“Time for a bulldozer.” “What happened to this community?” “Something needs to be done up there.”
As eyebrow-raising stories in upper Port Jefferson — the area on and around Main Street between North Country Road and the train tracks — and Port Jefferson Station keep coming, so too does reaction, available in abundance at community meetings and on social media pages geared toward the Port Jeff area. If these reactions were a person’s only window into the state of an increasingly crime, addiction and poverty-stricken area, an element could surely be lost: the human element.
“You keep putting Band-Aids on bullet holes,” said Darryl Wood, 60, a Mastic Beach resident and employee at Echo Arms Adult Home, a residential facility on Route 112 south of the train tracks that houses adults with disabilities and provides shelter for low-income individuals, within the area designated for revitalization by Town of Brookhaven.
Wood was referring metaphorically and broadly to government’s approach to improving communities showing many of the symptoms characteristic of Echo Arms’ backyard, though his analogy had a tinge of reality. On July 22, a 27-year-old man from Selden was shot to death inside a billiards hall in upper Port. About a week prior, a man was stabbed at a bar just north of the tracks following an altercation. Wood hadn’t heard of the revitalization plans presented by the town July 24.
“They need help — they need someone who cares.”
— Darryl Wood
“They need help — they need someone who cares,” Wood said July 27 on a hot afternoon as he enjoyed his lunch break on a bench near the Port Jeff Station entrance to the Greenway Trail. He shared that he had been homeless previously, addicted to crack and panhandling to survive in Manhattan.
“I thought I would die a crackhead,” he said, adding he has been clean for 12 years, and working at Echo Arms for three. “I owe, because I’ve taken so much.”
Perception has become reality for those who don’t spend much time in upper Port, though personal interactions can serve as a reminder — people live in this community characterized at times only as a hot spot for drug use and violence.
“There’s always a lot going on in Port Jeff Station,” said a woman, who looked to be in her 60s, named Anna Maria, sitting on a bench adjacent to the train station July 27 while she waited for the S60 Suffolk County bus to arrive when asked if she’d heard about some of the recent events in her community.
She pushed a walker to help her reach the bench, coming north from around Maple Avenue and carrying a reusable shopping bag. A brief conversation revealed she spent time teaching American culture in Beijing, China, about 30 years ago, and carried a printed photo with her to prove it. She concluded the conversation saying, “God bless you,” as she boarded her bus.
“You’re doing better than me, I’m shot, the heat and humidity is killing me,” another man likely in his 50s waiting on the same bench for a bus downtown responded to the simple conversation starter “How ya doin’?”
He counted the change in his pocket as he spoke, wearing a gray baseball hat, dirty white T-shirt and gray sweatpants.
“Can you tell which bus is coming, I don’t have my glasses today,” he asked peering south down Route 112. “Be careful kid,” were his departing words.
Later a man who appeared to be homeless with a messy, full head of gray hair and out-of-season clothing sits down on the bench. He wandered over from the direction of Pax Christi Hospitality Center, a homeless shelter on Oakland Avenue. He stayed on the bench for about 20 minutes, halfway between seated and hunched, with his hand on his head and covering his face. Eventually, he stood up slowly, gathering a garbage bag in one hand and what appeared to be a bundled towel or blanket under the other arm. Without checking traffic, he hobbled across Main Street, stopping cars in both directions and turned the corner, disappearing from view.