David Usborne: We're not so safe in Gotham after all


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A poet pal who lived for years in Manhattan and then moved briefly back to his native London insisted over dinner last week that the two towns had switched places. London was now the Wild West, a place where the danger of being robbed or mugged always lurked, whereas the once intimidating Gotham had become tourist-tame and safe. What he was saying about London surprised me. As for the New York part, I fear he may be a bit out of date.

Mostly, I still navigate the streets at all hours here without giving the slightest thought to being assaulted by anything larger than a rat (although the recent story – look for it on YouTube – of a rat sniffing its way across the face of a sleeping passenger on the Number Six train was pretty horrifying). Until recently, I never worried much either about being the victim of theft. It helped that I live in the more or less genteel environs of Gramercy Park.

This, it turns out, is pure complacency, however, as three events in the past few days have demonstrated. There are no street signs on the borders of my zip code telling ne'er-do-wells they aren't welcome; nor is Gramercy some kind of gated community – unless you want to penetrate the actual park, that is, which is a whole different story. In other words, vigilance is required.

In our small building, we are learning this the hard way this winter. First it was the man upstairs advising all 10 other apartments that a pair of snow-dampened size-13 boots he'd left on his landing overnight had taken a walk. Then one of the brass knobs on the building's front door disappeared. Finally, a ceiling light that was waiting to be hung in one of the public areas vanished from the lobby, brand new and still in its box.

You wonder what people would want with size-13 boots, a door knob or even a lone light fixture. More obvious was the motive of the man who saw the door ajar on the townhouse owned by friends down the block. Indeed, there is nothing we don't know about this scoundrel – aside from his identity that is – because of the security cameras that captured him edging into the hallway, scoping its contents and then making off with a bicycle recently bought for over $3,000 (£1,900). (Clearly it was all graphite, made by Boeing, or perhaps Nasa.) The video tape was handed over to the local police precinct without delay but no one has high hopes of seeing the bicycle again.

You have to admire the determination, however, of Paolo Zampolli, a very wealthy fellow who lives in a flat overlooking Gramercy Park itself. In recent days, according to New York magazine, he has taken to driving around in his favourite Rolls Royce Phantom festooned with large posters offering a reward of $50,000 for anyone with information that will lead to the recovery of two watches that were stolen from his apartment.

Actually three watches were taken, but one was successfully retrieved by police from a jewellery shop on East 47th Street in the diamond district. One of those still missing – a Patek Philippe – was a gift to his ten-month-old (spoiled?) son. Hopefully the reward gambit will work. More importantly we'd all like our mini Gramercy crime wave to die down.

Raking in the money rather than the snow

It's snowing outside, which was not in the forecast. Let's not go back to how it was last month when the first monster blizzard even had CBS anchor Katie Couric helping to push a friend's car out of trouble in Central Park on her way to work – a Maserati, no less, belonging to Barry Diller, the husband of Diane Von Furstenberg. There is still snow about in Manhattan, but not in the crazy amounts we had before. It was last Monday when the city decided there had been enough of a thaw to reinstate the normal parking laws. They oblige drivers to move their cars from one side of the street to the other at least twice a week, in order to allow the sweeper trucks to come through. The real reason is that everyone forgets to do this sometimes and instantly gets a ticket.

Thus when the city was completely snowed in, not only was it spending a fortune on snow removal, it was also losing one on parking fines it couldn't levy.

On a normal day, the city can harvest as much $240,000 this way. But on Monday of last week, the parking police took in $437,000 with nearly 10,000 tickets, in part because a lot of drivers still couldn't get their cars out of spots walled in by ploughed snow and ice. Now that's robbery.

Denizens of Manhattan are going nowhere soon

I am one of those people who doesn't mind reading the '36 Hours In...' page in the travel section of the New York Times, even if it's usually about a place I will never get to. It was mildly shocking to open the paper yesterday, though, to see that the featured destination of the day was none other than Brooklyn. My first thought: gosh, this is cost-cutting taken too far – the paper must really be on its knees. Everyone else, though, had a different reaction: this was finally an admission from the Grey Lady herself that for most denizens of Manhattan, all of the other boroughs of the city, even Brooklyn, may as well be foreign lands. Staten Island, where on earth is that?


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