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Godot at the DOB

I was concerned.

I discovered that the leaseholder of a commercial space in our co-op appeared to be doing construction work without permission from the city (at least his workmen hadn’t posted permits, as required by law). Since our building is self-managed and I’m the president, I took it on myself to investigate.

My investigation didn’t get very far. When I knocked on the door of the space, one of the men in dust-covered, paint-splattered overalls said, “Yes?”

“What are you doing in there?” I asked.

“Listening to music,” he said as he quickly shut the door in my face.

What to do now? I had heard a lot about 311, the non-emergency (i.e., non-911) complaint line that was introduced in January 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make New York City government, in the words of a city press release, “more accessible… by enabling people to request and receive information and city government services by calling one simple number.”

I reported my problem to the courteous man at 311, who said he would pass on my complaint to the Department of Buildings (DOB). A “more accessible” government at work, I thought. Hurrah! I asked at what time that day I should expect the arrival of the DOB inspector, who would run these folks off our property.

“Oh, he won’t be there before Monday,” said the 311 operator. It was Saturday.

“Can’t you get anyone here earlier?” I asked. “I’m concerned for the safety of the building. We don’t know what these guys are doing.”

“Is there smoke coming out of the space?” he asked me. “Is the building shaking?”

“No,” I answered.

“Then you’re alright.”

I didn’t feel alright, and had the sinking feeling that 311 was merely another opiate for the people; if its standard for action was fire or collapse, getting someone to inspect a small construction job might not be as easy as I had thought.

So, Monday came and went – in fact, two weeks went by and nary an inspector was to be found. During those two weeks, I had spoken to 311 operators twice – and our super and another shareholder had called as well – all with the same effect. Nada. I was told that our complaint was on file with the DOB, that an inspector would visit us eventually, and that was that. “Can’t I call the police?” I asked. It was not a 911 emergency, I was told, and the police would just refer me back to 311. And 311 said it had passed the baton on to DOB. It was up to them. “Can’t I call DOB?” No, was the reply. They can’t be reached by telephone. On matters such as this, the correct procedure was to call 311. In other words, “Don’t call us…” Whatever happened to 311 “enabling people to request and receive information and city government services by calling one simple number”?

A month has gone by since I made the first call. When I spoke with our lawyer, he laughed and said, “You’re not a big enough fish for them. You’ll never see them come.” Still, we are conscientiously waiting for the inspector, hoping every day that he will arrive to fulfill the promise of 311. But, I’m beginning to think we might as well set out the welcoming mat for Godot. We’d probably have more luck meeting him than the man from DOB.

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