Destroying the Birdhouses of the UES

A block association’s project to thank first responders encounters vandalism from an anonymous critic

| 26 Sep 2020 | 10:06

The destruction of the 81st Street Block Association’s birdhouses is an issue that doesn’t appear to be going away soon. On September 10 at 12:15 a.m., surveillance footage from a building on 81st between First and York captured a woman with wire cutters removing the block’s birdhouses from trees and placing them in the garbage bags awaiting pickup that morning.

The birdhouses had been part of a project organized by Jerry Howe, an UES resident who during the heights of the COVID-19 quarantine painted two red and white birdhouses that he hung on the block as a way of thanking the city’s first responders and medical workers. “It was a way to distract myself from the news,” Howe said in a phone interview.

Pretty soon, other residents of 81st Street, in particular families with children, were reaching out to him because they wanted to paint birdhouses of their own. Eventually there were 20 on the block, which Howe had varnished, finished and hung for the various families, who thanked him for coming up with the project. “It was a fun, lighthearted and positive thing for Yorkville,” Howe explained.

Residents were then shocked to discover the destruction of the birdhouses on the morning of the 10th. After reaching out to the local 19th Precinct, the police informed Howe and other members of the Association, including resident and Association co-founder Justin Shea, that the incident was a civil and not a criminal matter.

In an attempt to solve the situation themselves, the Block Association responded by hanging flyers around the neighborhood, which included an image of the woman from the surveillance footage in the hopes of obtaining information about the incident and the perpetrator.

But like the birdhouses, these too were soon torn down, and in their place, a series of bizarre handwritten letters were hung. Written by someone claiming to be the woman who destroyed the birdhouses on the night of the 10th, the letters state that the trees on the block are city property and that the birdhouses had been harming the trees. One of the fliers written in black sharpie marker claimed that hanging private property on public property was disrespectful to the residents of Yorkville and a direct violation of the NYC Parks Department rules and regulations. She suggested that the Block Association should be reported to the Parks Department for their violations. Howe said that he had reached out to the Parks Department about how to hang the birdhouses without harming the trees and that they had sent him an instructional video which he had followed.

“Snipped Off”

In one of the lengthier fliers, the writer objected to the appearance of the birdhouses, calling them “in-your-face,” and “tacky eyesores and visual clutter,” as well as stating that “the Yorkville 81 Block Ass. [sic] has no right to superimpose their aesthetic values on the rest of us.” Among her other grievances were that the birdhouses were put up before COVID-19 and that they therefore weren’t a tribute to first responders and that birds don’t actually use the birdhouses. She concluded this message by accusing the Yorkville 81st Street Block Association of vandalism and calling on her neighbors to report any further attempts to hang up birdhouses to the Parks Department and to not donate money to the Association.

As well, a long email was sent to a reporter from the NY Post and the Association’s email account from an anonymous address named, in the hopes of achieving “fair and balanced reporting.” The email claimed that previous articles written by the Post had inaccurately portrayed the presence of the birdhouses in the neighborhood as a benefit to the neighborhood. “In the event the ‘birdhouses’ are put up again, they will be snipped off just the same.” The email added that letters were being sent to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as well as to the City Parks Commissioner so that these city agencies would be able to intervene if necessary in the future.

“We wanted to clean up the block and make it more of a community by beautifying it,” Howe said. “Since the birdhouses were taken down we’ve received an overwhelming outpouring of support.” Although the attorneys that Howe and Shea had spoken to claimed the case could be litigated, as the birdhouses had been collectively valued at $1,000 and the individual birdhouses on average being worth around $80, Howe and the Association aren’t interested in money. “Ideally she’d just go away,” Howe stated. Shea echoed the sentiment of frustration but was more open to taking legal measures: “At first litigation wasn’t worth the time, but now we just want them to stop. It’s not their place to do what they did.”

Both Shea and Howe were annoyed by the vandal’s insistence on remaining anonymous and stated that if she was willing to come forward perhaps there could be some sort of a conversation. But as of now, no dialogue is possible. “We just wish if there was a problem she would have reached out to us,” Howe stated.

Howe has continued handing out parts for birdhouses to families from 81st to 92nd Streets on the Upper East Side, but when asked about plans to hang up more birdhouses, he was hesitant. “We’re not rushing to put them up. We don’t want to escalate things any further— they’re material things, they can be replaced.” The Block Association may have to wait until the spring to hang up the replacement birdhouses, out of fear that the events of September 10th will repeat themselves.

Doris Straus was one of many Yorkville residents who donated money to the Block Association after hearing about the vandalism, with the hopes of getting new birdhouses up on the trees. “Ironically this has brought the community together even more,” she said about the neighborhood response to the destruction of the birdhouses. She had even been so inspired by what Jerry Howe did for his block that she hoped to start an association for her block on 85th Street.

“It was a fun, lighthearted and positive thing for Yorkville.” Upper East Side resident Jerry Howe