By Maria Rocha-Buschel
When the new wi-fi towers on Third Avenue arrived at the beginning of this year to replace defunct payphones in the neighborhood, Orbit News manager Ali Siddiqui thought it would be helpful for the occasional tourist that came into his shop looking for a map. But he said that it didn’t take long for the spots to get taken over day and night by various homeless people.
When a reporter was in the neighborhood last Friday, there was a man with his own rolling desk chair hooked up to the kiosk in front of the newsstand on the east side of the Avenue near East 20th Street and Siddiqui said that he had been in the same spot for three straight days.
“He brought his own chair and he just stays there, sitting and eating,” Siddiqui said.
He added that there are occasionally multiple people at the kiosk at once, usually streaming content through YouTube, and the men occasionally get aggressive when the sidewalk gets more crowded.
“Tourists want to use it but no one can because the same people are always there,” he said. “Customers complain about this to me all the time. This is a good neighborhood but since this started, it’s a nuisance.”
Patrick Maguire, a Stuyvesant Town resident and owner of Paddy Maguire’s bar, said that the problems started about two months after the kiosks were installed. Maguire’s bar is a couple storefronts down the avenue from Siddiqui’s newsstand and not directly in front of the kiosk, but he said that some of his patrons have been frustrated about the lack of access to the device.
“There have been a couple of the same homeless people who have been making a camp outside, constantly smoking and drinking bottles of wine,” Maguire said. “No one else can even use (the Links) because they’re there 24/7.”
Other business owners said they noticed it was causing homeless people to congregate around their stores but said that the behavior wasn’t causing any specific problems or complaints from customers.
An employee at Danny 2 Cleaners on the corner of Third Avenue and East 17th Street who didn’t want to give her name said that she started noticing people congregating around the device in the last two or three months but it hasn’t been an issue for the store’s employees or the customers, partially because there are occasionally homeless people in the area periodically already.
“They’re always around anyway, sometimes sleeping and hanging around,” she said, shrugging. “The corner gets loud sometimes because that thing can stream music but nobody has complained about it.”
Links have been installed on the Upper East and West Sides and throughout midtown. So far in the Gramercy and Flatiron neighborhoods, Links have only been installed on Third Avenue, between 14th and 20th Streets and between 24th and 30th Streets.
Although LinkNYC does not have a complaint number, 311 allows residents to file a complaint specifically about a homeless person who repeatedly occupies the same location or establishes an encampment. Officers from the 13th Precinct are supposed to respond to the location when they are not handling emergency situations. LinkNYC does have a contact email for suggestions, available at email@example.com.
Based on feedback from New Yorkers, a spokesperson for LinkNYC said changes have already been made to the kiosks, like reducing the volume at night.
“We are still in the early phase of deployment, learning how New Yorkers and visitors are using the Links and how they would like to see them improved,” said Ruth Fasoldt, Community Affairs Manager for LinkNYC. “We have heard the community’s feedback and are actively working with those communities and the city to test potential adjustments to LinkNYC in response to their concerns to prevent any of the Links from being monopolized by any individual or groups of users.”
The de Blasio administration proposed the kiosks in 2014 as a way to offer free public wi-fi by re-purposing the payphone infrastructure and business owners on Third Avenue said they were installed in the neighborhood this past March. The kiosk allows visitors to make free phone calls, browse the internet and charge devices through USB ports.
The Public Safety and Environmental committee for Community Board 6 will be discussing the kiosks during its next meeting on Monday, September 26 at 7 p.m. in room 220 at the NYU School of Dentistry, Nursing and Architecture inside 433 First Avenue.