores has affixed magnetic decals on the car that say in red lettering: Bronx Community Boards 4 & 5 Quality of Life Task Force & Safety.

Mr. Flores, however, is neither a member nor an employee of either board, and Mr. Rodriguez has told Mr. Flores that the line between his volunteerism and his unofficial affiliation with Board 5 should “never be blurred in terms of representation.”

Still, Mr. Rodriguez had nothing but praise for Mr. Flores.

“This guy’s out there evenings, nighttime,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I think he probably has a police radio in his bed.”

For the record, he does.

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