New York Swarms of foot-long, mangy rats are the stuff of nightmares, but for residents of the Baruch Houses it's just another evening in lower Manhattan.
Thousands of rats, stirred from their homes by construction, have swarmed into the public housing development.
"I have to shake my keys and throw rocks at them just to get out of my building. I can't live like this," resident Christine Morton, 22, said.
New York's rat problem extends far beyond the halls of its public housing. Bill Perkins, chairman of the City Council's Select Committee on Pest Control, estimates that there are nine rats for every person in the city -- a rat population of about 70 million.
"They're everywhere -- parks, city-owned buildings, they're even showing up in our schools," Perkins said.
Perkins blames the growing rat problem on increased construction, poor garbage disposal and a lack of coordination in the city's response to rat infestations.
"I've never seen rats like this," said Kitty Person, who has lived at Baruch for 39 years. "They come out and have a party here at night time."
Her neighbors say the rats have besieged the housing development for months, but it wasn't until news reports about the problem that the Health Department brought in rat poison.
A Housing Department employee who wouldn't give his name said he and his co-workers found about 200 dead rats the morning after the poison was placed.
Shortly after dark that night, the grounds were crawling with hundreds of the beasts again, brazenly picking their way through tenants' garbage.
"They are an extraordinarily adaptable and hardy breed," said Dr. Patrick Thomas, curator of mammals at the Bronx Zoo.
Norway rats-- the variety most common in New York -- were introduced to America by the first European settlers and are primarily nocturnal, Thomas said. Although some New Yorkers will swear they've seen rats as large as house cats, Thomas said they generally don't get heavier than a pound, despite their diets.
"They will consume things that we don't generally consider food, such as soap or leather," Thomas said. "They are very comfortable around human activity."
The danger is the diseases the rats can carry, including leptospirosis, which can lead to liver failure, and hantavirus, which can cause respiratory illness.
Department of Health spokeswoman Sandra Mullin said the city requires landlords to keep their buildings clean, and its pest control budget has more than doubled since 1997, from $5.5 million to $13 million.
That does little to calm Kitty Person's nerves.
"Some nights I feel they might just lift my building right up off the ground," she said.
On the Net: New York City Health Department: www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh