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Baghdad on the Hudson: Celebrating the Fourth of July in Upper Manhattan

During the midnight hours of July 4th, the night sounded like a war raging outside my windows. What was supposed to be a celebration of freedom turned out to be a desecration of our national holiday and a trashing of the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood.

This is what a war correspondent must hear, I mused, except that I was safe inside of my rent stabilized apartment as streets were bombarded by professional grade fireworks that went off until three in the morning. This wasn’t the far away land of Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria where living is precarious and danger is very real. In Inwood, where blocks of apartment buildings, businesses, and our park were under siege, the symbolic takeover of our streets lasted for more than twelve consecutive nights and culminated in deafening explosions and the shelling of firecrackers, sparklers, and M-80s all around us.

I’m all for celebrating our national holiday, and the last several years have been quiet up here, except for a pop or two of fireworks. Something changed this year and the neighborhood literally exploded. Thankfully, no one was injured, the acres of parkland of Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill Park did not ignite, and firecrackers lit under parked cars did not become improvised Molotov cocktails. It was tantamount to rioting, harkening back to the years before Rudy Giuliani became mayor, when gunshots were heard as often as dogs barking today.

What happened?

Neighbors complained about the effects and aftermath of July 4th, where working people were kept awake until the early morning hours, some frightened by the noise and shelling, and Inwood Hill Park was used as a campground and public toilet. Our founding fathers would have objected, no doubt. Residents reported no enforcement by the New York City Parks Department and while the 34th Precinct reported issuing close to 200 summonses and arresting 16, this wasn’t enough.

No one has an answer. If the NYPD had brought in additional units (or the National Guard), a faction of the neighborhood and our politicians would have protested, cried racial discrimination and claimed that they were under lockdown. Sadly, our local politicians have yet to weigh in. So, as usual, the police and the part of the community that rebels against these infiltrators get caught in the middle.

For those of us who lived through this chaotic scene, there’s been no explanation as to the how and why this occurred.  A complete investigation would help determine how to prevent it from happening next year. Was the NYPD as a whole assuming that this year would be as quiet as previous years and relaxed investigations of firework sales? Did the 34th Precinct let its guard down and thus, was unprepared for this unpredictable and potentially dangerous display of fireworks? Were they overworked with the amount of fireworks, calls to 911, and people in the streets? This might have been the case. But there were warning signs more than two weeks prior to July 4. What was the plan?

Taking an analytical approach, let’s find out what the intelligence on the ground was—and improve it. Without cops on the beat who can help serve as the eyes and ears of the block, law-abiding residents and business owners lack a personal connection to make the NYPD aware of issues on our streets. Two cops traveling through Inwood with windows rolled up or with lights and sirens blaring miss the pulse of the community.

Signs posting rewards for illegal fireworks a few days before July 4th seems like a lone firecracker bursting within Macy’s impressive fireworks display. Who manufactured and sold these fireworks, how did they get into the neighborhood, and how is the NYPD conducting an investigation into these sales?

And how many cops were on patrol on July 4th?  Five patrol cars —which amounts to 10 cops total—means that if three cars handle emergency calls, then only four cops are patrolling our neighborhood, a startlingly dangerous number for the community and to them. And let’s remember that one must stop for a break now and then, and if a police car breaks down or a police officer has a family emergency, then the total number of people we’re relying for safety drops down even further. And two cops barreling into a boisterous crowd of people can be disastrous and impractical. And there ARE more important 911 calls, from domestic violence, to burglaries, robberies, and assaults that require their immediate attention.

So what do you do?

People who used a national holiday as an excuse to raise hell trashed our lovely neighborhood. Let’s get to the bottom of this. Rules, common sense, and the laws, unfortunately, have to be spelled out to some. Too much freedom isn’t always a good thing for everyone. Reasonable New Yorkers understand the need for respect, education, and for sleep no matter what their backgrounds are.

Consider the generations of men and women who lost their lives as a sacrifice to freedom.

Next year, let’s have a better strategy, better policing, better neighbors. July 4 will be here again before we know it.

Response from Inspector Barry Buzzetti of the 34th Precinct:

Although on the 4th, the precinct deployed 40 additional police officers who effected 12 arrests involving fireworks and issued over 130 Criminal Court summonses, we do understand that, like any other service-oriented organization, we can always improve the delivery of our services.  Your input, and input from other residents of the precinct, is always a major part of this improvement.  After every major event, including July 4th, we begin planning for the next year.  This includes an analysis of the event that just occurred and considerations of how to more effectively address it in the future.  Next year, we will start our enforcement efforts earlier and more aggressively.  More intensive supervision of our officers and team-led enforcement, in which officers in the company of a supervisor enforce violations, will also be more actively incorporated into our plan.  Attempts to identify persons bringing fireworks into the city from out of state and locations where they are stored and sold will also be key points that we will be sure to better address next year.

To address crime and quality of life issues in Inwood, we have deployed additional officers to the neighborhood, particularly in and around Inwood Hill and Isham Parks.  We have worked with the Parks Department to have a new security camera installed in Isham Park and are currently considering locations for additional ones.  We have also assigned additional officers specifically to perform duty between 8:00 pm and 6:00 am and to aggressively enforce rules regarding parking and operation of motorcycles.  This has, we believe, already begun to reduce problems caused by the reckless operation of motorcycles in the area.  I hope that you have noticed this increased presence. 

On your part, I would recommend that you consider joining the Northern Manhattan Civilian Observation Patrol.  It is a very worthwhile organization that is being formed to increase community awareness and security in Inwood.  Involvement would require a minimal amount of time.  If you, or anyone you know has any interest, contact the organizer, Aaron Simms, at  It is my understanding that there is an event involving a walk-through of the neighborhood planned for this Monday evening, July 16.  If you have any further issues regarding your email, or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me at this email or at 212-927-9445.


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