When I first visited New York City in the early 1980s, its Guardian Angels patrolled the streets and subways in response to escalating violence throughout the 1970s.
I half expected to see Charles Bronson gunning down a few gang members on every corner.
Fear lurked throughout the city, especially in areas like Times Square, Central Park. and Washington Square Park.
Fortunately Mayor Rudy Giuliani spearheaded the much heralded zero tolerance approach to crime, and the city gradually became a safer place. There were around 2,000 murders every year in the 1970s and 1980s. Since 1998, it’s consistently been below 1,000. With the stark exception of 2001.
Gill and I are spending a couple of days in NYC now. I’ve been back many times since that nervous first experience, but I’ve never felt as safe as we have done this time.
We’ve walked the length and breadth of Manhattan. Well, almost. To Times Square very late at night. North from mid town to Central Park. West to Hell’s Kitchen. South to Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, through Soho and Tribeca to One World Trade Center. The entire length of the thrilling HighLine project.
We drank in Greenwich Village, then enjoyed a brilliant R&B, jazz, funk, soul session in a small, sweaty atmospheric venue in the Village, before walking the 2 miles back to our hotel, after midnight.
And we felt safe.
I remember Washington Square in the Village as edgy, drug-fuelled and lurking with danger. Today, after a recent makeover ended in 2014, it feels like a safe haven. The chess games are still played out under the shade of tall, wind-blown trees. Dogs have their own canine playground. Everyone sits calmly around the fountain and plaza, by their very own Arc de Triomphe structure, enjoying city life.
NYC hasn’t been completely sanitised. It still has some rough edges, and I hope they’re retained. But it is good to walk the streets with relative optimism that you won’t be subjected to random violence. At least not to the extent of previous generations.
Looking at the 9/11 memorial and reading that the city is on alert for a potential terrorist attack on the symbolic 4th July, it’s thought-provoking to contemplate the way in which life in this iconic city – and further afield – has changed in recent years.
What would Charles Bronson do now?