About 100 tons of garbage piled high at the nation's biggest cooperative housing complex was removed by the city Sanitation Department early Friday, though a labor dispute continued there.
The trash at Co-op City was picked up on the overnight shift after the Health Department declared it a health hazard, said Sanitation Department spokesman Keith Mellis.
Garbage piles had risen as high as 5 feet, and health officials worried that the rodent population could blossom in the heat. Almost 60,000 people live in the 320-acre community, larger than many towns, which has been home to prominent figures such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Queen Latifah.
Nine truckloads of garbage were removed, said Mellis.
The crisis started Tuesday, after the contract expired between RiverBay Corp., which manages Co-op, and the unionized garbage collectors, janitors, repairmen, groundskeepers and other building workers.
Co-op general manager Vernon Cooper said about 170 management employees were replacing 500 union workers, which he called "a daunting task." As trash accumulated, he stayed in touch with the mayor's Office of Emergency Management, as well as the city's sanitation and health departments.
Some families have lived here for generations, and residents took the situation in stride: It was just another week in the life of what was once a far more blighted, crime-ridden Bronx.
"It doesn't bother me for now — as long as somebody picks it up," said Efrain Burgos, a retired transit worker. "After all, this is still the Bronx."
Velice Jaysura, a mother of two who lives in Co-op and works there as a garage attendant, was sitting in a chair on a picket line Thursday wearing a placard around her torso that read "UNFAIR."
"I'm getting a tan," Jaysura deadpanned, holding sunscreen lotion in her lap.
All around the property, workers staged 24-hour picket lines. They joined hundreds of other city building workers, elected officials and supporters who marched through the development, demanding a fair contract.
The workers say RiverBay has pushed them into a tough spot: Either switch to a health plan that management says will save $1.3 million a year and get a modest raise, or stay with the existing plan but get no raise.
The cheaper plan offers inferior protection, with caps, say members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union — the same union that averted a New York City doormen strike in April with a wage increase and no cuts in benefits.
But so far, it's a Bronx faceoff — with few cheering.
"If you have a child with cancer, and you go over your health plan cap, what do you do?" asked sanitation worker Robert Abrams, a father of four. "I don't have $20,000, or more, for treatment!"
Sanitation worker salaries average around $35,000, plus benefits, the workers said.
They call it a lockout.
Cooper, the Co-op manager, calls it either a strike or impasse, with talks stalled.
RiverBay said in a statement Thursday that if elected officials "want to play a constructive role in resolving this issue, they can urge officials of 32BJ to return to the bargaining table, rather than doing the union's bidding and engaging in political theater."
Abrams stood with other union members on a street corner feet from a fenced-in garbage facility called "Pear Tree" where giant metal trash containers sat, unused.
"We came to work, and they wouldn't let us in," he said.
Cars driving by honked in support.
Nearby, a worker was seen clawing at the facility's locked chain-link fence with his hands, screaming in Spanish at Louis Salazar, director of buildings and grounds.
Ron Koestlinger, another worker whose job is to empty trash bins into a giant compactor, said he sees the development "going to pot — garbage outside, in bags that can attract raccoons and rats."
From the other side of the fence, Salazar told them: "You guys are the life of this development, you maintain it the way it is. ... Nobody wins if we let you go."
Co-op would be the state's 11th biggest city if it weren't part of New York City, with 15,372 residential units in 35 high-rise buildings, plus seven clusters of townhouses.
There are schools, shopping centers, restaurants and delis — and even a college. Some New Yorkers have spent their whole lives there.
Plans for construction amid the Bronx marshland started in the 1950s and by 1968, Co-op City was a subsidized development whose heavily minority tenants were shareholders — as they still are. A three-bedroom apartment can go for as little as $30,000, depending on how low one's income is.
Normally, residents in each building throw their garbage down a chute into a compactor.
Now, with those locked, they're instructed to bring their rubbish outside, wrapped in plastic bags. Not everyone has complied: Trash was strewn on the pavement near the bags.
Amid the labor dispute, some residents have volunteered their help alongside management replacements. But despite the hardship, the mood across working-class Co-op is empathy for the 500 workers.
"They're not asking for anything unreasonable," Burgos said.