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NYC companies hesitate on in-person work because of attacks on public transit


New York City's economy depends on workers returning to their offices, but that hasn't been easy. And if the city didn't have enough challenges, there is now a perception that New York is less safe. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: First, it was the COVID variants that upended companies' plans to bring employees back. Now it's the headlines.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Police say a 40-year-old Asian woman was pushed to her death in front of an incoming southbound R train.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A routine subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan was 48-year-old Daniel Enriquez's final ride. Shot dead by a fellow...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Gas mask and reflective vest opened two smoke canisters on an N train and fired nearly three dozen shots.

GURA: In a city where an estimated 80% of office workers rely on public transportation, those attacks on commuters struck a nerve, even though crime is nowhere near historic highs. According to the New York Police Department, murders and shootings are down year to date, although felony assaults are up about 20%. But a string of alarming attacks and coverage of them is fueling this perception public safety is an issue. That's not lost on Mayor Eric Adams, who spoke to reporters after Michelle Go was killed. She was the woman pushed in front of a train at the Times Square station.


ERIC ADAMS: To lose a New Yorker in this fashion would only continue to elevate the fears of individuals not using our subway system.

GURA: Go's death sent shockwaves through the city, especially through the Asian American community and the financial services industry. She was a consultant for Deloitte. The victim of another attack worked for Goldman Sachs. And the CEOs of those two companies confronted Mayor Adams at meetings Kathy Wylde helped organize. She runs a business group called the Partnership for New York City.

KATHY WYLDE: The executives came out very strong, saying, we can't in conscience bring our people back to work, encourage them to ride the subways unless we see tangible evidence that you're doing something about this.

GURA: Now, it's not just Wall Street that's worried. About half of respondents to a recent Quinnipiac poll said crime is the most urgent issue facing New York City today. But banking and finance make up a significant part of the city's economy, and its CEOs have been especially vocal about the need for workers to come back.

DAVID SOLOMON: We have to have a safe environment for people.

GURA: That's David Solomon, the head of Goldman Sachs, who says strong economic growth requires vibrant cities. And to have vibrant cities, people have to feel safe. Solomon is a lifelong New Yorker who remembers what the city felt like when crime was high in the 1970s and '80s. He acknowledges it's made a comeback since then, but he says right now it feels different from when his kids grew up in New York.

SOLOMON: You know, it depends on your lens. The city is certainly less safe. I would say it's a little grittier and a little dirtier.

GURA: And, as Solomon notes, other cities are also dealing with this. Of course, not everyone feels New York has become less safe. Fueling this perception is the city seems less crowded. Subway ridership is still about half of what it was before the pandemic. Sean Woodroffe is the head of human resources at the financial services firm TIAA. While he's heard from workers who are worried about safety, Woodroffe points out there haven't been more incidents involving his employees.

SEAN WOODROFFE: I think there's this perception that New York City is like the wild, Wild West. And I'm not sure that the actual crime statistics supports the perception.

GURA: But that perception is there, especially among young people who worry that if they don't come back to the office, they'll miss out on mentoring and career opportunities. Kathy Wylde of the Partnership for New York City says they're dealing with something that's new to them.

WYLDE: A whole generation of New Yorkers never gave a thought to their personal safety and security because we were the safest big city in America, perhaps the world.

GURA: Like other CEOs, Wylde is worried about the future, that New York City will lose some of its appeal if it continues to be seen as a place that isn't as safe as it once was.

David Gura, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.