By JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — New York officials proudly tout the Big Apple as the safest big city in America. But blasts of gunfire in front of crowds near some of the city's best-known destinations this month painted a picture at odds with its tame, tourist friendly image.
Police confronted a knife-wielding man in Times Square and then shot him to death a few blocks away Aug. 11 as onlookers followed along and snapped photos. And on Friday, a gunman with a workplace grudge shot a former co-worker dead outside the Empire State Building — and then was killed himself by police in a burst of bullets that left at least nine bystanders wounded, some apparently by police rounds.
"I thought it's impossible for something like this to happen here," Julien Berthoud said after his parents, visiting from Switzerland, ran from the gunshots and then returned a few minutes later to see victims lying on the ground, some of them bleeding, as onlookers wept and frantically called 911.
The recent shootings might not leave a lasting mark on the public's view of New York, which has seen its appeal to tourists endure terrorism. Only one of the injured bystanders was from out of town. Still, Friday's violence spurred officials to assure visitors they were safe, even as it spotlighted the difficult task police face in confronting threats at thronged landmarks where some onlookers are more inclined to record the danger than to run from it.
Tourist Linda Signorini, for one, isn't fazed. The customer service worker from Melbourne, Australia, headed to the Empire State Building on Friday evening with her husband, Con, and their 27-year-old daughter, Erica.
They'd been startled by the news of the shooting that morning, but it didn't change their outlook on the city, Linda Signorini said. Noting the number of police officers they had seen on the streets, "we felt pretty safe," she said.
That's exactly the message city officials have strived to send for the past two decades, making aggressive efforts to combat crime, to turn once-seedy Times Square into a G-rated entertainment district — and to cast tourism as an economic-development priority.
More than 50 million visitors came to the city last year, a record. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office says tourism will contribute $45 billion in direct spending to the city and add 30,000 new jobs to its workforce by 2015.
Asked what he would say to tourists who might be concerned about Friday's shooting near the iconic skyscraper, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reiterated that New York is America's safest big city. The oft-invoked description is based on FBI crime statistics for the nation's 25 most populous cities. The data comprise a total of seven major crimes, including murder, rape and robbery; New York has the lowest rate per 100,000 residents.
"Over the last few decades, the strides that the city has made have been significant in increasing its appeal" to tourists, and the recent shootings aren't likely to change that, said Anna Maria Bounds, a Queens College sociologist who researches urban tourism.
As for city residents, "in general, New Yorkers are resilient," said Dr. Charles Marmar, the chairman of NYU Langone Medical Center's Psychiatry Department, which conducts research on post-traumatic stress and dispatched clinicians to meet with people wounded in Friday's gunfire.
Just days before Friday's mayhem, police said a street vendor shot two men outside storied Yankee Stadium in broad daylight in what witnesses described as a dispute over sales space. It joined a list of violent incidents at New York landmarks in recent years.
A terrorist tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, coming close enough to succeeding that a vendor spotted smoke coming from the SUV and alerted police. City officials have said other terror plots against the city's subways, transit facilities and landmarks have been thwarted since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
And the Empire State Building itself became the site of bloodshed in 1997, when a gunman killed a tourist, wounded six others and killed himself on the 86th-floor observation deck.
The tower remained open throughout the chaos outside Friday, and the owner stressed that Friday's shooting "had nothing to do with the Empire State Building."