On Guard on 47th Street

If you go to 47th Street in New York these days, you’ll notice a lot that’s different. It used to be that simple IDs got you into a building, but now they often have to be backed up by phone calls that vouch for visitors. More buildings require you to walk through metal detectors. And if that doesn’t remind you enough of an airport, 580 Fifth Ave. even has its own baggage inspection machine. Before Sept. 11, 2001, 47th Street had tight security, to discourage theft. But concerns about terrorism have left everyone on even higher alert.

“The city has told us that if we see anything suspicious—even a UPS truck that doesn’t seem like it has its normal driver—to call them up and not hesitate,” says Michael Toback, president of Myron Toback and a board member of the 47th Street Business Improvement District. “The supers, the guards, the tenants—everyone is just very aware.”

Sensitivity training. Needless to say, a possible attack on 47th Street is a topic of considerable sensitivity, and some local institutions—like the Diamond Dealers Club—declined to talk with JCK. But before anyone gets alarmed, there is no reason to believe that terrorists have ever had serious plans for an attack on 47th Street. “From what we’ve heard, the police department hasn’t received any credible threats related to the Diamond District,” says Terrence Clark, executive director of the 47th Street Business Improvement District.

Still, in this era of “orange alerts,” no one can dismiss the subject entirely. And the fears are not totally unfounded. While 47th Street is not an American icon like the Statue of Liberty, or a leading component of the U.S. economy like the New York Stock Exchange, the visible Jewish presence on the street has caused concern. The people who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 briefly talked on tape of an attack on 47th Street, describing it as “Israel in the heart of Manhattan.” And according to a recent Newsweek article, files found on terrorist computers indicate that operatives scouted “Jewish targets”—including the Diamond District.

New York City, certainly, is not taking any chances: It has increased its uniformed and undercover police presence on 47th Street, as it has throughout the city. Local building owners have tightened things up as well.

Carl Klein, manager of 580 Fifth Avenue, the home of two 47th Street institutions, the Gemological Institute of America and the Diamond Dealers Club, says his building has already spent “a fortune” on security, and he thinks there is still more to be done. He would like to see cameras on the street that would beam images to a central command, and the street closed to vehicle traffic (a longtime, but probably unattainable, goal).

Making it tougher. Of course, terrorism is a concern for all world diamond centers—not just New York. The Israeli complex in Ramat-Gan tightly monitors whoever enters and exits. Antwerp, where in 1981 a bomb killed three people, has always had a visible police presence and recently beefed up security after a local Muslim leader said a terrorist attack was “unavoidable” given the Antwerp diamond sector’s ties to Israel. (The Diamond High Council has since pressed charges.)

So far, however, most 47th Street residents are going about their lives and coping with the new requirements.

“People generally feel secure,” Toback says. “After Sept. 11, the world changed and people are a little more tolerant of these things.”

All the extra security also has had the welcome side effect of lowering overall crime on 47th Street. “Forty-seventh Street is actually one of the safest blocks in New York right now,” Toback says.

Still, given the threats that remain, no one is resting easy.

“It’s one thing when you are in the war, you know who the targets are,” says Klein. “Here you don’t know. …What we want is for [the terrorists] to say, ‘It’s too difficult to do it here, so we’ll go elsewhere.’ That’s just about all you can do.”