In the mid-2000s I lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, at the corner of 80th and Amsterdam. Giuliani’s New York, which was characterized by aggressive policing of low-level crimes, was well scrubbed and largely entirely safe for a woman to walk alone at night. A twinkly-lighted Upper West Side was captured by Nora Ephron in her 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail.” The gourmet market Zabar’s, the 81st and Broadway Starbucks, and even Cafe Lalo on 83rd Street were major set pieces in this film, but they were also “my locals,” all within a few blocks of my apartment. Some might assume the movie made the area look too pretty, too dressed, too Hollywood; but no, it really looked like that.
Often late at night I would walk 15 blocks to or from my shul, Ohab Zedek, on 95th Street. The walks were notable in that it was often as safe and pleasant at midnight as it was at 10 a.m. The only difference was that in the daytime there were parents pushing babies in strollers.
As I was a Modern Orthodox and single Upper West Sider, it was par for the course that I shared a pre-war walk-up apartment with a roommate. The Jewish singles scene was many things, but most of all, life was largely comfortable. Many from the New Jersey community have spent time there over the years; we marvel now, perhaps, at memories of the 20-person Shabbat dinners or the shiurim that drew hundreds to Hineni, or to the Jewish Center and Young Israel. The Friday night post-Kabbalat Shabbat crush on the Ohab Zedek steps (and pouring into the street) was legendary.
My time on the West Side coincided with the northward movement of the Modern Orthodox community, when the mainstays from the Lincoln Square Synagogue had already begun to migrate, to make aliyah, following their mara d’atra Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to Efrat, or to bigger homes in the suburbs.
It was a neighborhood where immigrant-owned bodegas, laundries and really great little restaurants thrived because of communal support and loyal patronage. I rode the buses and subways without fear, and never felt threatened, even commuting in and out of the city through Harlem. Of course there was crime—after all, this was New York—but there was always a strong police presence and an even stronger sense of communal pride within multicultural, diversely populated neighborhoods. This sense extended, in my mind and experience, to the outer boroughs.
This New York just lives in my memory now.
In a time when the police themselves have been cuffed and demoralized by protesters questioning their very legitimacy, this summer the city created socially distanced COVID homeless hotels in formerly quiet residential communities, including the Upper West Side. In a matter of weeks, these quiet enclaves have become battlezones of drug use and lawlessness, with violent offenders literally roaming the streets. Police don’t have the support of politicians to keep New Yorkers safe, so many with the resources to do so are leaving.
Otherwise, women—and men—in these neighborhoods have to gird themselves to go in the subway. News reports have indicated that ridership is down 80%. Some fear leaving their apartments at all, and I understand from real estate reports that empty apartments will soon outweigh occupied ones. I hear daily reports of vandalism of businesses and private property, panhandling, physical assault and even public defecation in places I once strolled alone, in comfort. Stores are boarded up. I lament a beautiful city where, 15 years ago, I imagined I could never afford to buy real estate. Now, the friends I have there, those who were lucky enough to buy, can’t wait to escape. Or worse, they feel trapped in a city whose police are no longer able or even charged to protect them.
Three hotels, all within three blocks of where I lived, are housing hundreds of homeless men who are mentally ill and/or recovering from drug addictions. The New York Post reported that one hotel housed at least 10 registered sex offenders, including child sex offenders. Men staying in these hotels are openly selling drugs, as well as publicly using, with no fear of arrest. And worse.
The New Jersey and Westchester suburbs are seeing a mass influx of families, formerly of the idyllic Upper West Side, who are fleeing the city for fear of their and their children’s safety.
Local rabbis have sent countless emails to their community members and synagogue email lists with information and updates, including sharing that they have met with city leaders to discuss their safety concerns, but no one seems to have any plan to keep local residents safe, and anyone who is critical of the situation is defamed as a bigot. A friend who tried to report someone who screamed profanities at her on the street as he panhandled was told that police were not available to help her. She was told that someone had been hit on the back of the head the previous day by a hotel resident, and, similarly, there was nothing anyone could do about it.
From a Facebook group called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, a new group, the West Side Community Organization (http://www.westsideco.org), has been formed as a non-profit and volunteer advocacy organization to prioritize public safety in the neighborhoods again. It has raised over $100,000 in just over a week via a GoFundMe campaign. The group put out a press release that they hired a lawyer to advocate for this community with local and state officials. I am interested to hear more from this organization, to see if their advocacy can make a difference.
While some young students in their 20s are excited that New York apartments are suddenly financially attainable, friends I have spoken to on the West Side are feeling demoralized. The lingering effects of the pandemic and the loss of jobs and the influx of dollars from international travelers would certainly have been trouble enough. But add to this the safety struggles, and those who own property or businesses are feeling a greater depth of anger and frustration.
Many hope that as the pandemic recedes, business and regular police patrols will return. But others lament the loss, as I do, of a city government that sees resident safety as paramount. Most who are afraid for their safety either have left or are leaving. One hopes that today’s security issues are a passing moment, part of the ebb and flow of life in this city, not a harbinger of worse things to come.
By Elizabeth Kratz