Angels have unexpectedly returned to New York’s Central Park.
The bad, old days of out-of-control crime are not likely to repeat, but one feature from that dark and dangerous period is back: The Guardian Angels have resumed patrols.
Depending on who is telling the city’s success story — an improved economy, increased police presence and the receding crack epidemic all played the most prominent role in creating what is now — perhaps the nation’s model modern metropolis. But as activists like Guardian Angels Founder and President Curtis Sliwa reflect on the hard-won gains that took back once poverty-stricken and abandoned areas of the city, there is concern that crime is on the rise again.
“[Central Park] is the crown jewel of New York City, and it’s always been my perception that if you let things slip in Central Park and if the police no longer rule the night, then there’s a good chance you are going to start losing other parts of the city and relinquish control,” Sliwa told TheBlot Magazine. “That sends out a very bad message.”
The patrols of the red-cloth clad clan, which were once a prominent feature during some of the worst crime years in the city, began again about two weeks ago. Sliwa said the Guardian Angels decided to resume the nightly volunteer watch after he was approached by parkgoers.
“If nothing else, I said, ‘We have to embarrass the police.’ If you’re not going to patrol those areas [of Central Park], you are giving those parts back to the thugs.”
Guardian Angels Founder and President Curtis Sliwa
“About a month ago, I started getting some calls from users of the park who were taken aback by the number of mentally ill homeless people that had sort of moved into the park, and they were also reporting some harassing activity by teenagers, both of the homeless and the mentally ill,” he said. “They’ve all collectively mentioned that they’ve seen the quality begin to slip in the park. That a lot of people are taking advantage.”
Since then, the Angels have met nightly at Columbus Circle to patrol the untrod areas of the park. They split into groups, with one headed to the east side of the park and another that proceeds up Central Park West. The reports from citizens and Sliwa’s observations prompted the patrols to resume because the police presence in areas where vehicles cannot access has decreased significantly.
“If nothing else, I said, ‘We have to embarrass the police.’ If you’re not going to patrol those areas, you are giving those parts back to the thugs,” he said. “When you went into the inner part of the park that doesn’t have the lights at night — the part that has no cameras — the park that used to be patrolled by undercover detectives from the Central Park Precinct and sometimes uniformed cops on mountain bikes, that wasn’t happening anymore,” he added.
The Guardian Angels vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio
Maybe because the Angels’ presence is such an glaring reminder of the city’s crime-filled past, not everyone, including Mayor Bill de Blasio is beaming about them being back. “The mayor’s office has taken an adversarial approach,” Sliwa said. “[Police Commissioner Bill] Bratton hasn’t said anything, but the de Blasio administration lives to criticize our presence in the park, which is a major mistake.”
In a statement to TheBlot, de Blasio’s Deputy Press Secretary Monica Klein downplayed the need for increased vigilance and claimed safety in the park has not declined. In an e-mail, she said that major crime dropped 4.5 percent citywide in 2014. “Major crime in Central Park is down nearly 25 percent compared to five years ago and down 80 percent since 1994,” she said.
“Major crime in NYC’s largest parks fell 11.1 percent in Mayor de Blasio’s first year — the first year since 2011 in which park crime dropped,” she added. “The chance of being a victim of a crime in Central Park is roughly one in 350,000, reflecting the NYPD’s success in keeping this park safe for its visitors. Over the past five years, crime in Central Park has fallen sharply, and our police officers continue to vigilantly patrol parks across the five boroughs to ensure all New Yorkers can safely enjoy our city’s green spaces.”
But Sliwa is not convinced. On recent patrols, which run from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., he observed two men in a vicious fistfight and also saw a group of young men, whom he identified as belonging to the Crips gang, throwing rocks at people and looking for potential robbery targets.
“If they felt the victims were vulnerable enough, they would rob them,” Sliwa said. “When we came across them while they were throwing rocks, they hadn’t hit anybody, so we just told them they’d have to leave the park.”
Partly supporting Sliwa’s belief that crime is on the rise, Klein did point out that there have been 62 major crimes reported in Central Park in 2015. As of Aug. 16, that is 13 more than in 2014.
Sliwa faults the police for not aggressively patrolling the back areas of the park, but he believes cops are taking their cues from the mayor. He thinks de Blasio has adopted a too laid-back approach to combatting crime.
“Having seen them before in the park and not seeing those areas patrolled now, they would much rather bust their shoes and pound doughnuts in the car than walk up those hills, walk those footpaths and really aggressively patrol,” Sliwa said. “I haven’t come across that at all in those areas. Not one cop.”
According to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, 62 major crimes have been reported in Central Park in 2015.
As of Aug. 16, that is 13 more than in 2014.
But Sliwa saved his harshest criticisms for the mayor himself, whom he believes lives in another world and is blind to the problems because he has “window shades on his eyes and cotton balls in his ears.”
Mayor de Blasio has claimed that the crime stats don’t reflect the danger Sliwa is describing.
“The mayor’s attitude is ‘We don’t need [the Guardian Angels]. Our police are doing a great job,'” Sliwa said. “That’s not a very good signal to either the Guardian Angels or to any other citizens who are either part of block watch or a crime watch.”
To open de Blasio’s eyes, Sliwa would like the mayor to join a patrol and see firsthand what conditions in the park are like. That is, if the mayor would be willing to join him.
“As I’ve said to the mayor’s staff, because he’s unapproachable and wakes up too late for me — I’m almost halfway through my day— he cuts out early and has an early night,” Sliwa said. “I’d be more than happy to bring him into the park for an hour or two and show him these places that would definitely shock him.”
And if Sliwa actually got de Blasio to join the Guardian Angels on a patrol?
“Then [I’d] say, ‘Mr. Mayor, these are the areas that you need to really focus on because people are starting to get a feel that things are getting a little out of control in the park, and we need to preemptively make sure that doesn’t happen.’”
Hopefully, the bad, old days of New York never return. But Mayor de Blasio taking Sliwa up on his tagalong offer would help — even if just for the sake of public perception.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.