2022 US Trip – Day 5 (Thoughts on New York)

Excuse my random placing of this post when, as far as this blog is concerned, I’m still not at the end of my time in New York (although I left a few days ago). But, it’s a convenient time for me to write this and so this is where this is going. Oh the editorial power…..

But, back to New York, which I’ve visited on a number of occasions before. It’s fair to say that there is a frightening side to New York, just as there is to nearly every major capital city in the world (although I’ll leave Warsaw out of this, as the Poles have a capital city run with such incredible efficiency and competence that they have avoided anything frightening). But the element that is most exciting to me is the liberating side of no-one, really no-one, cares what you’re doing.

There were no shortage of what might be considered odd incidents that I saw in New York, whether that be people lying down on the floor asleep in the middle of the subway carriage, people with an absence of clothes, a homeless woman and a shop-owner having a fight, a man dancing slowly across the road and so many more. But what is more notable is that, far more even than in cities such as London, no-one really seems to pay much attention other than a slight glance to the side at what is happening. Partly that’s no doubt just not wanting to get involved, but also because these things happen with such regularity that they’re not notable any more. I find freedom very exciting and there’s little doubt that you can be just about anything that you want to be in New York.

The levels of poverty are though beyond that of most western cities, with homeless people forced to find nearly any quiet spot that they can hide away in. There were plenty sleeping on platforms of the subway network or even beyond the parts that passengers are allowed to go. The scale is immense, there are just under 55,000 people in New York who are homeless and part of the municipal shelter system, but there are tens of thousands more that are sleeping rough and no-one can accurately count that. The damage to their physical and mental health is immense, but a figure that surprised me is that only 7% of all the homeless people in shelters are white, compared to the population of New York which is over 40% white. The system can’t cope and is nowhere near coping.

There are some world class businesses operating in areas of the city which have great poverty, not least some of the craft breweries which I visited this week. They either have to work around the problem, or try to give as much back to their local community as they can. But, as it stands, homelessness in New York is higher than at anytime since the Great Depression in the 1930s. None of it bodes well for the future.

One of the other challenges for the city is that crime is now escalating out of control, up 31% in one year. There are plenty of newspaper and magazine articles at the moment about how dangerous New York is, and it’s reached the stage now that I’m not sure it’s really a place for families. At some stage, someone is going to have to turn that situation around to prevent investment in the city starting to fall. The strength of the dollar in the global markets will also reduce the number of tourists, so these could well be challenging times for the hospitality industry.

The city’s police is looking to respond to this situation by looking at privatising more of their non police work, particularly relating to traffic roles which currently take up on average 15 to 20% of a police officer’s time. They need to get more police officers on the streets, but they’re still a long way off being able to do that and their 36,000 officers are struggling to cope. That’s a similar number of police officers to those in the Met police in London, but the challenges in New York are perhaps on a higher level. Low level crime is evident all over the place, not just with the amount of fare evasion that goes on across the subway or shoplifting from stores. Often fare evasion goes on in the vicinity of station staff who likely just use their discretion and a willingness not to get involved in a dangerous conflict with anyone, it gives a feeling of lawlessness.

But, despite all those challenges, the city remained exciting to me, it’s still full of opportunities and hope for the future for many. It’s a loud and vibrant city, indeed the noise sometimes doesn’t feel far off how loud some cities in India are, which I can imagine loses its appeal after not that long. However, it’s much more of a 24-hour city than somewhere such as London, not least as its subway has always operated for 24 hours a day, which makes it feel alive all the time. As an aside, I remember when I lived in London the excitement of being able to get to a 24 hour supermarket at any time because of the bus service at night, although I actually never felt the need to go to Morrison’s or wherever at 02:00.

I’d merrily visit New York again, but it feels like its edges are getting ever harder and it’s becoming ever tougher. For the average visitor who is constantly cautious, I’d say that the city is safe as long as care is taken, although there are some neighbourhoods that are of course best avoided. There’s evidently a lot of money in the financial district, and some of the soaring apartment blocks mostly near Central Park have properties selling for tens of millions of dollars. In a comment perhaps appropriate for British politics today, I can’t though see much of that money trickling down to those sleeping homeless at the foot of the apartment blocks, nor not much hope for the underprivileged in the city.

Some web-sites say ‘of course New York is safe, it’s the same as any western city’, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true, particularly when comparing to many European and Asian cities. This article from Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2022-is-nyc-safe-crime-stat-reality/,  gives an in-depth look at the challenges which New York currently has. The new Mayor of New York, elected in January 2022, doesn’t seem to attract much international press in the way that some of his predecessors have, but Eric Adams is a former police officer and hopes are there that he could change things. One of this first actions though was to try and hire his brother on a salary of $240,000 per year, which required a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board, so Adams proposed a cut in salary to $210,000. Although the board was having none of it, they reduced his salary from the suggested $210,000 per year to $1 per year, which is some pay cut. Time will tell whether Adams can turn the crime statistics around.

But, I’ve digressed somewhat, I very much enjoyed my time in New York and liked the improvements to the public transportation system which made it much easier to pay. The city seemed relatively clean, things mostly worked and the selection of craft beer was world class, so that did for me.