With UN General Assembly starting, NYC makes room for world leaders and their security

By Karen Matthews, AP
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gridlock? Men with earpieces? Must be the UN

NEW YORK — Restaurants are clearing space for world leaders and their entourages, the Waldorf-Astoria is fluffing the pillows in the presidential suite and people who live on Manhattan’s East Side are just hoping to get into their buildings without a police escort.

Representatives from 192 countries will be in town in the upcoming week for a United Nations anti-poverty summit and the opening of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting. For New Yorkers that will mean gridlocked traffic and a chance to spot the leader of Bhutan or Andorra at a local eatery.

Antonio and Mario Cerra, the father-and-son owners of a U.N.-area Italian steakhouse called Padre Figlio, were busy last week booking tables for countries such as East Timor. The Asian nation won independence from Indonesia in 2002 and has a population of about 1 million. It has a reservation for 35 at Padre Figlio, which in the past has hosted events for Nigeria and Grenada.

Antonio Cerra said the diplomats will eat hearty Italian food with luxurious touches like black truffles, now in season.

“They know not to ask for Russian food,” he said. “They know not to ask for kosher. They get pasta, seafood, steak, boom.”

Cerra said high-level delegations typically take a private room with their security details occupying one or more tables at the periphery — not drinking wine. “Soda, water, juice,” he said.

World leaders not in the mood for Italian food have other options.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama ate at the well-regarded Swedish restaurant Aquavit during last year’s General Assembly, owner Hakan Swahn said.

Swahn said fellow diners always crane their necks when a prime minister arrives surrounded by men with earpieces. “It’s a bit of a production,” he said.

David Pogrebin, the general manager of the French restaurant Brasserie, said his entire restaurant was booked during the 2009 General Assembly for a luncheon with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“The black cars were literally triple-parked,” Pogrebin said. “They don’t carpool.”

The world leaders begin gathering Monday for the three-day Millennium Development Goals Summit, which will review efforts to implement anti-poverty goals adopted at a summit in 2000. These include cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education, halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and cutting child and maternal mortality — all by 2015.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the anti-poverty summit on Wednesday, and then address the opening session of the General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting on Thursday, his second appearance before the world body.

World leaders in town for the General Assembly stay at East Side hotels including the Millennium Plaza, the InterContinental and the Waldorf-Astoria.

Because every American president stays at the Waldorf-Astoria, it serves as an unofficial U.N. annex. A look at Obama’s schedule during the 2009 General Assembly shows that in one day he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (twice) and presided over a luncheon for African leaders — all at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Matt Zolby, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, was tight-lipped about the habits and preferences of Obama or any current government leader. He offered the tidbit that President Ronald Reagan was “kind of a foodie” in his day and gave detailed instructions about each course when he hosted other world leaders.

Many New Yorkers consider the General Assembly a giant headache. A city Department of Transportation study this year confirmed the obvious: Manhattan traffic slows to a crawl during the General Assembly, with average daytime car speeds around 8 mph. And residents of the Turtle Bay neighborhood where the U.N. is situated sometimes can’t get into their buildings because police have blocked off the street to safeguard a dignitary.

Brenda Levin said her block was frozen last year when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was at the Libyan Mission during the General Assembly.

“I couldn’t get to my apartment,” said Levin, who prefaced her comments by saying that she loves having the United Nations in New York.

Levin said she told a police officer that she had to get to her apartment to take her medication.

“He said, ‘You don’t mean that. It’s not true, is it?’” Levin said. “And I said yes, it was.”

The police eventually escorted Levin to her building; she hopes things will go more smoothly this year.

Bruce Silberblatt, who heads the Turtle Bay Association, a volunteer neighborhood organization, predicted that the General Assembly will be “a mess as always.”

“It’s noisy,” he said. “Everybody insists on being carried around in an escort with police sirens. Needless to say we can’t park.”

But Charles Sitch, sunning himself on a bench at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across the street from the U.N. complex, said he didn’t mind the inconvenience to his neighborhood.

“It’s what New York is,” Sitch said. “All these people from all over the world come to our little nabe. So there’s traffic. Big deal.”

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