The very first murder in Central Park occurred in 1870, the year its construction
was completed. A crowd of Protestant Irish Orangemen shot and stabbed William
Kane as he walked home from work. They mistakenly believed that he was one of
a group of Irish Catholics who had attacked them earlier.
murder was the first of the homicides whose inherent brutality seemed incalculably
worsened by their senselessness -- and their location in the Eden of Central
Park. In fact, journalists since the 1930s have used incidents in Central Park
as powerful symbols for urban crime in general.
The truth is, though, that, like the city itself, the park has been safe for
most of its history -- until the "rogue crime wave," to use historian
Eric Monkkonen's words,
that engulfed New York between 1958 and 1991 and found Central Park to be a
particularly tractable host.
And the first chapter in New York City's much heralded, triumphant campaign against
that crime wave began in Central Park in 1980. Years before Rudy Giuliani was
elected mayor or Bill Bratton appointed police commissioner, the team of officials
overseeing Central Park devised a strategy for making Central Park safe again.
In 1965, Robert Lowell published his poem "Central
which displayed the 1960s' odd
combination of fear of violent crime and contempt for cops:
"We beg delinquents for our life.
Behind each bush, perhaps a knife;
each landscaped crag, each flowering
hides a policeman with a club."
The design elements that helped make the park a refuge from the city -- secluded
woodlands, hidden coves, paths that curve and dip from sight, Lowell's flowering shrubs -- also made the
park hard to protect or patrol. Central Park's fame and beauty made it a prized
site for concerts, protests, marches, rallies and celebrations. But the huge
crowds also attracted crime.
These two factors, combined with public and police tolerance of so-called petty
crime during the 1960s and 1970s, led to a wave of muggings and vandalism in
the park that New Yorkers noticed -- and feared. Faced with public concern, park
officials during the Wagner administration mowed down shrubs and removed trees
from areas where muggers were thought to lurk.
And more draconian proposals were also put forward. Wagner's parks commissioner,
Robert Moses, suggested building a senior center in the wooded Ramble in order
to halt both gay sexual encounters and violent assaults on gay men.
The idea of the park as sanctuary faded as crime soared. In the 1960s and 1970s,
felonies in the park surely averaged at least 800 to 900 a year; we cannot know
for sure because it was so difficult for victims to report crime. The park had
almost no functioning call boxes or public phones. Reaching the police precinct
house in the park by foot was nearly impossible from many sections, even the
adjacent Great Lawn. And those intrepid victims who managed to make it to the
precinct house were often discouraged from filing criminal complaints.
WAS CENTRAL PARK EVER THAT DANGEROUS?
Many commentators today note that, for some time, the Central Park precinct
has had the lowest crime figures in the city. Last year, for example, Central
had only one of the city's 584 murders, and only 5 of the city's 2,024 rapes.
Indeed, for all of 2002, Central
Park (PDF Format)
had only 132 major crimes -- a 72 percent decrease from 1993. The city
as a whole had 153,682 major crimes in 2002 -- or a 64 percent decrease
But comparing Central Park to other precincts isn't really fair. It not only
has no resident population, making the calculation of crime rates impossible,
it is closed at night, while all other precincts remain open for business, and crime.
Central Park's crime numbers are very low, which is wonderful. But in important
ways, the problem never was simply the numbers of major crimes. Instead, Central
Park has been plagued by three distinct crime problems.
First, it has always attracted heinous crimes that became highly publicized and
discussed because of Central Park's symbolic importance, and its location in the middle of New York City, the nation's media capital. The three national television networks, for example, were headquartered within walking distance of the park. Their broadcasts, as well as Johnny Carson's regular nightly attacks, probably exaggerated the extent of Central Park's crime. But there is also no doubt
that crime in the park was a real problem.
Second, public events such as concerts or parades have often resulted in rampages
by young men. The low point of the park's early restoration occurred on July
21, 1983 -- exactly 20 years ago -- when, following a poorly organized concert by Diana Ross, hundreds
of young men tore through the park and its neighboring blocks, assaulting anyone
they encountered. A family that had just flown in from Paris for vacation told
the New York Post that they had been assaulted and robbed by a gang of 20 teenagers.
When, bleeding and bruised, they asked a cop for help, he told them, "That's
life in the big city," and walked away.
Warner LeRoy, the owner of the Tavern on the Green, said that dozens of teenagers
climbed onto the restaurant's roof and leapt down to the interior patio, where
patrons were eating. They jumped on tables, stabbed diners, and stole purses
and bags, before swarming back over the patio walls. Known as "the night
Central Park got mugged," July 21 resulted in very few arrests -- or
The third kind of troubling Central Park crime is the vast area of relatively
minor crime, such as purse snatchings and bike thefts (before bikes cost
thousands of dollars). A poll in 1983 found that over 65 percent of regular park
users had experienced some "encounter" with crime in the park. Less
than 5 percent said they had reported the incidents, assuming the cops would
just dismiss them anyway. And seven percent of regular users said that they
carried a weapon in Central Park.
MAKING CENTRAL PARK SAFE AGAIN
The team that began Central Park's rescue in 1980 included Parks Commissioner
Gordon Davis, Central Park administrator Elizabeth Barlow (Rogers) and the
captain of the Central Park Precinct, Carl Jonasch. They saw the safety of
users, and of the park’s physical plant, as essential to the
They were practical people. No amount of restoration was going to work if the
park was dangerous. Donors would not give millions of dollars to restore park
treasures that were just going to be vandalized all over again. Nor would donors
be enthusiastic if they and their fellow New Yorkers were afraid to enter the
park to see the fruits of their gifts. The park had to be revived as the haven
that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had envisioned in the 19th century.
The team faced many impediments, an ominous one being that the Central Park
precinct itself was a sorry mess. Housed in a badly maintained converted stable
of urine on humid days, Central Park cops were often a demoralized, tired lot.
Ambitious cops avoided being assigned to Central Park, which offered few chances
for career-making arrests. Instead, the precinct attracted many who were eager
to pass their final years before retirement peaceably. When they had to patrol,
they stuck to their cars. There was not much pressure to get out of the cars
since the 911 system, implemented in 1972, had centralized dispatch, removing
it from the precinct.
Jonasch set out to change things. He was an athlete and one of the first cops
to run in the park. He wanted cops to know the park as users rather than as
drivers, a revolutionary idea. And he wanted the cops to get out of their cars and patrol on foot or scooters. He met with serious resistance.
But at the same time, Commissioner Davis started the ranger program, creating
a uniformed force that would patrol the park and educate park users, concentrating
on the quality-of-life issues that cops deemed beneath them. In 1982, Davis
added Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers, who could issue summonses for
of park rules. Both the rangers and PEP officers visibly patrolled restored
sections of the park, enforcing high and previously unknown standards of behavior,
as no ball-playing on Sheep Meadow.
But the conceptual breakthrough in making Central Park safer was the now-familiar
but then brand-new broken-windows theory of policing. Harvard professor James
Q. Wilson said that cops underestimated the seriousness of disorder, whether
the physical disorder apparent in vandalism, graffiti and neglect or the disorder
of people behaving badly. The police had to take small signs of disorder seriously
and deal with them. That could mean handling small-time offenders, confronting
physical disorder or some combination of both. Police could not dismiss disorder
as "petty" because petty had a way of growing serious.
Just after the March 1982 publication of his Atlantic
Monthly article propounding this idea,
Wilson gave a lecture to New York police brass about implementing his theory of
policing. Jonasch argued this new approach would be ideal for Central Park.
Crime was still high in 1982, over 700 robberies and 9 murders, when
Captain Jonasch set the new strategy for the park. Even as the park seemed
to get safer every year, however, horrible crimes punctured its serenity.
In May 1985, gangs of teenagers attacked participants in a March of Dimes
Walkathon. NYPD Captain Ray Vignola called them "jackals on the velt." In July
1986, Officer Steven McDonald was shot, and paralyzed, when he
stopped a group of teenagers on the East Drive In April 1989, the Central Park
Jogger (now known to be Trisha Meili) was beaten, raped and left for dead. On the same night, dozens of youths
rampaged through the park, assaulting and robbing park users.
Since then Central Park has reflected the overall drop in crime in the city,
although crime has not disappeared entirely. The park was, for example, the
scene of attacks on women following the Puerto Rican day parade in June 2000.
from Central Park are pretty clear. It is now probably the safest and the
most beautifully restored of the world's great parks. But only constant
vigilance will keep it that way.
Julia Vitullo-Martin, who writes Gotham Gazette’s topic page on crime,
is a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, and the co-author of a study on Central Park security conducted for the Central Park Conservancy in the early 1980's.
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.