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Artillery Row

Grime and grandeur in the big, rotting Apple

The slick glitz of the UN General Assembly was smothered by a city on its knees

Visitors to the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas end their lives by ingesting 15 grams of a powdered pentobarbital dissolved in water. They are asleep within five minutes before slipping into a coma and dying from respiratory arrest forty minutes later. It costs roughly £5,000. For a cheaper alternative at home, I can recommend remotely tuning in to addresses by delegates at the UN General Assembly.

I’ve just returned from ten days of covering these events in person in New York City, where on several occasions I feared I was slipping into an anaesthetic sleep-like state due to the tedium of the speeches. 

Gathering at a time of “great peril”, so said General-Secretary Antonio Guterres, presidents and prime ministers flocked to the world’s most iconic metropolis to confront the “geostrategic divides” that are “the widest they have been since at least the Cold War.”

The agenda was packed with themes that were keeping people awake at night the world over: the Russia-Ukraine war, the global food and energy shortages, natural disasters, famine, crime, terrorism and finance. But a significant chunk of the discussion on the “world’s biggest conversation” was focussed on the absent leaders from the “other side” of that geostrategic divide, namely Russia and China. 

It was a pointless exercise of world leaders talking past each other

The deputisation of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping by their foreign ministers, Sergrey Lavrov and Wang Yi respectively, dampened the anticipated efficacy of this supposedly punchy, high-level gathering amidst an era of uncertainty and crises.

At possibly the most anticipated event of the UNGA, the Security Council gathered to discuss the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Hacks were fizzing with excitement. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said it would be “arguably the most significant Security Council meeting of our time”. In reality, it was a pointless exercise of world leaders talking past each other. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated the same remarks that Washington has delivered since Russian troops flooded Ukraine: Moscow is committing war crimes, and the world risks disaster if it fails to sufficiently protect the international order by reacting viscerally to the invasion. China’s Yi said the international community needed to “de-escalate”; Lavrov went on a rampage about “neo-Nazis” enjoying Western support in Ukraine. A little over a week later, there are heightened fears of a nuclear attack as the conflict continues to surge in eastern Ukraine. 

Whilst attendees, delegates and journalists lamented the lack of top-level representation from Beijing and Moscow, some also took a swipe at Washington for permitting the attendance of Ibrahim Raisi, the president of Iran. Several Tehran-focussed think tanks hosted events on the sidelines of the 77th General Assembly to assess the Islamic Republic’s roster of traumas. All of them criticised US President Joe Biden for permitting Raisi’s attendance in the wake of the death of a young Iranian woman who fell foul of the president’s strengthened hijab laws. 

Selecting which of these sideline events to attend was a strenuous task, with most of the interesting action and discussion happening outside the UN HQ, where delegates and world leaders delivered stagnant addresses packed with platitudes to dozy audiences. Regardless of which event you picked, they were almost all worth attending purely because of the breakfast and lunch spreads they put on. America is the land of plenty, so journalists, officials and speakers were treated to tables bursting with plates of salmon, yoghurts, “sliders” (mini burgers that do not slide) and enough sandwiches to put Subway out of business. It was a far cry from the think tank talks and gatherings you find in Britain, where morning conferences open with rancid coffee and insincere smiles, whilst evening events boast lukewarm white wines that are more Novichok than Chardonnay.

Some of the events delivered on both the gastronomic and polemic fronts. Addressing an audience in a midtown hotel, Iranian-American activist and journalist Masih Alinejad feverishly gripped her hair as she passionately lamented the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by a mob after she “incorrectly” wore her hijab following Raisi’s crackdown. She shared with the captivated audience her feelings of guilt for not succeeding in changing the laws and culture in Iran, where women endure severe religious repression. Other activists and Iranian women in the grand hall echoed Alinejad’s sentiments. Days later, they must be watching with pride as swathes of Iranian society lurch against the regime, chanting “women, life, freedom” and refusing to crumble under the severity of Raisi’s brutal repression. 

Alinejad’s thrilling delivery was a rousing revival after another day of suffering by speeches. An event titled “in conversation with Nikki Haley”, the former governor of South Carolina who might run for president in 2024, was attended by an eclectic gathering. Haley slammed the Biden administration’s plans to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which was received to cheers by a few whooping fans in the front row. Otherwise, the room was sparse. After the event, one audience member admitted to me that they, along with several others, had been paid to attend through a staffing company.

A day earlier, I was packed into a cosy wood-panelled room for a press conference with former Western hostages and Iranian dissidents who were victims of torture carried out at the hands of the Tehran regime. Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert joined three others — two dissidents and a Belgian-Iranian academic — to launch a lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York by human rights attorney Shahin Milani on behalf of victims of Raisi’s alleged crimes. 

They were hoping to serve Raisi the legal papers, holding him personally responsible for their suffering and the suffering of thousands of other Iranians. As the president is not a permanent member of the Islamic Republic’s permanent mission to the UN, he did not travel to the US with diplomatic immunity. As long as he was not in the UN’s headquarters on the East River’s embankment or its surrounding district, he could be served. But the president safely departed New York City without papers landing in his lap.

This was hardly a surprise, as whilst New Yorkers had to contend with the subway (more on that later) to get around town, world leaders and their vast entourages were regularly charioted through midtown Manhattan to their lodgings, hotels and embassies by the flashing blue and red lights of the city’s finest. I lost count of the number of times I turned a corner only to find exasperated drivers and pedestrians cut off from their own streets of residence by blockades suddenly established by a policing flash mob to ensure the diplomatic cavalcades could canter around at full pelt. I’m not sure why they were in such a rush. Few of them had anything interesting to say.

In April, a mass shooting erupted on a Brooklyn commuter train

At lower-level side events, quietly attended niche topics were given the trappings and glitz of UN branding. The Science Summit put on one discussion on “decolonising science and moving to inclusive science”, co-hosted by the Japanese delegation to the UN, which unfolded precisely as the reader might expect. The American SAT exams were described as “colonialist” by one panellist, whilst another argued that it was racist to say “we don’t want equality, diversity and inclusion to come at the cost of science”. Offering higher salaries to scientists moving to lower-income countries was decried as colonialist — in fact it became a struggle after two hours of this conversation to work out what wasn’t colonialist — before they turned to a Zoom discussion. After enduring as much as I could take of “everything that I personally dislike is imperialism”, I opted to move on.

Events that I failed to attend include “BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, Women & the Climate Crisis: Why Representation Matters” and “Diaspora as Key Partner Across the Humanitarian-Development Peace-Nexus (HDPN)”.

Whilst the content of much of the speeches and side events failed to surprise me, the experience of travelling between them was shocking. When I last spent a significant period of time in New York City in 2015, some of the most common advice I heard from locals was to avoid the town’s many famous delicatessens — they’ll charge you $30 for an average sandwich — so try some pastrami on rye with sour pickles that doesn’t come with a side of tourist trap pricing fueled by tens of thousands of TripAdvisor reviews. I ignored that guidance and have lingering memories of the pain I felt after the herculean struggle to overcome my mammoth meal. Seven years later, New Yorkers weren’t warning me to avoid the Katz’s and Carnegie delis, but rather the edge of the subway platform. A new trend had swept this fashionable city: unprovoked attacks from homeless people pushing commuters onto the tracks.

I didn’t believe them, so I looked it up. They were right. I was a young teenager in that liminal period when social media sparked into total ubiquity, but before tech companies were pressured by regulators and PR agencies into hiring armies of content moderators. I consider myself fairly desensitised to videos of extreme violence and human suffering, but the footage of people idly checking their phones before being bundled under the driver’s carriage made me twitch. It probably didn’t help that I decided to fact-check my friend’s claim whilst rattling uptown on the Q train to Manhattan, consumed with thoughts of the crushing connection between steel wheels and bone. Suddenly it made sense why everyone waiting for the service at DeKalb Avenue was hugging the centre of the island: they didn’t want to be the next victim of this recurring news story. I started doing the same, sitting where possible so I’d be less of a target. Cultural assimilation, they’re calling it.

In January, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that he was planning to deploy mental health professionals to “move out the disorder that’s clearly in the subway system in our city”. More people have since been chucked onto the tracks. The trains felt safe on the inside, but perhaps that buzz of reassurance I felt was just the welcome breeze of air conditioning, an unexpected benefit after recent commutes on London’s Central Line — a thin red tunnel of pain which I can only assume was invented by a Finnish sauna fanatic who wanted to force his hobbies on others. That feeling of safety might also have just been a lucky reflection of my limited experience. In April, a mass shooting erupted on a Brooklyn commuter train, and there are countless reports of violent vagrants roaming carriage-to-carriage looking for their next victim of robbery or grievous bodily harm. Crime in the NYC public transit system hiked by about 57 per cent in July compared with the same period in 2021. 

Maybe if I had used the subway regularly, I might have started to feel like I was running on borrowed time, but I avoided most of that fear because of my preference to walk around a town instead of going underground — it gives you a better feel for the place and expands your opportunity for serendipity. In New York, it also widens your scope to witness and endure violence mixed in with an extraordinary range of struggle, misery and drug use. 

I stayed within the NYPD’s 6th Precinct, which covers the trendy southwestern neighbourhoods of Greenwich Village and the West Village, where the rigid city block and numbered streets system of midtown Manhattan melts into a European-style messy mix of named, thinner, diagonal roads and pedestrianised dining spots cosily nestled alongside fashion outlets, comedy clubs and basement bars. It’s where Sally said “have a nice life” to Harry. Taylor Swift used to live there. Every other person is an NYU student, and every other student is drinking an iced coffee. There’s a 7.7-acre LGBT US National Park. Some of the dogs had smarter shoes than me. Rent for a one-bedroom hovel hovers around $5,700. Per month. You get the picture.

The glitzy area is also disintegrating into a dive of criminality. Officers from the 6th Precinct are reassuringly dotted nearby many of the village’s landmarks, often swamping the iconic but increasingly hostile Washington Square Park. Contrary to their reputation as Oakleys-clad robots who talk with a flat, authoritative tone, I found the police approachable and friendly, despite one patrolling duo asking if I was Irish (I sound like a poundshop Hugh Grant, for those unaware). Some told me they didn’t remember being so busy. 

De facto drug decriminalisation has allowed addicts to operate with impunity

It wasn’t difficult to work out why: the menacing aura is heavy, shrouding the silent millionaire rows of red brick townhouses with an atmosphere of foreboding. Last June, a man broke into a Greenwich Village apartment and rubbed his penis on a 10-year-old girl’s feet. That same month, the precinct reported that misdemeanour assaults were up by 480 per cent year over year. Melees in the park where I spoke to the cops were common. Things haven’t improved in 2022. Major crimes in the precinct have jumped 72 per cent this year. In the year since the last full week of stats on 25 September, the NYPD reported rises in felony assaults (7 per cent), robberies (47 per cent), petty larcenies (60 per cent), grand larcenies (91 per cent), burglaries (96 per cent). I twice strolled past people injecting drugs; I saw a few arrests. Five minutes away, in the iconic Union Square, I saw a homeless man masturbating on the subway stairs. A fellow Briton visiting the city texted me one morning to say he’d seen someone defecating in the street outside his hotel. I was expecting typical New Yorker gruffness, but this was a step too far.

In August, the Greenwich Village community reacted in horror after a 12-year-old girl was randomly punched in the face by a 34-year-old man. The attack followed similar incidents in New York City this year: in July, a 6-year-old girl was beaten in Williamsburg by teenagers who stole her scooter, a 9-year-old was sucker punched in an unprovoked attack outside an historic hotel in central Manhattan in March, and in February, a 4-year-old boy was thwacked in the head in another random assault in Times Square. 

The ceaseless onslaught of vagrancy and raving addicts, slobbering and stumbling throughout the town, is a depressing sight that tugs on your soul. I’ve seen some horrible things in travel and work, but the extreme variance of elite global city class wealth sloshing alongside the breadline struggle of impoverished Americans is gut-wrenching. The harm they are experiencing is endless, but they also dish out plenty to those who walk the streets they sleep on. The New York Post last month reported that city kids are seeking therapy amidst the hellish trauma they have to encounter just to get to school. “My daughter has seen everything from fornication, masturbation, defecation, urination, you name it, she has seen it … consistently and constantly. She is in this constant state of panic,” said one parent.

Nothing is expected to change. If anything, it will get worse. Last year, a directive to NYPD commanders ordered them “effective immediately” to “not take any enforcement action against any individual who possesses a hypodermic needle, even when it contains residue of a controlled substance”. This de facto drug decriminalisation has allowed addicts to operate with impunity across the city. State bail reform has hurried the release of alleged violent criminals, many of whom go on to rapidly commit more horrifying attacks.

The palpable aura of nihilistic violent misery I detected in my strolls around the village was clearly shared by local residents. Elias Tsikis, the owner of the Washington Square Diner on West 4th St, where I was left momentarily disabled after a gargantuan serving of French toast and bacon, told a local news outlet that crime is “the worst it’s been in twenty-one years”. 

Things had gotten so bad that residents and local business owners started taking matters into their own hands. They pooled $18,000 in August to hire two armed guards to patrol the area around MacDougall Street and Six Avenue, ensuring dedicated round-the-clock security to beef up the NYPD’s efforts. “When our security guards were present, it did seem much safer and there was a sense of calm when they were walking the street,” Brian Maloney told local news outlet Fox 5 News, adding: “But the moment they went off duty, the deluge of lawlessness returned, instantly.”

I was in town right after they went off duty. The first two mornings in Greenwich Village, I sat in a small coffee shop on Sullivan Street to work. On the third morning, I opened the cafe’s door to find it was blocked by a desk. The owner apologised, adding that they were only doing takeaways to prevent unwanted visitors wandering in. I took a guess at what they were politely, uncomfortably referring to. The same routine was repeated the next morning, only now with the added grief of a passed-out homeless man sprawled across the pavement by the door. Some customers delicately walked over his groaning form with a tatty jumper pulled over its eyes, to partially push open the door and ask for a drip coffee. For them, it was clearly nothing out of the ordinary.

A myriad of brilliance still pervades in Manhattan

Twice I endured direct contact with people who made me feel unsafe. One incident was fairly forgettable; I was just being threateningly stared at across park benches by a stranger with wild eyes and what the experts would describe as a “shady vibe”. We had a little staring contest, which ended with my total victory. The second occasion was more adrenaline-inducing. Strolling through SoHo one afternoon, I noticed that I was being followed around a few corners by a homeless man, who kept his distance and my pace. His ragged, filthy clothes stood out among the swell of ladies and gents in their swanky city fits. I cut sharply into a coffee shop and he appeared soon after, grabbing the door handle just as it closed on him. By now, I was turned and facing him, empowered by the relative security of multiple sedentary witnesses. We shared a look that arrested his advance and he smirked, presumably recognising that he’d been busted and there would be no opportunity for a quick mugging. He left and I ordered an iced coffee, overwhelmed with joy at how rapidly I was settling in with the locals: spending $8 on chilled caffeinated products whilst deftly navigating my way around altercations with would-be criminals. New Yawk, baby!

The outdoor atmosphere was blighted by several other gloomy associations with city living. Chief amongst them was the constant pungency of marijuana. Smoking weed was legalised to match the law on tobacco in March of last year. Small vans that sell the drug are dotted around the city, with sales still in a legal limbo; consumers pay the dealers a “donation” and receive their kush in kind. The drug’s links with psychosis are well founded. For a city with an extreme vagrancy and violence crisis, easing access to a drug that contributes to mental health problems will likely only catalyse the town’s anarchic decline. It also stinks to high heaven. All in all, not an ideal set of conditions.

Listening to American luminaries, dignitaries and a president with a questionable command of his mental faculties lecture the world on how they should be administering their affairs should have fallen on deaf ears at least in part, due to the disarray and destruction surrounding events at the UN. New York’s rapid decline is a serious threat to America’s cliché depiction as a shining city on a hill, a prosaic piece of mythologising that feels more strained, more desperate every time it is delivered.

Struggling to prevent war in Ukraine, a litany of Middle Eastern nightmares and nascent nervousness in Taiwan has spawned an endless stream of think pieces questioning America’s foreign policy hegemony. Printing presses hummed out several more of these columns during the UN General Assembly, with many hacks sharpening their insight into Washington’s impotence as geopolitical rivals deflected complaints from Biden, Blinken et al. More of these commentators should instead focus on the drama on New York’s doorstep.

Despite all of these gloomy reflections, a myriad of brilliance still pervades in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and even some parts of the Bronx. I met wonderful, sincere, generous people, I saw global landmarks and ate beautiful food, even if I felt like I was being robbed every time the bill landed on my table. Still, it beat being robbed in the street. Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Would I live there? Not until I can afford my own private security.

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