The block party outside an East Harlem housing complex could easily have seemed like an ordinary celebration on a bright summer weekend day. But to residents and others who knew of the complex’s menacing recent past, the party was sprinkled with triumphant symbolism.
In an alcove between two gray apartment buildings, children watered a freshly planted garden in the same space where dealers used to sell thousands of bags of cheap drugs. Nearby, on East 117th Street, a young boy hopped, skipped and performed handstands on the same ground where hundreds of customers, high from the hallucinogen PCP, might once have sauntered by.
“We haven’t had this in a long time,” Sharon Lewis, 55, said as she looked hopefully around the housing complex. “If they keep doing things like this, it’ll be much better compared to what it was before.”
Ms. Lewis was referring to the lingering reputation of the Milbank-Frawley public housing complex, at 117th Street and Madison Avenue, a place where just months ago, people would flock to buy $10 bags of PCP. But on Saturday, community members filled the area in celebration of, among other things, the indictment and arrest of people suspected of involvement in that drug ring. Most sang praises of the police efforts. But there was still some worry that the drug could return.
“We’re glad to have our community back,” said Evelyn Herbert, 47, who attended the celebration, which the Milbank-Frawley tenants’ association billed as Summer Fest. “We used to not be able to get through the doors of our own place because of the drug dealers. They just didn’t move. Now we’re starting to get our building back.”
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who attended the party, emphasized the joint effort of his office, the Police Department and the tenants’ association in breaking up the drug ring. Mr. Vance pointed to Milbank-Frawley as a success story and something of a model for other communities bullied by drug abuse, gangs and violence. These successes have become increasingly important for law enforcement officials, and public displays of neighborhood reclamation are all the more vital, Mr. Vance said.
“That area was literally a wasteland — a war zone,” he said later in a telephone interview. “The change is dramatic and it reflects the positive impact in taking buildings back for the community.”
The drug ring investigation, which began in 2010 and lasted 15 months, culminated in 35 indictments in January.
“It took a long time, but it paid off,” said Joann Lewis, 72, president of the tenants’ association. “The neighborhood is coming back. And it’s coming back as it should be. All those drugs are gone. It’s finished. And it’s not coming back.”
With music blasting from speakers, children running through an inflatable mini-moon bounce and adults playing card games on foldout tables, the block was transformed on Saturday into the ideal of what many residents here have always wanted: a place where they feel safe.
In the courtyard, where drug customers would be ushered from one side to the other to make purchases, a small community garden was later planted by teenagers. Alexander Reynoso, 15, said he had come up with the idea for the garden, which is growing basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and plants meant to attract butterflies.
“I live on the first floor and it was never comfortable to come outside. It feels safer now,” he said, his hands brown and dirty from potting and planting. He dusted them off a bit. “Before, there wasn’t any community involvement. Hopefully now we can be a community instead of separate people living in the same building.”
Now, Mr. Vance said, the focus for community leaders and law enforcement officials is to put in place more recreational and other programs and bolster efforts to keep a newly reclaimed block in the hands of its residents.
“What we saw today was a small geographic space but a huge change,” he said.