Updated: Church’s ‘Friendly Fridge’ Forced to Close After Neighbors Complain

Community Fridge at West End Collegiate Church.

By Carol Tannenhauser

The catch phrase of “community” or “friendly fridges” is “take what you need, leave what you can.” Literally, refrigerators stocked by donors with fresh food, free for the taking, they began appearing on sidewalks around the city during the pandemic, as another way of distributing food to those who needed it.

Fresh, healthy food for the taking.

In September, 2020, a community fridge appeared in the portico of West End Collegiate Church on West 77th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. For nine months it helped feed and fill the refrigerators of countless anonymous New Yorkers who were suddenly, or perhaps, perpetually, “food insecure.”

Recently, however, the refrigerator door was closed for good, when “a small, but very vocal contingent of our immediate neighbors…made explicit demands that we ‘cease operations of the fridge and free coffee programs,’’ Rev. William Critzman, senior minister at the West End Church told West Side Rag. “Complaints about marijuana usage were among the concerns our neighbors expressed.”

 

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A post shared by The West End Community Fridge (@westendfridge)

A woman who lives on the same block as the church wrote to the Rag in response to this article, saying Rev. Critzman was understating the disturbance caused by the community fridge. “Our block has gone through hell in the past 14 months,” she said, asking to remain anonymous. “The main issues were: constant noise (day and night), excessive loitering, public defecation and urinating, littering and loud music/singing. Weed smoking was coming more from the Belleclaire Hotel, I think. The church has been running a soup kitchen for years on Tuesdays and there has never been a problem. They could have tried to tweak their pantry program in many ways, but decided not to. I guess it is easier to blame the evil neighbors…The sad truth is that since the Church closed the food pantry, 80% of the problems went away….”

“Unfortunately, the fridge was not universally liked and we made the decision [to close it] in order to deescalate neighborhood tensions, reevaluate our ongoing programming, and acknowledge that we are in a different place than we were last September,” Rev. Critzman responded. “The Fridge did good and necessary work, and we are grateful to all who supported it.”

The fridge was filled by donations from the community.

A pop-up community pantry at the Belleclaire Hotel.

“Providing food and hospitality to our neighbors in need has been a core mission of West End Church for many years,” Rev. Critzman said. “The community fridge and pantry served a vital need for nine months during the acute phase of the Pandemic. As we begin moving into the vaccinated phase and as New York begins to move forward, we are aware of the need to continue evolving our feeding programs in order to better serve the needs of all our constituents. Certainly, providing care to the least among us is a tenet of our faith. True, too, is our responsibility to work with our neighbors, partners, and members to join together in working for the best possible solution.“

At the present time, the West End Community Fridge is seeking a new host. In the interim, the UWS Open Hearts Initiative — a group formed to support residents of The Lucerne — held a “pop-up community pantry” at its free store, on Saturday, June 19th, at the Belleclaire Hotel, on West 77th Street and Broadway. Other food bank options include the West Side Campaign Again Hunger pantry at 263 West 86th Street and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) on 72nd between Broadway and West End.

Follow West End Fridge on Instagram for updates.

Editor’s Note: This article has been expanded to include some of the reasons for the neighbors’ complaints about the West End Community Fridge. Anyone with other complaints, please email us at westsiderag at gmail.

 

FOOD, NEWS | 38 comments | permalink
    1. Boris says:

      Such a long article and equally long Instagram post without a single mention of what the specific complaints were. It’s not enough to repeatedly refer to community opposition and overpowering voices. I’d like to know at least a few of the objections to this program. Why wasn’t the West End Fridge asked to enumerate some examples?

      • Truth and Reason says:

        Agreed. This is a very one-sided article that makes it sound like the church shut the program down because of NIMBY’s. That’s not the case. Were people complaining? Yes. But is that the reason it was shut down? No. It was shut down because, as I understand it, there was an increasing number of people hanging out at the fridge doing drugs, which made it unsafe not only for those who lived nearby but people who genuinely needed to access the fridge for food. But why address the neighborhood’s growing drug problem when you can blame NIMBY’s?

      • Christopher Thomas says:

        The article specifically cites “weed smoking,” as well as “constant noise (day and night), excessive loitering, public defecation and urinating, littering and loud music/singing.”

    2. UWSMillenial says:

      Good to see the same shenanigans from last summer’s Lucerne-gate persist in the neighborhood…..

    3. Juan says:

      I’m very sorry to hear this and this was a great resource – I donated several times.

      I have walked by and seen some of the behavior that likely upset people. Perhaps the church or others should have warned people that they were ruining a good thing for others with their non-neighborly behavior.

      • lynn says:

        Maybe you could fill us in on the details? It seems like a lot of people were participating so it’s unfortunate that it had to be shut down.

      • ESNY says:

        Thank you for your comment Juan. The concept of “Community” and “Good Neighbor” extend two ways. It’s sad that some repeatedly ruin things that benefit others in the community. Both receivers and givers of generosity and goodwill.

    4. Ian Alterman says:

      I am shocked that the church gave in on this, considering that one of the primary missions of Christianity is to aid the poor and hungry. This was never specifically about the homeless that had been placed in the hotels. It was a “community” fridge available not only to ALL homeless, but to housed by food insecure persons. That a small vocal minority prevailed is just one more example of how “democracy” is dying in this country. How tragic.

      • Peter says:

        But a small, vocal (loud) minority of the other kind – doing drugs in the streets, etc. – prevailing is somehow more congruous with your version of democracy? No thanks.

    5. Max Van Gilder says:

      1. The neighbors didn’t complain when the Collegiate students were smoking marijuana on the same corner for years. P.S. Smoking marijuana on the street is now as legal as smoking a cigarette.

      2. Community has meaning. There are people in our neighborhood who need what was in the community fridge. I think the folks who complained forcefully don’t care for others less fortunate and are more concerned with the resale value of their coop.

      Jesus didn’t hang out with the rich. The church should serve the poor.

      • Susan says:

        I live on W. 77th Street and didn’t mind the refrigerator. However, I did mind the extrememly offensive, enormous and un Christian sign the Reverend hung outside that said: “Racist Pandemic.” I’m sure in Divinity School they might have mentioned the best way to bring people of divergent views together is not to scream names at them in their own neighborhood. Everytime I walked down my block and saw that horrible sign, I wondered what he was trying to accomplsih with that strident sign, making his comment: “Courage doesn’t always roar.” totally hypocritical. Perhaps if he had better communications skills, people in the neighborhood would be more apt to come together. Just a thought.

        • Jane says:

          Agreed. “Racist Pandemic.” “Racist Pandemic…What?” Sale? As you point out, hypocritical, un-Christian – and I’ll add sophomoric and pandering.

        • Correction says:

          I believe the sign said “Racism is a Pandemic” and was posted along with a “Black Lives Matter” and “Unlearn White Supremacy Sign” banner after the murder of George Floyd…

      • Frustrated says:

        Max, you have no right to judge the people that complained and say they do not care for people. There are better ways to help people while also making sure things stay safe and equal for all who live in the neighborhood. Every human being is equal in the eyes of God.

      • Rob says:

        I think it’s more than marijuana.. Pubic defecation, urination, fornication, masterbation and playing loud music are aren’t things anyone wants to see in their backyard.

    6. Mutual aid builds community says:

      It is a real loss to the community. Not only did the fridge serve people suffering form food insecurity – that’s seniors, childcare workers, construction workers and yes homeless. It was always a good resource led by volunteers in our very own community who were so happy to give and make homemade meals. School children came and learned the model of giving in a way that made total sense and empowered them to be part of a community who cares for those who need it. Loca businesses got involved and the crazy amount of food waste was reduced with supermarkets and bakeries giving away their excess at the end of the day to people who really appreciated it. That little fridge served 3000 pounds of food every week.
      The whole reason there were people is because it serves a need. It is a tragic loss that those complainers get to bully a church to shut its services to those who need the food. Shame on you.

      And before you call me names yes I live nearby and yes I saw that the street had more visitors and that should never be a reason to close an essential service. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the need is great in our own community and we should open more community fridges not shut them.

      • PTFLynn says:

        Bravo “Mutual”.

      • Juan says:

        The fridge was a great resource and it’s a shame that it’s gone. The church clearly did not take this decision lightly.

        Unfortunately, there are some people in the area who do not behave appropriately. It seems like the Open Hearters constantly have their heads in the sand and deny that this is an issue.

        Perhaps you should channel some of your energies towards working with them to be more neighborly. Many UWSers would be more welcoming if they did this. If they can’t behave, perhaps they need more help than just food in a fridge.

        • Leon says:

          I totally agree. The complete denial of anti-social behavior at the Lucerne and near the fridge makes these people lose a lot of credibility.

          I truly admire their efforts to help people and I too try to help. But ultimately the recipients of the help need to fulfill their end of the bargain. And claiming that there is nothing wrong going on is disingenuous.

          • Sarah says:

            If you regard giving to the poor as part of a “bargain,” you’re not a Christian. “Be good or we’ll starve you!” is an ugly position for a humanist, too.

            These people exist. Many of them are troubled, yes. They don’t cease existing, or being troubled, just because you make their lives even harder.

            The way the UWS has disgraced itself the past year…I’ll never forget it.

            • PM says:

              IF you’re so at odds with the shameful UWS, go ahead and… how did they put it… move to a gated community.

              Troubled people belong in the requisite institutions. 2,000 years of your Christianity and 15,000 of basic civilizational development have helped us get there – to the social “bargain” you so aptly mischaracterize – so that society can somewhat function against the influence of powerful base instincts.

      • Katherine says:

        “yes I saw that the street had more visitors and that should never be a reason to close an essential service”

        See, you’re still being disingenuous. The program wasn’t closed because of “more visitors”, it was due to open drug use and other antisocial behavior. Omitting relevant details like that undermines your argument and frankly your credibility.

    7. js says:

      For context/background, I think it is fair to note that per media, West End Collegiate Church was paid over $150 million for the Collegiate School building.
      The new development is another luxury building

    8. nemo paradise says:

      Nothing prevents the church from feeding the hungry. The complaints address how the church goes about this, and its attendant community disruption.

      “The great differences among mankind are about means, not ends.”

    9. No Manches says:

      Glad to see fearmongering & NIMBYism win out over helping people in need.

      For shame

      • EdNY says:

        There are ways to help people in need without encouraging or tolerating anti-social, disruptive and unhygenic behavior. If removing the refigerator cut that behavior by 80%, that suggests that an alternate, more controlled way of operating would make more sense.

    10. These People Are Turning Me Into a Communist says:

      If I were to judge purely from articles on the West Side Rag, I’d think this neighborhood was filled with angry people who’d be more at home in The Villages in Florida.

      “OMG, they’re noisy!” this is NYC, not Buggtussle, Alabama.

      “OMG, they smoke weed.” Weed is legal here.

      “They poop on the street!” I’d like to see actual evidence of this, as well as evidence that any of this untoward behavior comes from residents of the Belleclaire, because I live near there, have walked by that building at all hours of the day and night and I have never once witnessed any of what I hear people on this site shrieking about.

      It sounds like once again, poor people are being scapegoated by a tiny minority of angry, selfish people who spend their days watching Fox News, and lack compassion.

      This church was making a tiny effort to alleviate the mass suffering in this world, so of course it had to be shut down by the types of people who complain about the homeless because they “don’t want to see it.” They don’t want to address it in any way, they just don’t want their eyes sullied.

      Luckily, I know a lot of people in this neighborhood and know the complainers are just that, a small, angry, vocal minority who wants to turn NYC into a rest home. Unfortunately, that tiny minority is turning this neighborhood into a mean, small-minded, deeply unpleasant area.

      • dannyboy says:

        Truth to Power here:

        “If I were to judge purely from articles on the West Side Rag, I’d think this neighborhood was filled with angry people … and know the complainers are just that, a small, angry, vocal minority… Unfortunately, that tiny minority is turning this neighborhood into a mean, small-minded, deeply unpleasant area.”

      • PM says:

        On the contrary, one can easily conclude that this place is full of ‘politically astute Marxists” (last week), and now you – wannabe “Communist.”

        Talk about signaling a compromised judgment with your very first words… it doesn’t help the rest of your shoddy arguments.

        Btw, if we let you Communists run the show – that church gets shut down, reverend likely goes to labor camp. Congratulations on enormity of your success!

        • Sarah says:

          Keep on railing about imaginary Communists. You’re against a church feeding poor people with voluntary donations. All that hollering won’t drown out your own conscience.

      • Sarah says:

        Yep. The comment above about moving to a gated community if you don’t like people feeding the poor is bizarre…these are the people trying to turn the UWS itself into a gated community themselves. There’s little to distinguish folks like that from their cousins hiding out in the suburbs from the scary “urban types.” Same stony and entitled hearts.

    11. Sid says:

      “Weed smoking was coming more from the Belleclaire Hotel” this is such a subtly racist statement, assuming weed smoke is coming from the hotel housing homeless. Wealthy white people smoke weed in the same numbers as every other group. Plus, it’s legal. This is shameful.

      • Carlos says:

        How does race play into this? You can call the people who are troubled by this a lot of things but racist is not one of them. I think you are being racist by assuming that all homeless people are minorities. If you walked around the neighborhood you would know that is far from the truth.

    12. Find solutions says:

      You know what’s “antisocial” behavior and “unneighborly”? Denying food to hungry people because you don’t like to see them. If you had any grace, instead of lodging complaints you would find solutions.
      For example if they need a bathroom, work to get them a public bathroom. There is a real shortage of bathrooms anywhere in the neighborhood – no Starbucks or library or business who will admit them so let’s solve that instead. They talk too loud? Well we live in a city so can’t solve that for you. That’s an unrealistic expectation. You smell marijuana? Well guess what – it’s not illegal and you’re more likely to smell it from a prep school kid if you venture one more block over so let’s not say that’s a legitimate reason to close a fridge. My guess is that you are painting the issue of homelessness with a broad brush and using the fridge and the homeless as a channel for all your dismay — that you see people experiencing food and housing insecurity. More people than the homeless used this fridge on a daily basis and your complaints without solutions caused them to lose food. It seems to me that it is your antisocial and unneighborly tendencies that are the real threat to our civil society. Bah humbug Scrooge.

    13. West End Church Member says:

      I’m a member of West End Collegiate Church and I’m writing simply because I haven’t seen anyone from our community speak up on this. I’m sure I’m too late for this to get in front of many eyeballs, but I’d like to chime in anyway.

      I simply wanted to note a few things: first of all, our church was doing the best it could to meet a real need in the community. Contrary to js’ comment, we do not have $150 million to run a full-service program. Rather, we have a church that is not currently holding in-person services (but we’ll be open in the fall! Please come visit!) and a part-time staff who did its best to serve those in need. We do not have social workers. We could not host people inside due to pandemic protocols. We simply tried to use the resources we DID have to help people. If commenters want to see more social services, or if they want more classes or trainings or enforcement of existing laws, I wish that they would direct at least some their ire at the city government and beef up their support of social service and homeless outreach budgets. Certainly our church wishes to be a good neighbor and it does not absolve us of our need to enact policies that serve the whole community. But the fact that our little church was an easy scapegoat and threatened with litigation speaks to the fact that more people need to get comfortable engaging with the sprawling apparatus of the city government and making it work for all of us, rather than focusing on easy-to-pick-off community organizations doing their best.

      Secondly, it was truly beautiful to see the community come together to stock this fridge. We had school groups, retirees, families, and stir-crazy office workers tell us that cooking food and stocking this fridge became an important way to feel like they were doing real good in the midst of a sea of uncertainty. West End Church calls itself “a neighborhood church for all people,” and I could not be prouder of watching a diverse group of believers and non-believers from all walks of life use our patch of 77th as a safe space to pitch in and create a real service to the community. For anyone who contributed to the fridge: your work mattered and you knit us all together in a time when we needed it. Thank you so much.

      Finally, as a few commenters correctly noted, the people who needed this were so much more than the clientele at the Lucerne and the Belleclaire. I ran into several workers who swung by the fridge on their way home from shifts. I watched a delivery person grab a cold apple on a hot day. I brought small bottles of fresh milk with my children and saw an elderly woman quickly follow behind me to grab one to bring home. The food insecure are among us, and the food in that fridge brought healthy produce and prepared meals to homes at a time when many people’s budgets kept them (and still keep them) from being able to afford these options themselves. Everyone deserves to put good food in their bodies, and to feel loved and seen. Inasmuch as we could, the fridge did provide that, and I hope that any reader thinks about how they might continue to help those in need.

      For our part, West End Church will continue offering its longtime Tuesday food program to any of our neighbors who need it! Please come and say hi to our amazing group of volunteers and staff.

    14. Alfonse says:

      I made donations to the fridge there several times in the early days when it arrived, but I ultimately stopped and started avoiding that block on a regular basis. The people hanging out there were increasingly aggressive and some combination of drunk/stoned. Simple situation of bad people ruining a good thing. And the church could have made efforts to address the problem with the individuals, but chose not to. They have an obligation to the entire community.

    15. MAH says:

      Of course this is NIMBY. Where in New York is there NOT constant noise, weed smoking and public urination, loud music/singing? And what does “excessive loitering” even mean? Until recently, there wasn’t a lot to do/places to go in the city. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year outside not doing much just because not much was open and with people working from home, my apartment felt even smaller.