Site of killing, long a homeless haven, will become more safe, officials promise By Jesse J. Smith
The railroad cut where Anthony Garro Jr.’s body was found last week has long served as a convenient shortcut for foot-mobile Midtown residents to get to work or shopping at Kingston plaza. But the sunken right of way running through densely populated neighborhoods has also earned a reputation as a gritty corridor where homeless alcoholics and drug users congregate, and prostitutes ply their trade.
Issues of safety and security highlighted by Garro’s murder come as the county legislature is set to vote on whether to convert the disused rail line into walking and biking trail.
The old rail line through Midtown was once leased by the Catskill Mountain Railroad. The railroad, which began as a small venture for hobbyists decades ago, has emerged in recent years as a major tourism draw, running holiday-themed trains from Kingston Plaza out to the Hurley Flats. After years of complaints from Midtown residents about fumes, noise and indifferent maintenance of the right-of-way, the railroad gave up its lease on a section of track running from Cornell Street to Kingston Plaza. The section reverted to county control; today, in place of the railroad’s “no trespassing” warnings, a sign posted on Downs Street, one block from the crime scene, reads, “County property. No motor vehicles. Walking trails only. Patrolled by Sheriff’s Office.”
Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum said his office patrols the railroad cut “periodically” and has responded to complaints about people riding ATVs through the cut, homeless people camping out, drug use and other issues. Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said his officers occasionally walk or bike down the rail line to check for suspicious activity. Tinti said the department received occasional complaints about activity on the trail, but said that there had been no recent increase in crime or other issues there.
But Mary “Chiz” Chisholm, who runs a boarding house that serves down-and-out city residents, said the rail line remained a popular gathering place and, sometimes, an abode for people unable to find shelter elsewhere.
“People go down there to party or sell drugs,” said Chisholm of the rail line and patch of think woods near Kingston Plaza. “I used to go down there to give out food, but I stopped because the energy has changed. People don’t have barometers anymore, they’d as soon kill you as look at you.”
The stretch of rail line is slated to become a walking and biking trail under a plan supported by County Executive Mike Hein. The state has already approved a $1.5 million grant that would fund 80 percent of the project. County lawmakers are expected to vote later this month on whether to move ahead with the plan. If approved, engineering on the proposed rail trail would begin next year and construction would take place in 2019.
Deputy County Planner Chris White said officials had debated whether to restrict access to the railroad cut prior to the trail’s construction, but opted to leave it open in recognition of the fact that many Midtown residents relied on the path as a shortcut to work or shop in the plaza.
“We know we have issues down there,” said White. “Right now we are in a place where we are kind of between uses.”
White said the rail trail plan would include lighting, security cameras and other measures to enhance safety and discourage illicit activity on the trail. Mayor Steve Noble, who supports the trail, said he also believed safety could only be improved by converting the railroad cut into an attractive destination for walkers and bikers.
“Having vacant land that’s underutilized in any neighborhood can only attract things we don’t want,” said Noble.
On Monday, county crews moved through the railroad cut with a dump truck hauling off a couch, assorted furniture and other debris that had been littering the trail. According to Tinti, the crews were accompanied by a KPD sergeant trained in a method known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED. The method looks at factors like lighting, vegetation and sightlines and their impact on public safety. In 2015 the KPD received a state grant to train officers in CPTED; since then, the department has offered seminars on design principles and consulted with residents and business owners on how to use design to enhance safety. Tinti said the sergeant had given the county workers tips on short-term fixes to security issues along the trail. Meanwhile, he said, the department would offer input during design and construction of the official rail trail.
“I think having proper lighting, cameras, cutting back some the trees down there will help alleviate those concerns,” said Tinti.