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After hitting near historic lows pre-pandemic, crime has been spiking in many parts of the U.S., including in the nation's most populous city. Shootings in New York City have more than doubled this year compared to the same time period in 2019. The city's new mayor has made public safety his top priority, while polls show half of New Yorkers view crime as the leading issue. Jeffrey Brown reports.
After hitting near historic lows pre-pandemic, crime has been spiking in many parts of the country, including in the nation's most populous city.
Shootings in New York City have more than doubled this year compared to the same time period in 2019. The city's new mayor has made public safety his top priority, and polls show that New Yorkers agree. About half say crime is issue number one for them. So, is the city at or close to a tipping point?
Jeffrey Brown has our look.
On a recent morning, Qian Julie Wang underground for one of the first times in weeks. Wang grew up riding the subway, but says, since the pandemic and amid an increase in violence, it feels different now.
Qian Julie Wang, Author, "Beautiful Country: A Memoir": Sometimes, I get on a car, and I just feel uneasy because of the particular vibe in that car. Maybe it's too empty
You're more — you're just more aware of anything.
Qian Julie Wang:
Yes, I'm just very attuned to what is going on all around me. And that hypervigilance can be really exhausting.
On any given day, New York can feel glorious, spring in the air, families at play, urban life at its most pleasurable.
But other days, the feeling is quite different, as when a gunman opened fire on a subway car last month, shooting and wounding 10 people.
When that happens, it reels me back to that time when I myself was taking the R or the F train through Brooklyn.
Wang is author of the recent memoir "Beautiful Country" about growing up as a young immigrant in New York City.
The subway was the center of what to my family made America, made New York City accessible and what made it feel like there was mobility, both in terms of physical mobility, but also social mobility.
When does the psychology of a city change? How is it seen and felt by its citizens and the outside world? Questions New Yorkers and others are now asking themselves.
Jumaane Williams, New York City Public Advocate:
People are concerned. People are afraid. People are worried. And you understand why.
Jumaane Williams is New York's public advocate, an elected ombudsman for the city. Williams, who was first diagnosed with Tourette's as a teenager, is also a former city councillor from an area of Brooklyn that's long struggled with violent crime, but did see progress in the two decades before the pandemic.
You cannot ignore that gun violence is going up not just here in New York, but across the nation. People have a right to be safe and feel safe. Sometimes, those are two different things. And we have to understand that.
But we have to have leadership that can address those fears, put them in context, so that we don't get more afraid than we should be.
On the day we spoke to Williams, he had just come from the funeral viewing of Kade Lewin, a 12-year-old shot while sitting in a car.
But even with the recent uptick, he notes violent crime in New York remains significantly below peaks in the early 90s, when the city recorded more than 2,000 murders annually. In 2021, there were 488.
It's always hard, because I know we're not where we were. But I also know that we're not going in the right direction. And I always say, if you're a victim of crime, data means absolutely nothing to you.
Sometimes, we talk about a tipping point. In one moment, we're talking about New York has a very vibrant, positive place, and then something changes.
I don't think we have reached that tipping point yet, but we're moving in a tipping point direction.
The only thing I can say is, this is a national thing that's happening.
Janice Johnson Dias, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: My first concern is that we might overreact.
Janice Johnson Dias is a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She's worried the attention crimes like the subway shooting generate will lead to overblown reactions by policymakers.
Janice Johnson Dias:
Fear of crime is a real. People should feel concerned.
But if we allow and we exacerbate and exaggerate what is happening, then that will run rampant. And then that tipping point that we keep talking about, if the fear gets too high, then that will become the way in which New York is organized, and we will start taking actions in a way that could lead to challenges down the road.
Since January, the city has added police patrols in the subway, and they were increased again after the mass shooting in April.
Mayor Eric Adams has also reinstated a specialized police unit charged with getting illegal guns off the street. In the past, these types of units have been controversial, including as part of the city's stop-and-frisk policy, which racially profiled young Black and Latino men, and was ended in 2013 by a federal judge.
By Dias says, more than any one violent incident or policy response, it's the more than two years of COVID that still hang over New York City and must be addressed.
The pandemic unraveled and exposed things about New York that were never really settled. The racial climate in New York has been problematic forever, the economic divides forever, the health care system always been a challenge.
And the pandemic unearthed some of our more structurally deep-rooted concerns, and they're going to have an impact on crime.
Of course, the demise of New York has been predicted many times before.
Businessman Richard Ravitch played a key role in saving the city from bankruptcy in the 1970s and then led the transit system at a time when subways were losing ridership, physically falling apart, and perceived as dangerous.
Perhaps surprisingly, he says that period doesn't compare to the shock of the last few years, when the city lost more than 350,000 people and subway ridership plummeted.
Frm. Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch (D-NY):
There are a lot of people who say, gee, I don't have to have an office in city, and I can work at home.
But Ravitch remains bullish on the city's long-term prospects.
Frm. Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch:
I believe New York is going to recover. I just am not sure whether it's going to take one year or three.
But it's still the only civilizing institution in our society, is the cities, and the city of New York first and foremost.
Still, fears persist and even grow for some. A spike in violence, for example, has notably included attacks against Asian Americans.
In January, 40-year-old Michelle Alyssa Go was killed when pushed from behind by a homeless man in front of an ongoing subway train.
There is a new sense of vulnerability, I think, among the Asian population that we are being targeted. But with that has come a growing sense of community.
I have noticed when I'm on the train or platform that Asians traveling by themselves, we tend to find each other and kind of stand together. And I can feel my own shoulders kind of loosen a little bit, be like, OK, I can breathe for a minute because we're all here, and we can all protect each other.
After the April subway shooting in Sunset Park, a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood that includes a large Latino and Asian population, Qian Julie Wang put out a call on Twitter, asking people to share subway memories.
She was flooded with replies.
There was, of course, the sad entries of being assaulted on the subway, of having seen violence.
But, most of all, there were so many stories of the kindness of New Yorkers, of spontaneous singing. It really showed me that the subway is the beating pulse of the city. And, yes, there's bad, and, yes, there's some silliness, but there is so much good.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York City.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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