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New York is no longer safe

Singer, songwriter and NyLon socialite Karen Bishko explains why she fled New York and returned to London.

NOTE: First published in February, 2021.

Covid-19, a mentally ill spitter and a man masturbating in public spelt the end of NYC for me…

I’m a born and bred Ealing girl who’s just arrived back in London having lived in Manhattan for 10 years. I made the decision to leave so suddenly that I’m still trying to process it myself.

I live on my own and the lockdown has been lonely. For the first two and a half months I spent far too much time alone. I had an exciting writing project however, which kept me busy and luckily, it was fun. After handing in the first draft, I very much needed some company. Covid-19 had been out of control in NYC at that time although thankfully the numbers have now dramatically improved.

My closest friends, both doctors, had the virus at the very beginning and I was relieved when we decided we could spend some time together. They rented a house in Woodstock and I joined them in July for a glorious nature filled week. It was wonderful to be out of the city and I returned feeling rejuvenated.

A few hours after I got back, I went out to see a new apartment as I was thinking of moving downtown. I saw a great place and decided to walk home from Greenwich Village to where I live on 39th Street between Lex and Park Avenue. Halfway home, I crossed the street (to go to a little shop that sells British chocolate!) and a mentally ill man came towards me, arms flailing and spat straight in my face. It went all over me including my mouth. I got to the other side of the road and stood there a bit dazed. It was Midday. There were lots of people around, but no one had seen and there were no police in sight. What do you do? I walked home, washed my face and went out again. I went to the end of my street and a man was standing in the middle of the pavement masturbating. This did not feel like a great day. I wondered if it was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be in NY.

A few days later one of my doormen mentioned that a woman from the building had been punched in the face. Soon after, a neighbour told me that his son’s friend had also been punched in the face on 2nd avenue and had his nose broken. Another friend told me that her cousin was out walking on the Upper West Side with her young daughter and a man grabbed the child’s hair from behind and wouldn’t let go. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

On my street, on the corner of 39th and Lex, there are heroin addicts living under scaffolding and shooting up, and on the other side a couple living on the raised steps of a closed sushi restaurant sometimes having sex. I began walking a long way around to get home.

I started to notice that whenever I needed to go out, I felt anxiety rising. I bought a pepper spray. I wanted to check that it worked so before I went out with it, I sprayed a little bit in my sink, at arms-length, and thought I’d choke. This stuff works. I decided to carry it everywhere.

Then two weeks ago, a therapist friend texted and told me that one of her patients had also been spat on near Grand Central and about 30 mins later, another therapist friend texted (I have a curious amount of therapist friends) and told me that one of her patients had been punched from behind and fell to the ground. That was it. I didn’t want to be in NY anymore.

Covid-19 has been rough for everyone. NY has taken a massive hit. On May 21st, the Independent Newspaper reported that NY Mayor, Bill De Blasio had released 2,000 criminals from Rikers Island (one of New York’s most notorious prisons) so that the virus wouldn’t spread inside and he put them up in hotels all over Manhattan. There are now sex offenders and hardcore criminals on the streets.

When I read about the prison releases, I couldn’t quite fathom that it was real. How can a mayor make such a decision and put law abiding, tax paying citizens at risk? These people have to walk the streets with their children and witness people defecating and participating in sex acts in broad daylight.

There is a Facebook group called ‘Upper West Siders for Safer Streets’. It has 15,000 members and there are constant posts of horrors that people have witnessed or been involved in. People are desperate for relief. It’s been reported that in the wealthiest neighbourhoods, 40% of residents have left.  Who’s going to pay the taxes? Governor Andrew Cuomo has begged its wealthy residents to come back. But why would they?

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, out of the $6 billion operating police budget, DeBlasio deducted $1 billion in line with the “defund the police” policy. I understand that due to recent abhorrent events, many seem to be all for this, but it causes an enormous problem. If you let criminals out of prison early and there are no police around, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what will happen. How can you have no police to keep law and order? The policy has led to chaos.

I’m well aware that not everyone has had such issues in the city and I’m happy and relieved for them. I can only speak from my little 5ft lady experience and say how I feel.

In the decade I’ve been in NY, I’ve never felt unsafe and I’ve walked everywhere, any time of day until now. One of the many joys of NY is walking. Taking in the sights and sounds.

I don’t want to have a pepper spray in my hand, let alone use it on a mentally ill person. No thank you.

Until a couple of months ago, I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in the States. How quickly things change.

I want to add that I feel lucky to have only been spat on. It could have been so much worse but, feeling lucky to be spat on seems really sad.

I adore NY. It’s magical. I fought so hard to get a visa and stay there but the sparkle has gone for me. It’s Manhattan and it will shine again, but for now it’s not my place.

Watch Karen Bishko’s video for ‘My Name is Karen’ below.

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Karen Bishko

Karen Bishko is a British singer-songwriter living in New York City. In 2007 she supported Take That at the O2 and MEN Arenas. She has since moved into the world of Musical Theatre. Her musical ‘Single' will be playing at the New Wolsey Theatre in the UK in 2021 and she is working on a new version of the much loved 'Menopause The Musical’, also set for launch in 2021.

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