Is NYC Safe?

2013 – “Is Harlem safe to visit?”

2017 – “Are the subway’s safe?”

I can’t recall the number of times I was asked the Harlem question during Bloomberg’s reign as Mayor (2001-2013), and the subway question during de Blasio’s tenure (2014-2021).

Usually, these questions happened on the Manhattan Bridge and near the end of a 3-hour tour of lower Manhattan, my favorite walk.

Thinking back to the beginning years of these tours makes me cringe sometimes. If you took one from me before 2013, sorry!

I was nice and patient, people gave me 5-stars, and the repetition pushed me on the path towards becoming a more effective teacher.

I knew how to use a camera and how to explain it, but I hadn’t taught enough to adapt to each person. I read NYC history books and collected interesting facts, but I hadn’t developed a perspective on how to explain the city and the neighborhoods as they are today.

At the time, TripAdvisor gave tons of leads, until one day they didn’t. Thankfully, I had always diversified how to find people, but that was one of the early realizations to never trust these platforms with something as important as my living. They give and then they take.

I also hadn’t had the life experience yet to step back and take some perspective on the place as it rapidly changed, becoming more surreal by the day.

And I didn’t have the confidence built to speak my mind and to kindly push back when warranted.

One of these profound realizations occurred when Democrat Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014, when I was 32.

During the previous decade, New York had a perception of being safe, one rooted in reality. According to Bloomberg’s website, during his term, “New York City cut crime by more than 32% between 2001 and 2013, far outpacing the nation.”

Popular kids moved to New York, rejecting the disconnection of modernist suburban sprawl. Law and Order and similar crime shows made way for Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City, and Girls. The city was endlessly promoted, most famously culminating in fresh-off-the-boat Taylor Swift becoming an NYC ambassador and teaching people how to pronounce Houston Street and what a bodega is, in 2014.

(Disclaimer: I also teach people how to pronounce Houston Street (hau-stuhn). It’s where I start my tours).

But was Harlem safe to visit? Day after day that question was asked in the early 2010s.

Deep down, I didn’t feel like the right person to answer, even though my father had moved to a new development there. But it was safe to visit, so I’d say yes. Tourists flocked to Harlem and constantly talked about Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, but I didn’t take them. I didn’t feel like I understood the place well enough to take them.

Then, overnight when de Blasio became mayor, the Harlem question stopped and hasn’t returned. Not once.

You might remember that year, when the NY Post articles started popping up on Facebook’s algorithm documenting each and every subway crime, even though crime rates were the lowest they had been since the 1950s.

(And I’m no de Blasio fan, he was a man whose ego clouded his effectiveness in the same ways that ego clouded Bloomberg’s overall vision for New York).

But this was a right-wing newspaper hiding under the respectability of the New York name, while simultaneously undermining that name, and then being promoted by tech industry billionaires riding the novelty of news sharing. 

And it was popping up in the feeds of people all over the world, many of whom finally felt the impulse to ask just before our tours ended.

Suddenly, those adventurous Harlem questions shifted to wary subway questions, slashings specifically for awhile, and I had to learn safety statistics and craft ways to call out this bullshit.

Now if someone were to ask me if Harlem was safe to photograph, which they don’t, I would tell them, “Yes, if you do it respectfully and kindly, but is it the right place to photograph as a tourist right now?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s important to ponder. The effect of gentrification there is massive. There’s a reason people were suddenly hearing about it in touristic ways.

And certainly crime rose during the pandemic (which has somewhat normalized), but that was from historic lows and significantly based on a mental health crisis that is occurring everywhere. Crime is nowhere near the 1990s or 2000s.

But that hasn’t stopped our Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul from sending thousands of extra police officers to the subway system as a political stunt in a political year.

Straight from the NY Post playbook, Mayor Adams now simultaneously talks about how safe NY is and how only he can stop the rampant crime.

As you see each New York™ crime reported this year, talks of subway cops and of it being a hell-hole and shit-hole, in the wishes of people who still visit for 5-star meals subsidized by their companies and donors.

Here are the statistics. There are:

“One violent crime per one million rides on the subway.”

14.3 U.S. traffic deaths per 100,000 people in 2021.

So is Harlem safe? Perhaps you may be asking the wrong question.

And is the subway safe? It depends on what your vision of safety is.

Or what makes you feel safe.

Is NYC Safe - Subways

 


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11 thoughts on “Is NYC Safe?”

    1. There are clearly massive and many issues that need to be fixed with the criminal justice system and mental health and social service system, but speaking past and disregarding my points does nothing for the overall discourse, and is a major issue with how our society communicates. And the way these news articles are promoted and framed are for the purpose of making people feel like you feel.

  1. Amazingly insightful. I get info here I cannot get elsewhere. $1, $5, or $7 a month is not enough for your deep and truthful writing.

  2. When I brought a German friend to New York last year, she was quite wary because of the reputation it has developed on American TV, which Europeans watch a lot. We rented a first-floor Airbnb in Spanish Harlem right near City College. Our five days were eventful in terms of pleasure, and uneventful in terms of dangerous incidents. I have absolutely no qualms about taking cautious tourists to New York in future. Your article further confirms my impression that New York is quite safe, provided you follow the customary precautions when you travel anywhere. I’ll be sending your article, so that she can share it with other friends who may have her preconceived fears.
    Thanks,
    John

  3. There are many things that NYC and the USA can proudly boast about. Sadly, the crime rate is not one of them. Consider this. The USA accounts for 4.2% of the World’s population and 20% of the World’s prison population. The incarceration rate in the US is 531 per 100,00 which is the 6th highest. For comparison, Australia is 158, Canada 85, England 143, France 107, Norway 55 and so on.
    By the way, the 5 locations with a higher incarceration rate than the US are, American Samoa, Turkmenistan, Rwanda, Cuba, El Salvador and I’m definitely not traveling to one of them.

    1. Hey John – these are certainly complex issues but I want to put some of what you say further in context. Yes, certainly Melbourne has a lower crime rate, but at the same time the numbers in New York are very safe and the minute difference in risk to your daily life is probably more than offset by the increase of people in Melbourne who commute by car every day. The way you stated this would make New York sound unsafe, when that is just not true by any metrics.

      Now for the incarceration problem, the U.S. has a cottage industry that makes a lot of money off of incarcerating disadvantaged people, so I would completely agree with you on how massive and unfair a problem that is here.

  4. Interesting article and perspective. I grew up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.. I lived through Son of Sam (literally right in my neighborhood), blackouts, garbage strikes, transit strikes, the birth of mainstream disco (also in my neighborhood) and a murder rate in the late 1970s that was approximately 5 times higher than the number of murders in 2023. I remember subway cars that were covered in graffitti, so much so that you couldn’t see out the windows. Back in the day 42nd Street and Times Square was so unsafe that we were told to walk in the streets, and stay off the sidewalks, which were filled with X-rated shops and theaters. My last visit to Times Square reminded me of Disneyland. Like any big city with lots of people, crime will happen and will be more noticeable and covered by the media, and in today’s 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week news cycle, false information is often amplified by social media and politicians and pundits looking for attention. Also, like any big city (and small city, for that matter), there are places that are safe and not so safe. It’s probably a good idea to be aware of your surroundings in any area, large city or small town, as mental illness has been criminally ignored in this country for too many years.

    1. What incredible stories Richard. I was talking to a friend about this, and even the 80s were a completely different world. And definitely about mental illness.

      1. Whilst we’re being philosophical, here’s something else to ponder. If you break your leg in the street, strangers will rush to your aid and an ambulance will whisk you to hospital. But what do we do when we come across a man with a broken mind?

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