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Safety In Numbers: My Trip to NYC
My first trip to NYC through the eyes of a longtime San Francisco Bay Area resident.
I recently visited the East Coast of the United States for the first time in my life. I have been to many cities and countries but never the other side of my country. As expected, I was dazzled by New York City. The most dazzling aspect of it all was how remarkably safe and vibrant the Big Apple felt at all times of the day. Back home in San Francisco, the relatively vacant Market Street area has long been uninviting after hours. Downtown Oakland is somewhat average by American downtown standards of being a ghost town once the office workers are gone.
But when I arrived to Lower Manhattan late at night, I was genuinely at a loss of words. I know it’s nonsense, but on Fox News the pundits insist that New York City is some hell-hole akin to the 1980s Death Wish series. It’s anything but. It’s without a doubt the safest major American city I’ve ever been to in my life. That statistics support that, New York City is remarkably safe, compared to most U.S. cities as well, and that’s for one key reason: people.
I landed in New York City around evening time and headed over to my friend’s home in Tribeca. Predictably, an urbanist like me was drooling at the frequent subway, the pleasant ride from Penn Station (although Penn’s wayfinding was lacking) and the active nightlife on Chambers Street. It must’ve been 8 PM and nightlife isn’t unusual in California or any other major American city I’ve been to in the west or south that has a popular strip.
But I was restless, and at 11 PM I decided to go exploring lower Manhattan on foot and by train. There were so many people out in all neighborhoods, from the World Trade Center to Battery Park, which was very unusual for me. Lower Manhattan was very lively on a late and normal Thursday night. People of all ages and backgrounds out and about. Tourists gawking around the World Trade Center. Elderly couples eating at restaurants around Pumphouse Park. Kids roaming around scooters on West Street and protected by a well designed bike lane.
Even pre-pandemic in the Bay Area, its a struggle to find anywhere as lively as this at night absent a festival or concert. And there was a feeling I had never experienced before, that I never expected to feel outside someplace like Tokyo or Seoul and certainly not in an American city at midnight. Safety. The presence of so many people after hours, so many food stands, street vendors, so many open stores, bodegas and bars made the area so safe. Whereas in most places you feel the need to be on guard for a mugging or thief at this time at night, there was enough people around to discourage it. The presence of people would at least ensure that someone could help you in a crime or emergency, if not outright intervene.
Initially, I thought the safety was from the large amount of police officers. There were cops everywhere walking around lower Manhattan — particularly at the Trade Center. There was also a lot of private security officers and skyscrapers with personnel just sitting around. NYC has a per-capita police officer population at double the national average, and they’re not roaming around exclusively in patrol cars like out west.
But as I jumped onto the subway at midnight and roamed around Manhattan, I quickly realized it wasn’t just the police presence. Matter of fact, it wasn’t primarily the police presence as it dwindled further away from WTC area and seeing foot patrol cops became much less common. It was the people.
During my whole trip, I never spent more than 7 minutes tops on a subway platform, with the average time being 2 - 3 minutes. This was at midnight, mind you. Back in the Bay Area, I’m accustomed to waiting 15 minutes or more for a BART train especially late night where they run over 25 minutes right in downtown San Francisco. I’m used to having to wait a half-hour for my bus to arrive and glancing back and forth at the club or bar, waiting for the 5 minute mark to be up so I can depart. Waiting outside for a bus late night is lonesome, particularly as strangers fly by in their cars and the sidewalks are empty just a block from a venue.
But New York is leagues ahead of that. The trains and buses were so frequent you don’t spend much time idling around. More importantly, transit was populated after hours. After midnight, I saw people of all ages and in various groups riding the subway. The NYC subway is so much older and decayed than modern train systems out west, but the 2 million people using the subway keeps way more eyes on the public than any amount of anti-crime surveillance technology can.
Most train stations in San Francisco, Portland or Los Angeles I’ve been in after hours is usually lowly populated, especially post-pandemic. It’s a circular effect where the substandard frequency of transit encourages people to drive and take Ubers so fewer people ride it. Fewer riders means less money which means fewer trains. Thus you feel much more vulnerable to being a victim of a crime or stalking because you’re one of few transit riders. In New York City you’re never alone.
After a late-night Broadway show, my girlfriend wanted to stay out longer but I had gotten tired and wanted to go back to our loft. I did something that in every other city in the U.S. I had never done. I didn't bother accompanying her back after midnight on transit. I’ve heard many horror stories from female and non-binary friends about riding transit, particularly when they’re alone. Recall my article on the subject. A tech CEO I’m friends with discussed how he had to offer Lyft and Uber subsidies to female and non-binary employees after hours due to being harassed often. Most women in my life have told me that harassment stops when I’m around due to my size and men being more respectful of other men than the women they harass. Thus, she and I would’ve insisted on riding transit together, but in New York City for the first time, we didn’t feel I needed to.
Something that quickly stuck out to me in NYC was how many unaccompanied women were riding transit alone well into the night. By no means am I suggesting women face no harassment in New York City. But the safety provided by the ‘eyes on the street’ theory seems to be partially borne out by the prevalence of women taking public transit alone. Something you do not see with anywhere as much frequency in most other American cities, even with high transit ridership.
As I took a stroll in Brooklyn one late night I felt as though I needed to move to New York City. That I was missing out on the pinnacle of American urbanism by living in the Bay Area, which is a lot more suburban than we all like to admit. I was intensely jealous of New York City. I was jealous of a city that seemed more alive after hours than in the daylight. I was jealous that I could go to a corner store at almost any time of the day. I was jealous of a mass transportation system that was well used and reliable.
New York City of course had its many flaws. It needs to build way more housing and politically seems 7 to 10 years behind California in coming to that realization. The subway, while impressive, had poor accessibility standards. Drivers in Manhattan were some of the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s unclear why NYC invests so much in the nation’s best mass transportation only to allow suburbanites to come speeding through its neighborhoods on streets that should be pedestrianized. What kind of moron drives down Broadway of all places? And of course, New Yorkers don’t appear to know what a trash can is.
Manhattan, supposedly America’s most visited city, had the most expensive hotels I had ever seen. This seems to be because New York City has constrained hotel construction, which may be a giant ad for Airbnb. NYC is in many respects the metropolis of yesteryear, whose density and mass transit were miraculously built for the early 20th century, but insufficient for the population of the 21st century.
My trip to NYC would’ve been much different, narrower and shorter had it not been for my friend Charles Komanoff who’s leading congestion pricing in New York City and graciously allowed me to reside in his home. While I owe him my biggest gratitude I really need to nudge Open New York to get that city to build hotels again so that a hotel for four days doesn’t cost a month’s worth of rent. You shouldn’t need to know homeowners in NYC to stay for a few days affordably.
It’s not completely hopeless for the rest of the nation in eyes on the street public safety. There have been proposals to allow bars to stay open later in California. San Francisco piloted a very successful “night market” which destigmatizes the night with shopping, vendors and events after hours. But leaving NYC was very hard. I’m contending with the fact that I feel as though I found the promised land and I’m sticking around in the wrong place.
But at least now I know my theory on public safety is true: safety comes in numbers.