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Is It Safe to Feel Safe While Visiting New York?

October 21, 1990|ROBERT E. DALLOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The headlines are scary:

"Jogger Raped in Central Park by Gang."

"Utah Youth Killed in Subway Protecting Mother."

"French Tourist Killed in Mugging."

And the list goes on: Just last weekend, a Los Angeles woman on her honeymoon was attacked by a group of female youths in a racial incident as she jogged in Central Park.

And, if such unfavorable images of New York aren't enough, there's the best-selling novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities," which depicts the extremes of racial tensions and social disparities in what is known throughout the world as "The Big Apple."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 28, 1990 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Waldorf-Astoria--Due to an editing error, the Oct. 21 Travel Section incorrectly identified New York City's Waldorf-Astoria as being located on Fifth Avenue. It is at 301 Park Ave.

But do these incidents and descriptions of New York City keep tourists away? Is it still safe to come to Gotham?

Probably, yes. The chances that a visitor will be mugged or raped are minimal. But the possibility certainly exists.

New York City's crime-spree victims are seldom visitors. And most of the crimes take place far from areas where tourists and business people visit. There are shootouts in the Bronx killing innocent children and grandmothers. Robberies take place in the far reaches of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens.

Still, there are those who won't come near New York City these days. They envision themselves as victims of horrendous incidents.

Others come here and go about their business or their sightseeing without a worry in the world.

"I think people are really hysterical," says Karin Rath, a 21-year-old visitor to New York from Passau, Germany. "Everybody warned me before I came--'Don't go to Brooklyn. Don't go to Harlem. Don't go on the subway.' But if you walk straight and do not show that you are scared, you will be left alone."

But even Rath took some precautions: She bought a knapsack, hid her camera when she wasn't using it and avoided the subway at night. But "when I got here, I saw the atmosphere is not aggressive."

Those whose job it is to lure travelers here say New York is getting a bad rap. There are nasty incidents, but, when it comes to visitors, they are infrequent. People can feel relaxed like Rath, they maintain.

New York's defenders say the city's prominence is the cause of its poor image.

"Crime in the United States continues to be an important issue," says Marshall E. Murdaugh, president of the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau. "But perception of crime is not reality in New York City. New York's pre-eminent position as the media capital of the world sometimes works against us.

"When a crime is committed in New York City, it is more likely to appear as a lead story in major media around the world than if the crime occurs in other cities. This heightened media exposure can and often does create the perception that the city's crime rate is greater than the reality."

Murdaugh emphasizes that New York ranks 13th among the nation's cities in crime statistics supplied by the New York Police Department. Included as crimes are homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and vehicle theft.

(Dallas heads the list, followed by Seattle, San Antonio, Boston, Detroit, New Orleans, El Paso, Jacksonville, Fla., Phoenix, Houston, Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. The crime ratings were culled from FBI statistics.)

Howard Rubenstein, a New York City public relations man who is a longtime friend of Mayor David Dinkins, is trying to help change the city's image.

"These crimes have done a great deal of damage to our image," he says. "But the mayor is going to put 7,000 more policemen onto the streets. We are not going to roll over to the perception that New York City is dead."

When Rubenstein and the mayor met recently to discuss the problem, a prime topic was the August cover story of Time magazine, called "The Rotting of the Big Apple." The story confirmed that New York City has suffered a black eye. And that tarnished image translates into lost tourist dollars. Tourists and conventioneers spend about $10 billion in New York annually, a sum which translates into 144,000 jobs.

And when they do occur, violent incidents stab New York in the back.

Consider the following, related by Thomas Nulty, president of Santa Ana-based Associated Travel management, which has 18 branch offices in California.

A month ago, Nulty's leisure marketing manager made a trip to New York to inspect a new cruise ship. In a cab on the way to the vessel with several other travel agents, she couldn't believe her eyes. There, in broad daylight, six people mugged a man, threw him to the ground, held a knife to his back, took the ring off his finger and relieved him of his watch.

Not exactly what city fathers would want anyone--certainly not travel agents--to witness.

The incident solidified an already warped image that Nulty has of New York City. Small wonder that, according to the executive, in the last 12 months, Associated Travel has sold 700 New York City packages to Californians, off 53% from about 1,500 in the same period a year earlier.

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