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A personal account of a changed city, by our webmaster who recently had the pleasure of a short stay there.
In November of 2007 I had the opportunity to spend a few days in New York, much of which I spent walking around the city both during the day and at night time. Although it was not always spotlessly clean, and there were some homeless people evident, there was no sense of menace or danger that I have experienced at times in my home town of Auckland. And I walked some thirty or so kilometres on the streets during my stay, almost half of this at night.
What is more telling is the comments by a few native New Yorkers that I had the pleasure of speaking to, saying that Rudy Guiliani's administration had transformed New York from a hell hole ("horrific" was the word used by one)to a thriving community that was as pleasant a place to live in as any city of that size can be. The comments made by all three of the tour guides during the one day I actually spent doing the usual tourist style activities reinforced that, all three of them pointing out various parks and playgrounds that had once been the barren haunts of crack dealers and muggers.
One such is Herald Park, described in the earlier article here which happened to be just around the corner from the discount hotel I was staying at. I had the pleasure of eating a meal there bought from a street vendor (my budget did not run to restaurant eating!) late one night, and it was a very pleasant experience. I don't think I would be willing to do that in Auckland late at night.
The park was planted out and beautifully landscaped, and wrought iron outdoor tables and chairs were provided for people to sit at and eat as I did or just read the paper and pass the time. It was a very congenial environment if a little noisy, and it was kept clean by the constant attentions of New York City maintenance workers.
Compare this with the description from 1989 - "a plot of cement and bitumen much like every other public space in this city, except worse - an outdoor flophouse, drug market, and handy rendezvous for the thugs, crims and kerbside conmen who plied their nefarious trades in Midtown's sucker-rich streets."
Both locals and tourists walk around the city day and night without fear, and often using Ipods or other MP3 players, including single women at night, something else I would not do in Auckland. This does not mean that there is no crime, but that it appears to be far more constrained in it's spread and rate of occurrence per head of poulation than in Auckland, and certainly a great deal more so than is the case in London currently (another city I have spent time in, but I did not venture out after dark!)
The incidence and nature of street begging is very much different to Auckland as well - the three street beggars that I did see used a very passive style, rather than the very aggressive, approach I see regularly in Auckland. I also saw no threats of violence at any time, again unlike Auckland... That they still have some problems in this regard has to be acknowledged, but much has been achieved in comparison with 15 years ago, whereas New Zealand appears to have progressed in the opposite direction.
I also made considerable use of the subway (once I worked out how to use it!), and again felt under threat at no time. There was some graffiti on the Brooklyn train I used to get out to the airport, mostly on the windows, of the scratched glass type endemic in Auckland Otherwise the subways were clean and safe. And on one of my rides I had the privilege of seeing how this is achieved, by seeing New York's subway police in action
I was riding a subway downtown one night, and the only vacant seat happened to be next to a guy who when I sat down turned out to be very drunk and somewhat malodourous (i.e. he stank) I was about to get up and stand when two subway police entered the car, and asked him where he was going, with the intention of ensuring that he got off the train. After several attempts they managed to elicit a response, and at that stop, which happened to be where I was stopping, they gently but firmly escorted him off the train.
The impact of this change on the tourist trade is also worth noting, in that the tourist trade is booming, and employing large numbers of sales people, guides, etc etc, most of them from minority groups - and most of these jobs would not have existed 15 years ago due to the conditions prevailing back then.
Of course not everyone is happy with the changes - there have been complaints of "Disneyfication" of New York. Well they have a wee way to go before they attain Disneyworld levels of cleanliness.... and if by Disneyfication they mean that the streets are safe day and night for women and the elderly, bring it on!
Central Park was also very instructive, as well as beautiful. I spent most of a day hiking all around it, and can recall no grafitti, even in the most isolated sections of the park. Everyone I encountered was friendly, and agin at no time did I feel in any danger whatsoever. That said, it may be different at night - but I would be extremely cautious of any Auckland Park after dark, and Central Park is vast - over six kilometres long by almost one wide.
These before and after pictures of Belvedere Castle in the middle of the Park are testimony in part to the changes that have been wrought in New York. The first picture is from the late 1980's, the second is one I took in 2007. This is in part due to a huge Park restoration project that started in 1980, but gathered momentum in the early 90's as the rest of the City changed.
The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has largely pressed on with the policies initiated in the 90's by Governor Pataki and Rudy Guiliani, and the statisitics demonstrate the overall continued success of this approach. Although there have been lapses and shortcomings, the improvement in quality of life overall for New Yorkers is nothing short of spectacular, and experiences largely bear this out.
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