NEW YORK – A rampage by gun-slinging youths through New York's Times Square this week underscored a surge in murders and shootings that has some New Yorkers fearing a return to the city's dark past.
The European-style pedestrian zones, bicycle lanes and flower pots of Times Square epitomize Mayor Michael Bloomberg's clean and tourist-friendly Big Apple.
But it was here during the night from Easter to Monday that four people were shot and wounded during a melee involving scores of surging youngsters.
The mayhem -- which Bloomberg described using the dreaded 1980s-era term "wilding" -- highlighted growing fears that crime is coming back to a city that proudly claims to be the safest in America.
With murders up and police numbers down, New Yorkers' feel-good factor is teetering.
"I'm very worried about it," said Cydelle Berlin, a psychologist who works with potentially troubled youths, as she walked through Times Square on Thursday. "It shocks me. These wildings and guns -- it's terrible."
Police statistics show murders jumping 22.5 percent in the first three months of this year, compared to the same period in 2009, with 109 people killed.
Brooklyn led the table with 37 murders in the first 11 weeks, while murders in glitzy Manhattan, home to Wall Street and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, nearly doubled to 16.
Overall shootings -- like the Times Square incident or an apparently random hail of gunfire wounding three people in Brooklyn on Wednesday -- rose 16 percent in the first 11 weeks of the year, compared to 2009.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a local official, warns of sliding back to "the bad old days."
In fact, things are not nearly as dire as they used to be.
The city's nadir, in 1990, saw 2,262 people murdered, according to official statistics, and entire neighborhoods deemed no-go areas.
By contrast, there were just 466 homicides last year, when Bloomberg won election to a third term, a record low.
That extremely low base can make any percentage increase artificially dramatic, says Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.
"We're fighting our own reputation here," he said. "There's an expectation that every year the number (of murders) will go down, because it has, with the exception of one year, since 2002."
He pointed out that 55 crimes were committed daily in the subway in 1990, whereas today there are only five, he said. "This is still the safest big city in the United States."
Browne dismisses what he considers tabloid newspaper "hype."
However, fear of crime is growing and there is general acceptance that a reduction in the police force -- brought on by the recession -- could be dangerous.
The force has been cut to about 34,000, which is more than 5,000 officers less than when Commissioner Raymond Kelly took over in 2002.
As the city fights to balance the books, another 1,000 to 3,000 of "New York's finest" could go by next year, reducing staffing to pre-1990 levels.
"It's a cause for concern," Kelly told a news conference.
Not only is the blue line getting ever thinner, but officers are being stretched further, doubling up between traditional crime fighting and anti-terrorism duty.
"We think it will be hard to preserve public safety at the level we've come to expect for a long time now," said Joseph Mancini, a spokesman for the NYCPBA police union. He called the crime spike "disturbing."
"Our members have done a lot more with less as numbers go down, but there's a tipping point and we're afraid we might be reaching it," he said.
Along bustling Times Square that perception is widely shared.
"It seems to be the way of things lately, whether police or business. The state has severe problems with its budget," said insurance worker Phillip Bray, 56, taking a cigarette break in the sun. "Things are changing."
A street cleaner, working near where one woman was shot in the elbow and another in the thigh early Monday, said New York's violence was "coming up to the surface."
"It's going through the roof," said his friend, a security guard, who also did not want to give his name. "I've always lived in Brooklyn and the Bronx. I gotta move."
© AFP 2013