One of the greatest misconceptions people have of New York is that it remains the mecca for murderers, thieves, gang members, and rapists, outsiders view the city as a hot bed of criminal activity and an unsafe place for all but the most hardened, mace-toting New Yorker. Acquaintances planning a trip to the city often ask if it’s safe to ride the subway, what neighborhoods to avoid, and even if a group of women would be safe without any men accompanying them. Derived largely from the many crime dramas based in New York and the popular perception of NYC as a town full of drug dealers, pimps, and gang-bangers, the streets are viewed as dark places where any wrong turn could lead you into the middle of a gang riot or deliver you into the hands of a lurking mugger, and Central Park is a haunted shadowland home to druggies and rapists.
The reality is essentially the complete opposite of this mythical crime-ridden city. This year New York City was crowned America’s safest big city (metro areas with > 500,000 people) by the FBI’s annual crime statistics report. With an overall crime rate of 4.2% and a violent crime rate of 0.61%, New York is far safer than any other major American city. Though the murder and rape rates increased slightly over the past year, assaults and property crimes (including theft) fell significantly, a trend that has continued virtually interrupted since 1993 in the beginning of the Giuliani era. Even factoring in moderate size towns of 200,000 or more, New York still fares pretty well, ranking #136 of 182 cities in overall crime numbers, and even lower in violent crime.
Of course New York has not always been a low-crime city. Founded by tradesmen and soldiers, the original south Manhattan settlement was composed of a rough group. With notorious gangs such as the Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies inhabiting the Five Points area during the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens had this to say about the slums on the Lower East Side during his visit:
This is the place [Five Points], these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?
Organized crime came to prominence in the early 20th century, and New York was considered a city in the grip of the mafia through 1970s. And the drug wars were devastating to certain neighborhoods – the imagines of burned out buildings were staples of TV news during the 1980’s.
The reason for New York’s current low crime rate is certainly multi-factorial. The major decrease in crime since the peak levels of 1990 (more than double current crime rates) can be credited, at least in part, to the “Broken Window” theory of Rudy Giuliani. Mayor Giuliani was probably a bit overly harsh and a touch Draconian in his methods, and some his policies have been appropriately tempered by current mayor Mike Bloomberg. But his theory, based on that of urban sociologist George Kelling, is that small crime beget larger crimes. Thus the subway system saw significantly improved riding conditions and decrease in crime when they implemented a zero tolerance policy for graffiti and fare evasion in the late 1980s. Based on the demonstrable success of these measures, Giuliani expanded this policy to minor crime throughout the city, including graffiti, public urination, marijuana use, litter, and vandalism. In addition, by restricting the location of sex shops and pornography theaters, he cleaned up much of the popular tourist destinations, including Times Square (a controversial program some have criticized as “Disney-fying” the area). Since enacting these policies, streamlining the police force, and carefully patrolling the street corners with the highest crime rates, the City has become safer by the year for nearly two decades.
Of course, not all the credit should be given to Giuliani, and part of his success coincides with overall lower crime rates nationwide, success in the war on drugs, overall decrease in unemployment, and the welfare reform pushed by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. Even so, there is no question his policies have played a role in making New York the safe city it is today. Continuing most of Giuliani’s policies, Mike Bloomberg has seen a continual drop in crime throughout his term as mayor.
Practically speaking, in the 4+ years I’ve lived in New York and the multiple times I visited before moving here, I have never felt unsafe anywhere or anytime. I’ve ridden the subway at literally all hours of the night, and not once have I felt uneasy. I’ve been to every neighborhood of Manhattan alone, and have felt completely comfortable at all times. Melissa hasn’t been as many places as I have (especially alone), but she too has never felt unsafe. In Manhattan, I would be completely at ease walking any street in any neighborhood at any time of day, even while alone. I wouldn’t necessarily hang out all night in Spanish Harlem or Alphabet City every single night, but in general pretty much anywhere in the City is safe for a single man.
Venturing out into the outer boroughs is a different story. While Staten Island and Queens are probably safer than Manhattan as a whole, Brooklyn and the Bronx are certainly more dangerous. Even those boroughs are mostly safe, with only pockets of “dodgy” neighborhoods. As a rule, I would avoid the South Bronx at night, especially alone, and especially off the main thoroughfares. During the daylight hours I would be more adventurous, but even then I would try to avoid the smaller side streets. In Brooklyn, places like Sunset Park, Bed-Stuy, and East New York are also sketchy. However, I don’t want to paint Brooklyn or the Bronx as unsafe places as a whole – both have their bad areas that should be avoided, but the significant majority of places in Brooklyn and the Bronx are perfectly safe and worth visiting.
By skipping some of the so-called “dangerous” places in New York or thinking of the City in general as a crime-ridden town, one really misses out on all the positive aspects of NYC. Outsiders often tell me they always view Central Park as a smoldering crime locale, but the reality is a woman is much more likely to be raped in my hometown of Birmingham, Melissa’s birthplace of Nashville, or my mother’s hometown of Atlanta than in New York. And the odds of being assaulted and even killed are significantly higher in those places as well. With its high degree of diversity and dense population, it is remarkable that New York is as safe as it is. The many crime dramas (including mob tales such as The Godfather and The Sopranos) give New York a bad image concerning crime, and indeed the City had its share of crime problems from its beginning through the 1980s. But now New York is America’s safest big city – a place virtually anyone can be at ease.