On Saturday afternoon, Soho shoppers began their Christmas sprees ducking in and out of Louis Vuitton, Yves St. Laurent and Loewe. But a more sinister group was eager to entice them to spend their money.
Set up between Greene Street’s Patagonia and the luxe streetwear store Amiri and across from Alexander McQueen, a man dressed in tight white jeans and a shirt with the Dior logo proffered a felt-topped rectangular surface in one hand. With the other, he quickly shuffled around three plastic bottle caps. Underneath one was a pebble-sized plastic ball — an efficient, micro spin on the age-old shell game.
And well-heeled retailers and loft dwellers on the famous cobblestoned street are up in arms over it — saying the well-organized illegal game, complete with shills and lookouts, has brought a sometimes violent seediness to this cobblestoned street.
“They’ve turned Greene Street into an outdoor casino,” one local resident sniffed to The Post. “Place your bets!”
According to an NYPD spokesperson, “fraudulent accosting” — approaching a person with intent to defraud them of money or property via a swindle or confidence game like a shell game — is illegal. And a loft owner on the block said she is worried about what it’s doing to property values.
“It feels uncomfortable and unsafe for my neighbors and I,” she told The Post. “If I wanted to sell my loft and a potential buyer walked up and down Greene Street, that would not be good. [At some point], I will sell my loft. What goes on here scares me in that context — as well as making me uncomfortable day to day.”
While The Post watched, the game leader — gripping an impossible-to-miss wad of cash — implored three men to guess where the ball landed. They did for the better part of an hour, and won most of the time. He handed them hundreds of dollars each for “guessing” correctly: obviously coordinated to rope in passers-by.
Not even the early sunset slowed them down. One shill stood alongside the game, shining his iPhone flashlight to illuminate the action.
“You want to play?” the game runner asked pedestrians. “All you have to do is watch the ball. Then tell me where it is. Just show me that you have $5,000 and I’ll give you $5,000.”
But it is not as simple as that.
“I saw someone lose $10,000; I saw a woman lose $2,000,” said one Greene Street boutique manager who, like others interviewed by The Post, asked not to be named for reasons of personal safety. “I even saw one guy lose his Rolex. He put it up as a bet.”
And merchants feel like they’re losing out, too.
“We’ve had situations where there were people who came down here to spend their money in Soho” — only to lose it, the boutique manager said. “They come into the store pissed off or they have less money to spend. They lose cash that they planned to spend. It costs our store business.”
It has also, locals said, led to violence.
“[Some] people realize that this game is fixed and that these guys are a–holes,” said the boutique manager. “They beat some kids out of their money. The kids said, ‘Give us back our money.’ The shell-game guys refused and the kids attacked them. Those kids got their money back.”
Said the local resident: “It’s freaking scary. It makes you feel concerned about walking on the block. There’ve been times when they have two games going. Tourists are afraid and people who live here are nervous about there being a fight that can turn into a shooting. There already was a guy who lost money and flashed his gun to get it back,” the resident alleged. “Eventually, there will be shots fired over these games.”
The Post also observed a lookout on either end of the block, seemingly ready to tip off the game runner if law enforcement moved to take action.
One neighborhood fixture claimed to The Post to have been approached by the group to be a shill: “I was told, ‘We’ll give you over $1,000 a day, cash. I turned them down and was shocked at how much money they make. I’ve seen everyone getting paid off at the end of their workday. They go into a huddle and divvy out cash.”
“It is an organized crime thing,” said the local resident. “They are organized enough that if one guy is out, then another guy shows up.”
An NYPD spokesperson told The Post that the Commanding Officer of the local police station, Precinct 1, “is intimately aware of the issue. There have been 200 directed patrols at the location and there have been three arrests made for fraudulent accosting.”
Still, according to neighbors, it’s not enough. “The cops come and [the shell-game guys] run,” said the boutique manager. “But they are never gone for long.”
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