Daily Mail: EXCLUSIVE: Post-pandemic New York City is laid bare as homelessness, mental illness and crime escalate and rattled locals and tourists alike believe the town ‘has lost its essence’ while city cheerleaders insist ‘the ship has turned’

By Martin Gould

May 27, 2021

 

In Times Square, the most densely tourist-populated place in the United States, a mentally disturbed man known as Mr. Kim begs cops to kill him. ‘I want to die. You have a gun? Shoot,’ he pleads. After the officers demur, he picks up a plank of wood and starts smashing it against the Pele soccer shop.

 

On Sutton Place, one of the most affluent residential areas in the city, a lone man squats on the sidewalk, intently reading a paperback novel next to a shopping cart that contains his worldly goods. He begs for cash with a sign saying he has lost everything. ‘Trying to survive,’ it adds.

 

In Greenwich Village, a well-dressed man leaves his office  minding his own business when a menacing character attempts to sucker punch him. The 6’4′ suit ducks the punch, shrugs and walks away.

 

At Harlem’s famed 125th Street, at 2pm on a sunny May day, a middle-aged man sleeps off whatever he needs to sleep off on a bus stop bench outside a sneaker store, unaware that his naked backside is exposed for the world to see.

 

These scenes come from across Manhattan as it struggles to get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic cut off its lifeblood of tourism, sent many of its wealthiest residents scurrying to places as diverse as Vermont and Florida and upped the ante on homelessness, mental illness and crime – particularly random assaults and stabbings.

 

‘New Yorkers don’t feel safe and they don’t feel safe because the crime rate is up. It’s not that they are being neurotic or overly sensitive – they are right,’ Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Wednesday.

 

‘We have a major crime problem in New York City. Everything we just talked about, with the economy coming back, you know what the first step is? People have to feel safe.’

 

Other city officials are more optimistic, talking up Gotham once again. ‘The ship has turned. We are headed towards recovery,’ Chris Heywood of NYC&Company, the city’s official tourism organization, told DailyMail.com.

 

He confidently predicted New York will see 36.4 million visitors this year, more than half of the 2019 figure, but way up from last year’s number of 22.3 million, the majority of whom came in the first three months. ‘People are really eager to get back out there,’ he said.

 

‘New Yorkers don’t feel safe and they don’t feel safe because the crime rate is up. It’s not that they are being neurotic or overly sensitive – they are right,’ Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Wednesday.

 

‘We have a major crime problem in New York City. Everything we just talked about, with the economy coming back, you know what the first step is? People have to feel safe.’

 

Other city officials are more optimistic, talking up Gotham once again. ‘The ship has turned. We are headed towards recovery,’ Chris Heywood of NYC&Company, the city’s official tourism organization, told DailyMail.com.

 

He confidently predicted New York will see 36.4 million visitors this year, more than half of the 2019 figure, but way up from last year’s number of 22.3 million, the majority of whom came in the first three months. ‘People are really eager to get back out there,’ he said.

 

Vijay Dandapani, president of the city’s Hotel Association, said it will take until at least 2025 for visitors to be back at pre-pandemic levels, mainly because of the lead-time needed for the lucrative conference and convention business to restart. ‘But New York will be back,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘No-one is writing off New York, certainly not me.’

 

But not all are convinced the Big Apple is back on track.

 

‘I just want to go home. This is dangerous,’ Brandon Lee, 27, from Jersey City, New Jersey, complained to DailyMail.com as he sat in Times Square on Sunday night watching Mr. Kim’s melt down.

 

Others were disappointed there wasn’t more action. Around midnight, Amy, a 37-year-old in town with her boyfriend from Colorado Springs, Colorado, said: ‘I came here for the city that never sleeps. But apparently it goes to bed at 9.30!’

 

She and boyfriend Matt had visited downtown areas like Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy earlier in the day. Their most memorable sight was a homeless man pleasuring himself outside the Orpheum theater that, before the pandemic, had housed the show Stomp.

 

‘We were on our way to dinner,’ said Matt. ‘We lost our appetite a bit.’

 

Of course, most of the homeless are harmless. They have just fallen on hard times either through losing a job or a home or through drug use or they have mental issues. Tommy, a well-spoken 41-year-old originally from Buffalo, told DailyMail.com he just wants to get by and hopefully move on.

 

‘I realize tourists don’t want to see us sleeping on the sidewalk. I don’t want to sleep on the sidewalk, but right now I have no choice,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to hurt you, but I will ask you for a dollar or some change.’

 

A total of 206,000 people visited Times Square this past Saturday, according to Tom Harris, acting president of the Times Square Alliance. That is down from pre-pandemic levels of 365,000 but well up from last year’s low of 35,000.

 

‘People are starting to come back to Times Square, with warmer weather, increased vaccinations and a lot of pent-up demand,’ Harris told DailyMail.com ‘I’m very optimistic about the future.

 

‘People who are writing an obituary for Times Square better do it in pencil so they can erase it.’

 

Harris said the quality-of-life problems in the area are perennial but admitted they have been exacerbated by the pandemic and his organization is well aware of Mr. Kim, who has been refusing services since December. ‘We are working to build trust with him,’ he said.

 

There is no doubt that Times Square, the Crossroads of the World, has changed from pre-pandemic times. Then it was packed with tourists from around the world. Now it’s mainly what Manhattanites dismissively call the ‘Bridge and Tunnel crowd’ — visitors from New York’s four other boroughs and nearby locations such as New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester County.

 

‘Times Square has lost its essence,’ a cop patrolling the area told DailyMail.com. ‘People come here now and just sit.

 

‘Before, things were much more organized and orderly. Families came in from out of state, out of the country, for shows. Now it’s a more urban, younger vibe.’

 

He said it’s exhausting trying to control the mostly low-level crimes there, the drug sales, the noise, the harassing behavior. ‘I’ve arrested most of these guys already, and issued them summonses,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t stop them.’

 

He also said prostitution is rearing its head around Times Square. ‘We see the same girls coming in there with different people all the time,’ he said, nodding toward one of the area’s best-known hotels.

 

Andy Hort, who runs a printing company in Times Square, said he now avoid the area whenever he can.

 

‘There’s a lot more crime and a lot more drug addicts and vagrants everywhere,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘In the last three months, I’ve seen three or four people shooting up right in front of me.’

 

‘I’m not the biggest supporter of Rudy Giuliani, but when he was mayor, he definitely brought Times Square into a Disney-like tourist area from what was a seedy strip club area,’ Hort said. ‘Right now, I feel like it’s slipping back to where it was previously.’ 

 

A couple of high-profile crimes over the past week or so have also damaged the city’s reputation. A 44-year-old man was stabbed in the neck after getting in an argument in the Union Square subway station. A 19-year-old has since been arrested and charged.

 

And on the very night DailyMail.com was in Times Square, the M&M Store there was held up at knifepoint, the suspect getting away with three pairs of socks.

 

New York still has to contend with the effects that Covid brought. As jobs disappeared, poverty rose. The Bowery Mission estimates there are 80,000 homeless in the five boroughs — one in every 106 city residents.

 

In 2021, almost every type of violent crime is on the rise in New York City. According to recent figures from Compstat, the NYPD’s data gathering unit, crime is up 30 percent city wide.

 

And serious crime has shot up. Over the past four weeks murders in the city are up 67% from 27 in the same period last year to 45. Rapes are up 25%, robberies 54%. Shootings have risen by a staggering 130%. 

 

Last spring, in a bid to slow the transmission of the virus, the city started housing thousands of homeless people in hotel rooms left empty as tourists fled. Mayor Bill DeBlasio is expected to end that program at the end of June. Then those people will be back on the streets.

 

Dandapani of the Hotel Association said 139 hotels participated. ‘Nearly all, apart from the real high-end ones who weren’t interested. At its peak the program took up some 15,000 rooms housing up to 25,000 homeless people a night.

 

Hoteliers joined the program, he said, because the money from the city — a little more than $100 a night per room — was better than nothing. Now as the city starts to re-open, he said it is time for the program to end.

 

‘None of our members built their hotels to house homeless people, they built them to make money,’ he added. ‘But when the governor shut down the city and the state, there was no money coming in. We went overnight from 85-90% occupancy to zero.’

 

Once the program ends, those 15,000 rooms will have to be fully rehabilitated. ‘New carpet, new wallpaper, new furniture, new bathroom fixtures,’ said Dandapani. ‘That’s $15,000-$25,000 per room minimum, so for a 100-room hotel, we are talking $2.5 million.’

 

Dandapani said he was one of the few people who still went to his office just off Park Avenue on a daily basis during the pandemic, and he has seen how the city has changed for the better. ‘Then I would see naked men walking around, close to my office right by the Waldorf Astoria.’

 

The end of the hotel program is not the only challenge. At some stage the city’s moratorium on tenant evictions must also come to an end and that will inevitably see a new flood of people without a roof over their heads.

 

Stephen Levin, the city councilman who chairs the committee that deals with homelessness, is behind a bill to increase vouchers to get the unhoused permanent homes.

 

He said there is only a perception of increased homelessness because there are fewer other people walking around New York. ‘If you look at Twitter, you’d think the homelessness situation is worse than it’s ever been in New York City, but that’s not the case.

 

‘Anyone that has a home has been in their home. There haven’t been as many people walking around. So proportionally, you see homeless people as larger portion of population,’ he said.

 

What undoubtedly will not change is the open sale of marijuana, made possible by a new law aimed at raising tax dollars depleted by the virus. Strictly speaking, selling marijuana will still be illegal for at least another year but mobile weed shops with the slogan ‘Don’t smoke this van’ already tour the city on a regular basis.

 

At 46th Street and Broadway, Kobra Westwood, 21, and his girlfriend Emily Cruz, 21, sat at a table peddling pot gummies with names like Doweedos and Jolly Smacker Gummies. Westwood said they’d pocketed $2,800 over the weekend selling to mostly young people.

 

‘The cops came up to us and were like: ‘We don’t care if you do this now.’ But they told us they’re going to start enforcement in June. We’ll see.’

 

Mikayla, 19, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, was in Times Square with a friend, enjoying the fact they could get high in public.

 

‘It’s interesting and fascinating,’ she said. ‘We’re smoking it now and I like it. At home, I can’t just walk around and smoke a blunt. I always have to worry about someone seeing it.’

 

Joey, 37, a dealer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Billionaires Boys Club told DailyMail.com. ‘We’re providing happy times. Marijuana to soothe the soul. Every day we come out here to share peace and happiness.’

 

But Tom, in from Pittsburgh with his teenage daughter Liberty, said he found the marijuana sales contributed to the culture shock he was feeling. ‘It’s just filthy and people are just here asking me for money. I see people talking to themselves and yelling and angry.’

 

As he spoke, a topless woman came crashing down on to a table in front of him. ‘At least it’s refreshing to be here and see people not worrying about the pandemic,’ Tom, 58, joked.

 

So, is New York safe to visit or is the Big Apple rotten to its core? That depends on who you ask. Tourism spokesman Heywood insists its safe, pointing out the city’s edginess is what has always attracted the throngs of visitors.

 

‘New York is still the safest big city in the United States,’ he said. ‘What we are seeing returning now is the vibrancy of the place.’

 

And where there are problems, the city is actively addressing them, Heywood added. ‘We are upping the number of police on the subways, for instance.’

 

But Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. is so concerned he is calling for a commission ‘that reaches beyond law enforcement and the justice system to gather the information necessary to issue evidence-based recommendations on all local problems that implicate safety and justice-involvement for New Yorkers, from housing to mental health to bail,’ he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News.

 

And documentary director Matthew Taylor, who has a new YouTube series This Is New York about the struggles the city faces, says the problems, which he lists as ‘skyrocketing crime, random assaults, stabbings and shootings’ are just getting worse.

 

‘I’ve seen these issues become more prevalent with each passing year,’ Taylor said.

 

But he added: ‘If there’s one thing that New Yorkers are good at, it’s shining in the face of adversity. The city’s greatest strength is its people, and I believe the people, whatever challenges come, can always outshine the adversity.’