He Can Smell a Rat

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By Laura Shin

If it's a nice day in New York City, Joseph Bolanos is probably sitting outside on his Upper West Side brownstone stoop.

Situated in the middle of the block on West 76th Street, Bolanos says it's the perfect spot for neighbors to walk over, meet new people and talk about any issues they're dealing with in the area.

"Some block associations hold meetings. I'm more old-fashioned," he said.

Bolanos is the president of Landmark 76, the block association representing West 76th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. In his role, he has earned the reputation as a community leader who identifies a problem and wastes no time in getting it fixed.

Recently, the street was faced with a rat infestation. Residents would gasp and scream as they encountered the large number of rats on the sidewalk at night, Bolanos said.

He tackled the problem by taking video of the rats and hanging yellow, diamond-shaped rat crossing signs in the area to bring attention to the problem. The action gained international media coverage, and Bolanos' video recording appeared on various news sites.

Ken Biberaj, a City Council candidate who lives near the site where the rat infestation was most severe, said he has seen the rat situation improve dramatically since Bolanos' signs went up.

"He's hard-working, down to earth, and he's about getting results," said Biberaj, who nominated Bolanos for a Westy.

Bolanos, who declined to give his age, has been president of the association for 14 years. The Manhattan native moved to his West 76th Street home more than 35 years ago. He had a long career as a security consultant, which he now does part-time.

Never married, Bolanos admits to having lived half of his life "partying." But he always had an instinct to fight for those in need. He received a police commendation for heroism in the early 1980s after an incident where he saved a young woman being robbed at knifepoint.

Bolanos, who was also a Red Cross volunteer after the Sept. 11 attacks, said his desire to help people might be in his DNA.

Fifteen years ago in a small village in El Salvador, he said he had an epiphany. Decades before, Bolanos' father helped build a clinic for mentally ill patients, and on this day when Bolanos was visiting this village, an old man told him an emotional story of how the clinic transformed his son's life. It was then that Bolanos realized he had inherited his father's drive to make changes that matter.

One of Bolanos' most important initiatives is ensuring the safety of his neighborhood. It's another reason he likes to sit on his stoop.

"The best security is to know your neighbors," he said. "I sit there and I love introducing people."

Bolanos has helped his neighborhood with everything from helping residents get their heating fixed to successfully fighting the New-York Historical Society's plan to build an apartment tower a few years ago, which he believes would have changed the character of the neighborhood.

He's always busy as residents visit him with their concerns, but he loves his role in the community.

"There's not a week that goes by that I don't think this is a honor and a privilege," he said. "It means people trust you."

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