Some people on the gentle block of E. 86th Street know the building, with its peeling tan paint, gated windows and tightly drawn curtains.
Some even have passing knowledge of the owner, a woman in her late 70s who’s lived on the block for decades and is sometimes spotted on her stoop shooing dogs away from her property.
But most everyone knows the mess at 312 E. 86th St., the hoarder-style clutter on the front stoop and entryway: broken flower pots, plastic bins of assorted sizes, cleaning supplies, the occasional solitary flower in bloom, and large, obscured items covered in thick plastic trash bags.
“I say hello to her once a month,” said David Stahlberg, who’s lived nearby for 40 years. “I have a feeling she’s been here for a while, but I’ve never heard anything about her.”
Her name is Phyllis Battista, and people on this upscale slice of the Upper East Side are drawn to her, out of curiosity as well as out of concern about the ramshackle appearance of her home. Such fascinations are a natural part of living in New York, a byproduct of our close proximity to total strangers and perhaps the ubiquity of reality television. Sometimes we stare in admiration, in awe, in envy. And sometimes we stare in shock.
Hiroaki Tokunaga owns Tokubei 86, a restaurant located next to Battista’s home, the hoard on her front stoop directly adjacent to the eatery. When he opened the restaurant 37 years ago, Battista already lived next door, and the two maintained a cordial rapport. But over the years, their relationship turned bitter. “I don’t want to talk to her,” Tokunaga said. “Nobody wants to talk to her. She’s always yelling at people.”
But to Battista, the aggression goes both ways. Despite her frailty -- she is rail-thin, with wispy grey hair -- her neighbors sprayed her with water, she said, and threw food onto her front stoop to attract pigeons. Residents from an apartment building across E. 86th Street bring their dogs to urinate in front of her building, she said. She claims her neighbors on either side of her townhouse dug deep holes in her backyard where she once grew cherries, grapes, apricots and fragrant herbs, and then blamed her for it, she said.
“There are boundaries,” Battista said in an interview. “I do not react. I do not talk. I will not be baited by crazies. I want to be left alone.”
The unwelcoming front stoop, gated with an iron fence, acts as her defense. Battista also inserted faded wooden planks into the slots of her stoop’s handrails, preventing access to her front door, already entirely obscured by clutter.
But in an attempt to shut people out, she’s earned unwanted attention and become an unwitting source of neighborhood gossip, with some assuming she doesn’t have basic amenities like heat and hot water and suggesting that she may spend nights at her sister’s home nearby.
Battista speaks quickly and in clipped sentences, changing topics rapidly and randomly. She maintains that she wants to live a private, purposeful life.
“I want to be in a positive vein,” she said.
The New York City Department of Buildings has issued 11 violations to Battista over the last 10 years, according to department records, mostly for obstruction of the property’s first floor and basement entrances with furniture, wooden planks and debris, according to the violation summaries. A 2006 violation for failure to dispose of rain water indicates the building’s first-floor gutter was hanging by a single nail; in an interview, Battista accused her neighbors of tearing down her copper gutter.
Despite the city’s prolonged requests for compliance, a violation notice from October 2005 for “total obstruction” of the first floor and basement doors reveals little has changed at Battista’s home. The building’s front area, with unknown debris buzzing with flies and covered in trash bags, remains a hazard not only for Battista, but presumably for immediate neighbors. Tokunaga, who said Battista deposits her garbage in front of his restaurant, has attempted to involve the city’s departments of Sanitation, Health and Buildings, but said that, since it’s a private home, there’s little to be done.
In 2011, DNAinfo reported that a court order granted police entry to the property, a safety measure due to nearby Second Avenue Subway construction. A police source told Our Town that the department and the city deemed the property safe.
What remains unclear is whether Adult Protective Services has engaged with Battista. (APS cannot comment on individual cases.)
Hoarding was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, and it’s not uncommon. According to Adrian Walter-Ginzburg, president of Caring Transitions, a company on E. 91st Street that assists in cleaning out apartment hoards, three to five percent of the population suffers from hoarding disorder, which is the second most-often cited cause of eviction in the city.
“People come to me because they might be tired of living like that,” said Walter-Ginzburg.
The impulse to stop and stare, and the interest that percolates from a property like Battista’s in an otherwise polished area, might not go away, even if she does make efforts to maintain her home. In a common New York tale, the longtime Upper East Sider has been courted by real estate developers who covet her prime location on a tony block.
But she said she has no interest in selling. “They’re constantly calling, they’re constantly sending me letters,” she said, but she doesn’t entertain their requests. She has “money plenty” and doesn’t want to leave her home.
Instead, she has dreams of opening a senior mentoring center on the ground floor of her building (one resident said she also attempted to open an early childhood development center in the space, but without success). Battista also sews children’s clothing, which she plans to sell, and hopes to teach others to make the garments, as well as how to grow the herbs, fruits and vegetables that she said once flourished at her home before a neighbor dug holes in her backyard.
“I’ve seen other places,” she said. “And I’m not going.”