Fear of Crime Transcends Data Along One New York Subway Line’s 31 Miles

At 31 miles long, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s A train traverses New York City, from the thriving Dominican enclave of Washington Heights to the Financial District, from rugged East New York to beachy Far Rockaway.

It is a $2.75 equalizer, moving the young, the old, the rich and the poor, tourists and commuters. In the throes of the virus’s darkest days, it emptied out; in the sublime, post-vaccine honeymoon of 2021, it filled up; now, as the city wobbles toward pandemic-era stability, it contains a crisis of confidence.

New York has been grappling with fears about crime, and danger has become a reliable talking point for Mayor Eric Adams, who has for months warned that the city is on the brink. While shootings and murders in New York have begun to abate after a pandemic surge, other crimes have increased since last year.

The number of crimes taking place within the transit system is roughly the same as in 2019, according to police statistics, even though the subway is seeing only around 60 percent of its 2019 ridership.

“I don’t feel safe on the trains,” said Jo-Ann Jones, who lives in Harlem and has spent almost her entire life in the city. “I’m afraid to go out after 8 o’clock.”

Jo-Ann Jones has lived most of her life in New York City, but avoids riding the subway late in the evening these days.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

The New York Times spoke with more than 30 people on the route of the A train about public safety both above ground and below, interviewing them along a path that plunges down Manhattan’s West Side, swoops east through Brooklyn and Queens and ends at the seaside facing Kennedy International Airport. It is the longest subway line, and its path offers glimpses into the city’s psyche.

While the subway system has seen shocking attacks, including a stranger’s fatal shove and an unprovoked shooting, those merely amplified the kind of daily traumatic crime that riders once accepted as part of the bargain, as long as it never happened to them.

On the A train recently, credit cards were yanked from a wallet at knife point in Washington Heights; in Downtown Brooklyn, a gold chain was snatched; a few stops away, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed in the head and rushed to the hospital.

Most people interviewed, however, said they continued to ride the subways out of necessity and habit, and because there’s nothing so fast, easy and cheap. Ziggy Zacks, a New York native home for a visit, said the subway and the city itself are as strange as ever, but no stranger.

“Other than one experience where out of the blue someone kicked through the glass, it felt pretty standard,” Mr. Zacks said.

Edward Weathers, from Far Rockaway, in Queens, believes New Yorkers should rely on themselves, not politicians, to make their communities safer.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Nearly everyone expressed conflicted feelings about people living and sleeping on the trains, whose numbers have increased nearly 30 percent in the past two years, according to city surveys. Some interviewees said they were worried about gun violence, but few had direct experience with violent crime. Most noted smaller, quality-of-life offenses. Many spoke of unease on the subway and in the city above it, as if the plane of New York had somehow tilted toward disorder.

“Sometimes, I feel absolutely lovely. We’re having a delightful time, we’re on the street, we’re with friends,” said Lisa Tarmu, 57, whose family has lived in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn for five generations. “Then there are other times, when people come up to you, and you feel just like everybody’s angry at everybody else, and hot, and have guns. That’s a really new thing.”

In Upper Manhattan, Disorder and Empty Trains

The A train’s northern terminus is in Inwood, the edge of Manhattan. It is a neighborhood that illustrates the trends of the past three years: Murders and shootings surged with the pandemic, but have receded sharply in the past year. Still, smaller quality-of-life infractions disquiet residents.

“There definitely is less civility, and I think that that’s contributing to everything,” said Carla McKesson, 70, who has lived in Inwood since the late 1970s. “All of those little things increase your feeling that things are not the way they used to be.”

Americans have historically struggled to square their beliefs about safety with statistical realities. Across years of surveys about crime in the United States, Americans consistently believe crime in a given year is worse than the previous, despite long-range statistics showing that violent crime has been on the decline, nationally, for decades. During the pandemic though, such impressions were correct, with comparative caveats: crime did increase during the first year of the pandemic, but the uptick still fell far short of the rates of the 1990s, when the city saw more than 2,000 murders a year.

Still, the recent increases in violent crime have rattled residents and commuters accustomed to the safety of a more modern era.

“In the same way that expectations of inflation encourage inflation, expectations of crime encourage crime. Because people stop going out, they stop walking the streets,” said Fritz Umbach, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Like many New Yorkers, Gregory Hanson, 29, feels safer in a crowd and avoids an empty subway car.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Part of the current discomfort is that many New Yorkers have not recalibrated their instincts; emptier subway cars or quieter streets feel more dangerous.

“If it’s a bigger crowd, I feel a little safer,” said Greg Hanson, 29, who commutes from Inwood. “Something is much more likely to happen if it’s just me and another person on a subway car.”

South of Inwood, Luis Delacruz has lived in New York for 60 years. He recalled the 1970s, when professors at Columbia University used to tell him not to walk north of 116th Street — a route he walked regularly.

“Sometimes, you saw the guys that were supposed to be committing the crimes, and ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And you just walk by,” said Mr. Delacruz, who now lives in Washington Heights, where crimes like robbery and burglary have plummeted compared with the same period last year.

A few stops farther along, Ricardo Feliciano, 53, works as a building superintendent in West Harlem, near Hamilton Heights. The city, he said, has become a patchwork of safe and unsafe neighborhoods.

“In this particular neighborhood, it’s really not bad. Everybody looks out for each other,” he said. “But you go a block east and you have all types of problems.”

Women and parents of young children expressed the most concerns about gun violence. Ms. Jones said she has started changing her commute and using car services to avoid establishing a pattern on public transit. She has a 19-year-old son who has autism and keeps him cloistered.

“I am so blessed that he’s not of the streets in New York, because I’m afraid for him,” she said. “As soon as it gets dark in the summer months, I don’t go out.”

In Midtown and Brooklyn, Mental Illness and Fears of Attacks

Fears of crime haven’t stanched a flood of tourism, an industry in which many indicators have neared a return to 2019 numbers.

Outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, John Gibbs had just rolled in from his home in Vermont, and planned to see a concert in Queens.

“I’ve never had problems in New York,” he said. He chatted about taking public transit — he planned to, and was not worried — when an older man approached him and asked for cash, then moved on when Gibbs said he didn’t have any.

Such an experience was once just an informal toll for people moving through New York. But a rash of high-profile attacks in which homeless and mentally ill suspects have been charged has changed how many subway riders view what was once a common, if uncomfortable, interruption. The increased numbers of homeless and mentally ill people on less populous trains are difficult to ignore, and officials fear they are dissuading commuters who are the financial lifeblood of the system.

“I can see more,” said Rocio Izurieta, who works in Columbus Circle but has lived in Coney Island for 30 years. “It doesn’t matter the age. It’s different ages. You can see they have problems.”

Many New Yorkers who spoke with The Times expressed conflicted feelings about homelessness and mental illness in the subways. Most said they felt sympathy for those who sheltered on the trains, and several said they were familiar with statistics that show that the vast majority of sufferers are nonviolent, and are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Bernadette Gay, who lives in the Financial District, stopped riding the subway after dark after she was harassed on a train.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans this year to stop the homeless from sheltering inside the subway system, flooding trains with police officers and mental health workers to intervene. The plan, criticized widely by advocates for the homeless, has thus far done little to quell public concern. In May, the mayor’s office said 1,300 people had been placed in shelters through the program, but it was unclear how many remained there.

Bernadette Gay, who has lived in the Financial District her entire life, was recently harassed on a train by a man who appeared disturbed, she said, and she has stopped riding the system after dark.

“People are scared,” she said. “My friends and neighbors don’t come out at night here anymore.”

“You definitely see more mental illness on the train,” said Ms. Tarmu, farther down the A line in Crown Heights. But, she added, “you see more anger on the train from perfectly sane people.”

In Queens, Faith in Neighbors, New and Old

Jade Williams, straight off a flight to Kennedy International and standing on a platform at the Howard Beach-JFK Airport stop, said she was excited to visit the city from her home in Britain. She had gone to school in New York, she said, and traveled regularly in Europe; she knows the city.

“I don’t feel unsafe, necessarily,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I lived here before.”

A few stops farther south, Stuart Walton has always called Far Rockaway home. He followed the news about crime in other parts of the city, he said, and was always vigilant while taking the train. But on his block, neighbors looked out for each other.

“Grandmothers, they raised us from little kids,” he said. In his neighborhood, that feeling of community has not changed, he said.

But Edward Weathers, who lives a few blocks away from Mr. Walton, thinks about his 8-year-old son and the city he’ll inherit.

“We can’t shelter him in, as much as I want to,” Mr. Weathers said. He worries for him, he said, and he worries that New Yorkers put too much faith in politicians to clean up the city. The answer, he believes, is for communities to start looking out for themselves.

“If we sit around waiting for them, sit around waiting for the mayor to do something, the governors …” Mr. Weathers said, trailing off. “I believe it’s up to us.”

Waiting for the A train at the Beach 25th Street Station, near the end of the line.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Andy Newman and Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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