Is the Great Bed Bug Scare Over?
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
It's nearly summer, and at least since this magazine published
its exposé of the Upper East Side's bedbug problem in 2010, that
has meant the return of bedbugs, and more important, the return of
bedbug hysteria. Bedbugs, we've come to realize over the last few
years, are everywhere. Even the Ritz! And yet,
suddenly, despite the documented difficulty of tamping down
such pesticide-resistant bugs, maybe there's less of a reason to
worry. We just might be pulling out a come-from-behind victory in
this battle of man versus nature.
For the first time since 2004, stats released by the the Department
of Housing, Preservation and Development show that
bedbug-related violations are tracking downward in Manhattan,
falling 7 percent between 2010 and 2011. Complaints are still on
the uptick, but at a slower rate than previous years, suggesting
that the massive horror-movie-esque bedbug-takeover scenario many
of the city's neurotics imagined during dark, itchy nights of the
soul isn't actually going to materialize.
The city's official numbers may even understate how much things
have improved. One private exterminator recently told DNAinfo
that calls are down by as much as 50 percent since the peak of
bedbug hysteria. During that time, anyone looking for a new
apartment probably at least idly wondered, and probably inquired,
as to whether there had been infestations in the building.
Bushwick, or at least certain corners like the McKibben Lofts,
became nearly synonymous with bedbugs. Writing in GQ on how "
Bedbugs Ravaged My Sex Life!," Jeff Bercovici quoted a friend
saying, "You're not actually going to go out with a girl who lives
in Bushwick, are you? Are you trying to get bedbugs?
Well, we went to Bushwick. Not to get bedbugs, we hope, but to get
people to talk about bedbugs. Does moving into the neighborhood
still require the same sturdy resolve, the same sense of defiance
in the face of what might once have seemed like a strong chance of
Justin French, an impeccably dressed 24-year-old analyst we found
wandering with a pal near the Morgan Avenue stop, has certain
theories about the outer-boroughs versus Manhattan. When he moved
to Harlem from Chicago two years ago, in the midst of the height of
bedbug hysteria, he didn't worry, because he'd heard the problem
wasn't as bad on the island itself. "When I lived in Manhattan, I
wasn't too worried because there was a big push to get rid of
them." (In fact, though the city's recent data-dump didn't cover
the outer-boroughs, broken down by neighborhood, Central Harlem had
the most violations, 542; of course, it's more than possible that
residents of wealthier neighborhoods where the violation count is
suspiciously low are going directly to private
But French, who's since moved to the Bronx, is vigilant. "I've
definitely taken precautions," he said, saying that perhaps he has
a "subconscious" obsession now that he's moved. "I've got two
mattress covers. I double-wrapped 'em. Hopefully it doesn't work
like the whole condom thing."
Hopefully! Indeed, exterminators and city officials speculate that
increased precautions like mattress covers have helped slow the
spread of bedbugs, and that the media-fueled hysteria of the past
few years might have been useful for something after all. (Though
we do feel bad for the 64 New York City residents who have
become ill from overusing bedbug prevention products over the past
That hysteria, it seems, has even been transcontinental. Autumn
Eget, a 25-year-old receptionist at the New York Loft Hostel who
recently moved here from Philadelphia, says that while she doesn't
personally worry about bedbugs - "I'm not usually sleeping on dirty
linens or anything," she says - European travelers often
But even longtime Bushwick residents, veterans of the bedbug
battle, are a bit more blasé these days. Kali Riley, a 22-year-old
"freelance camera person," lived in the McKibben Lofts about a year
and a half ago, where she had a narrow escape. "As soon as I moved
into my new place I got a phone call saying that there were bedbugs
and it was the new guy or something," she said. "My roommates were
really freaking out and had to throw away a bunch of shit and had
to clean." To clean! She threw out all her stuff, just in case, and
invested about a hundred bucks in bedbug prevention. And, yet,
she's less worried than she used to be. "Last year, there was a
bunch of press, I guess, and people always sort of talking about
it. But now it's less, it feels like."
Feels like less is half the battle, at least for Dionne DiBlasio, a
28-year-old flight attendant who used to live on a bedbug-ridden
block in Greenpoint. She moved to a new-construction building in
Bushwick and, despite thinking about bedbugs "every day" two years
ago, hasn't taken a single preventative measure in her new digs.
"It's not as much of a freak-out thing," she said. "At the time, it
seemed like everyone was talking about it."
This is how they win, Dionne! Stay vigilant! We don't live that far