Normal life set to return as UN meeting nears end

AP News
Posted: Sep 27, 2011 1:11 PM
Normal life set to return as UN meeting nears end

The delegations leave town Tuesday evening, and while many New Yorkers appreciate the business the United Nations General Assembly brings each autumn, few will miss the traffic and the sirens and the motorcades and the black 4x4s bristling with single-minded security types.

The gridlock can be excruciating, most of Manhattan's East Side seems off limits, hotel rooms are hard to find (and more expensive than usual, which is saying something).

Then there's the annual anti-Semitic rant offered by Iran's president, an event not usually well-received in a city with a substantial Jewish population.

New Yorkers love to complain, and some people complain about the U.N. General Assembly _ loudly, in fact _ but really it's a love-hate relationship, with the many people who house and feed the delegates perfectly thrilled to have so many high-powered guests in the city looking for something to do at night after listening to speeches all day long.

Consider the crowd: presidents, prime ministers and sheiks from all over the world, with a few royals thrown in. Anyone who wants to stay for the baseball playoffs that begin Friday night can probably afford those special seats at Yankee Stadium, the ones where waiters bring you gourmet food, or hot dogs if you prefer.

"These people have a lot of buying power," said Wanda Chan, general manager of the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel. "It's not just good for hotels, it's good for restaurants and conference centers, it's good for everyone. It's great for New York _ we're very lucky to have the U.N."

Good for everyone? Don't ask a taxi driver.

The event, which draws 193 delegations to the aging U.N. headquarters on the East River, is tough on people who drive cabs for a living. New York's taxi drivers _ their diverse nationalities reflecting an informal United Nations _ depend on being able to get around the city quickly to generate multiple fares.

That doesn't happen when the General Assembly is in town, said Abdul Jalil, who saw his typical $170-a-day income plummet.

"They close everything down so we can hardly move," he said. "You go four blocks and then the passenger jumps out. They go three or four blocks in 20 minutes and then they give up. They can walk faster. My advice to the General Assembly is this: get out of my city. They should put the U.N. in the desert."

Jalil, 55, said his gasoline costs remain high _ while revenues dry up _ because he spends so much time burning up fuel while idling in traffic. He has come to resent the whole affair, which sees a number of big time diplomats enjoying the best New York has to offer while he sits and steams.

"They just come here and blah blah blah and stay in the nice hotels and eat in the nice restaurants and that's it," he said.

Taxi drivers may be frustrated, but many others take a far more benevolent view. The delegates are seen as bumping up New York nightlife at a time when the economy is sluggish. Theaters, high-end boutiques and even souvenir shops get a boost _ so do stores selling items like genuine Levi's jeans, which are much less expensive in New York than, for example, in Europe or Africa.

The General Assembly also spawns what can become profitable meetings between top economic advisers to heads of state and New York businesses, said Helana Natt, executive director of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce.

"Because their key economic people are in town, they call us to set up meetings and introduce themselves," she said. "It might be the Bangladeshis wanting to meet with people about energy and investment banking for Bangladesh. And they want to bring Bangladeshi businesses into New York. It leads to future trade missions."

She said these long-term benefits are in addition to the obvious increase in demand for restaurants, limousines, and security personnel.

The General Assembly is a godsend for eateries in the area despite the heavy security that sometimes shuts even foot traffic, said Dawn Hussey, manager of Keats Restaurant on Second Avenue.

"You're packed for lunch and dinner five or six days without fail," she said. "You can't beat that. And it's a great buzz. We see lots of faces that only come once a year. And they do take care of us. It's a bit of a hassle but it's worth it."

At the Grand Hyatt hotel several blocks away, general manager Mark Pardue said the U.N. General Assembly brings some inconvenience but offers the city's economy a reliable lift each September after the generally slow summer season. He said it compares well to other big draws like the U.S. Open tennis championships, the New York City Marathon, and the first two weeks of December, the peak Christmas shopping season.

"It's right up there," he said. "We had five delegations staying here. They are here primarily for the business aspect, but they extend beyond the UNGA and take in the sights and sounds, the theater and the shopping."

Hosting world leaders poses some challenges, he said, including the case of a president who stayed several years ago and wanted his food prepared in his suite, not the hotel kitchen. It wasn't because of religious or security concerns, simply a case of a guest who wanted his food to taste a certain way and was accustomed to getting what he wanted.

"He wanted his homeland cuisine, so we made arrangements," Pardue said.