With public safety becoming an increasing concern in several major U.S. cities, some residents, workers and commuters are becoming more conscious of their surroundings.
The homicide rate increased last year in 22 major American cities by 5 percent compared to 2020, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Some companies are taking heed. Amazon revealed last week that it was temporarily relocating employees from its downtown Seattle office to a nearby location, following an uptick in crime in the area. The 1,800 workers there still have the option of working remotely.
In addition to concerns about crime, other societal issues such as the opioid epidemic, pandemic-induced financial distress and the lack of affordable housing in several urban hubs are impacting some areas. As of January 2020, there were an estimated 580,466 homeless people nationwide, marking the fourth consecutive annual gain as counted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Not isolated to any one state, Sacramento; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Houston; Denver, and Seattle are among the cities grappling for solutions. Ensuring residents and visitors are at ease on city streets is becoming more of a priority for elected officials and business owners alike, as they continue to try to encourage people to return to their places of work.
Staying alert on city streets is a reality of urban life, but a spate of random attacks on the subway and in parts of New York City — one of the global fashion industry’s epicenters — has some workers and their employers reiterating the need for caution.
For the 28-day period ended March 13, the New York City Police Department reported 8,967 incidents of crime — a nearly 43 percent increase compared to the same period last year. With the exception of the murder rate, which declined by 20.6 percent, all other crimes were significantly up compared to a year ago.
Following a 40-year-old woman dying after being pushed onto the tracks in the Times Square station and a 62-year-old man suffering a leg injury after being pushed onto the tracks in the Fulton Street station in January, there have been multiple unprovoked attacks since then — including shootings on homeless men in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
While such incidents are reason for concern, and in some instances new practices, others were more nonplussed. Representatives for several fashion and apparel companies and public-facing entities like Sotheby’s and Christie’s declined to comment on whether employees are being advised about public safety in light of two employees being stabbed at the Museum of Modern Art on March 12.
With many office buildings in New York City still only partially occupied, some see the public safety issue as a key one in enticing employees to return to their desks. The Partnership for New York City’s president and chief executive officer Kathryn Wylde said: “A combination of a fear of subway crime and street crime, especially against Asian American women, has created a real resistance in some of the work office to returning to their workplace, as well as using mass transit. These issues are far more important to restoring our economy than fear of COVID[-19] right now.”
What would help to rectify the problem would be “physical action along the lines of the efforts that have recently been put in place by the state and city that are focusing on getting homeless and mentally ill people out of the subway trains and stations and legislative action along the lines of what Mayor Eric Adams [supports] that empowers the police and prosecutors to be more effective in getting dangerous people off the streets,” Wylde said.
As of now, New York City’s office occupancy is more than 30 percent and barring any resurgence of the coronavirus, employers expect that on an average weekday 50 percent of their workforce will be back in the office by the end of this month, she said.
In response to safety concerns across the city, Fashion Institute of Technology has enhanced its street lighting, installed an Eighth Avenue security booth with 24/7 presence and increased security officers including street patrol ones, who now wear reflective vests for increased visibility. The FIT community is encouraged to be vigilant, careful and observant of their surroundings and to participate in the college’s safety and security programs. All of these initiatives have been implemented in the past three months, a FIT spokeswoman said.
With 200 employees and about to hire more for the upcoming bridal market, Kleinfeld owner Mara Urshel plans to meet with her executives to decide on a speaker, perhaps from the police department, who can advise the staff about “what to look for, who to call immediately and what sort of response they should have,” in the event that someone’s behavioral or body language is making them unsettled.
While employees haven’t talked too much about the recent incidents, Urshel said: “I feel that it’s on everybody’s mind because it’s happened too often. I have been thinking that we have taken so many precautions for everyone’s health with sanitation, masks, disinfecting the rooms, installing Plexiglass and all of that.”
But the random attacks on the street and in the subway are what you never expect, she said. “They could happen any time and anywhere, which is obviously what’s going on. There’s no safe place basically.”
If any employee has to work late — 7 or 7:30 p.m. — the company sends them home in a car.
Mentioning the mass thefts of luxury merchandise that occurred last year in California and a few other states, Urshel said: “There are all kinds of things. It has to be connected to the pandemic because it never happened at this rate. There have been prejudices against Asian people because of the virus. And there are certainly other racial stamps.”
During more informal gatherings at Natori, employees are reminded to be careful and street smart in their day-to-day dealings, especially interns or those who are coming from out-of-town, said designer Josie Natori. “We want to make sure that employees and interns are safe. We have such a family atmosphere in our company and we care about all of that stuff,” she said.
There have been conversations about how it is better to stand in the back of the crowd awaiting a subway on the platform versus standing in the front on the edge of the platform. “I would never. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to have to wait for the next train. Never, never. There are too many crazy people, who don’t know where they are mentally,” Natori said. “But I am really hopeful that the current administration is doing something about it. There are too many people who should be taken care of medically and taken off the streets.”
Despite that, Natori said she doesn’t feel very safe just walking around. “I’m very careful just watching. And I hate being like that because I love New York.”
Encouraged about the future under Mayor Adams and that his administration is doing something about the situation, Natori said: “I think New York is amazing no matter what they say. It’s been quiet, but it’s coming back.”
Nicole Miller art director Leanna Perry said on a scale of one to 10 — with one being not concerned at all — she would be about a three. “I know there is a lot more crime happening on the subways, but the way I dress is a little more punk that most people. I feel like I wouldn’t be the first person to get attacked if there were going to be an incident,” she said.
She makes a point of staying aware when traveling around at night, preferring to be accompanied with friends and never using headphones at night. “The thing I am most scared about is the people who have been pushed onto the tracks. To combat that, I will stand with my back against the wall if possible, so that nobody can come up behind me. But looking around and staying vigilant is the best move.”
One of her colleagues, Audrey Powell, said she is trying to be more cautious on the subway and more aware of her surroundings. Powell won’t take the subway after 9:30 or 10 p.m. but that has always been her practice.
”I just try to stay aware of what’s going on in the news, then take that information and be aware of where I’m going. We work near Times Square. It’s a really populated area. When I’m in the Times Square station, I make sure to stand in the middle of the platform and not get in a car when there is just one other person. As a young woman, you have to be especially cautious,” the 25-year-old said.
Teddy Sadaka, owner of Apparel Production, said the city is “a mess” and “disgusting.” Overseeing about 40 employees, he said: “Each one of them is petrified, not only because they are Asian. That makes things difficult, but there are mentally unwell people in the subways and the city does nothing about it,” he claimed. “It’s a mess but it’s been going on for a while. This new mayor is only making it worse.”
At least 50 percent of the company’s employees are commuting from Queens to its garment center location for 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekday shifts. “They are hoping that during that rush hour there is police [in the stations] to provide more protection. Off-hours, it’s worse,” Sadaka said.
To improve public safety, a greater police presence is needed and “a mayor, who is going to place the unwell in a home or a hospital. They don’t belong in the subway,” Sadaka said. “It’s very sad that people are homeless. They have lost everything they had in life, but someone has to help them. Someone has to give them a place to live like human beings, not in the subway with the rats, the tunnels and the whole mess down there.”
From his perspective, city officials have the power to change the situation with an ample police force and services to transport the disenfranchised to a stable living arrangement. “Put them in a home or the YMCA. The city has enough money to buy an apartment house for them. They put them in the hotels [temporarily on a monthlong basis during the pandemic]. Now they’re roaming the streets like the living dead.”
Asked about the prospect of appealing to city officials, Sadaka raised his voice. “They can see it themselves. Go to the subway. Look in the streets. They’ve got eyes — why do I have to tell them?”
Nearing his 70th birthday, he said that he has been walking the streets of the city since he was a boy. His mother started the company in 1947. “It was a lot better then but now it’s a mess,” Sadaka said.
Zoila Cruz, who runs Zoila’s Sample Room at 213 West 36th Street, said her six employees have no choice but to take the subway from the outer boroughs. “Sometimes they are uncomfortable but what can they do? They have to work. There are a lot of mentally unwell people especially between 34th and 35th Streets on Eighth Avenue, and there are a lot of needles. It’s too busy, too violent,” Cruz said.
Sometimes workers will commute using the Herald Square subway station instead of the Penn Station subway station, but the latter is much more convenient, Cruz said. Controlling the drug problem and addressing the homelessness issue is needed, she said. Noting how sometimes individuals openly use the subway stations as bathrooms, she said sometimes just “walking fast, fast, fast” is the best tactic, Cruz said.
The recent arrest of a 30-year-old man for shooting a handful of homeless men in New York City and Washington, D.C. has prompted more public discussion about how to help those without housing. Another recent incident — the stabbing of two employees Saturday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art — rattled some. The 60-year-old suspect, Gary Cabana, was arrested in Philadelphia Tuesday. Following the March 12 stabbings at MoMA, other New York City museums wasted no time in taking safety precautions. A Guggenheim spokeswoman issued a statement describing the MoMA incident as “tragic” and extending support to “our colleagues there.” Taking this situation “very seriously,” the Guggenheim has put in place additional security measures at its entrance. Bags will continue to be inspected and enhanced screenings have been implemented as the public enters the space, the statement read.
A Metropolitan Museum of Art spokesperson issued a statement “While there has been no threat to The Met, we are grateful to see the NYPD for providing additional resources at the museum over the weekend. As always, the safety of our staff and visitors is our first priority and The Met’s security department continues to operate at the highest level of vigilance.”