The headache finally faded from lower Manhattan on Tuesday as delegates from the UN General Assembly (UNGA), an annual conference featuring major world leaders and their massive entourages, prepared to pack up and leave town. A week of massive traffic disruptions, severe security measures, and thousands of foreign nationals crowding through the city left many New Yorkers exhausted and relieved that it was finally over.
One wonders whether the entire circus could have been avoided if the UN headquarters were located in a less chaotic environment. The argument typically proceeds that hosting an organization whose primary objectives are peacekeeping, poverty relief, and social and economic development in one of the world’s densest, most expensive cities is ill-guided. Forbes even called it a pain in the butt. The New York location, however, both serves U.S. national interests and those of the city of New York.
Security is one of the highest concerns for the UNGA planners each year. The NYPD, in coordination with the secret service and the State Department, takes the brunt of the impact, having to coordinate virtually every aspect of security for the delegates outside the international zone. This year the NYPD was responsible for directing the safety of over 130 heads of state and coordinating 220 separate motorcades. These measures do not come cheap; Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly estimated the yearly costs of the UNGA as between $5-$7 million, noting that the NYPD provides 191 dignitaries with personal security details.
Extra officers on the streets provide additional surveillance manpower. More restrictive measures include fortified motorcades and road control. For a full week, large swaths of the already congested midtown Manhattan are subject to random closures and redirects by the NYPD, turning the daily commute into a nightmare and locking down much of the East Side to civilian traffic. Other security measures are less conspicuous; for example, police divers combed the East River for submerged explosive devices surrounding the UN perimeter. In some cases, entire blocks of buildings are frozen, preventing citizens from entering or leaving their apartments. Traffic slows to 8 mph throughout Manhattan– one taxi driver fumed that the UNGA meant plummeting fares in stalled traffic while UN guests leisurely enjoyed the city’s finest amenities.
Despite all the frustration, it continues to be worth hosting the UN at New York. All the economic disruption is, thankfully, offset by the amount of money the UNGA brings to New York business. The delegations often engage in lavish and, in some cases, disturbing spending sprees at New York’s most posh boutiques, restaurants, and hotels. Expensive restaurants in the Turtle Bay neighborhood where the UN is located are often fully booked for world leaders. Luxury items such as designer clothes and electronics are often far cheaper in New York than abroad, so dignitaries and their staff load up on goods while they can.
A potential move is also currently unfeasible. The four main aging headquarters buildings are currently undergoing major renovations which originally were budgeted for approximately $950 million, but have spiraled to over $2 billion. Much of the site remains a construction zone. With work well under way, it seems like the UN is locked into continuing centralizing operations at the New York complex, especially since America pays 22% of the renovation costs directly, and plans to expand the UN presence in New York with a second tower in Robert Moses Park are likely to commence despite some community opposition and an estimated cost of nearly $500 million. Moving the UN headquarters to a more convenient location not only seems technically impossible, but could cause confusion and disorganization amongst its thousands of New York staff. It would also waste the money and manpower sunk into the extensive renovations.
Beyond all this, the UN headquarters is central to New York’s status as an international city. Some grumble at the week of delays and security hurdles, but more New Yorkers take pride in hosting the leaders of the world at their biggest convention. Having the UN in Manhattan helps to solidify New York as one of the world’s foremost centers of commerce, politics, and culture. And while many of us wish our country engaged with its peers in the UN in different ways, hosting the organization here has intangible but undoubted benefits to American leaders who can set the UN agenda on their own turf.
If America wishes to keep its leading role in international politics, the New York UN headquarters is crucial to maintaining it — even if we have to deal with the inevitable circus of the Assembly bursting through New York every year. It’s a small price to pay.
Photo Credit: st501351