In the middle of the city that never sleeps, it’s strangely quiet. And except for the light of a full moon, it’s also completely dark. But that silence and uncommon darkness do not dissuade the Guardian Angels from patrolling New York’s Central Park.
They do it because they believe in their mission. Walking in formation through the back paths and untrod areas of the park at night might seem a little crazy, but the Angels have begun patrols again to help protect the people of this huge, hectic metropolis. Walking through the park with them makes one feel a sense of power. Accompanied by Guardian Angels Founder and President Curtis Sliwa, who pauses to make conversation with the denizens of the dark, you realize that while it may be a little odd to walk around in the dark, the Angels are certainly dedicated to this city.
The Angels patrol the park every night beginning at 7 p.m. They meet at Columbus Circle each evening — where I met them to tag along last week — and enter the park at dark. Sliwa tries to make every patrol, but sometimes is unable; in that event, he designates a trusted member to lead.
“Central Park is the jewel of the city, and we need to keep it that way,” Sliwa said.
Once thought of as a kook and the head of a trouble-making group, by his dedication to keeping New York safe, Sliwa has become synonymous with the city he helps to protect.
“Now you see him, and he’s iconic with New York,” Guardian Angel Jose Gonzalez told me as we patrolled.
With Sliwa calling out New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for not addressing concerns raised by the Guardian Angels that crime in the park is on the rise and media coverage of the group resuming patrols, on this particular evening, there was clearly an increased police presence at the park’s Columbus Circle entrance.
But inside Central Park was a different story: Unlit paths, no police and numbers of people in the dark greet visitors after sunset. And safety inside is on the decline, Gonzalez said. Of crime in the park, “It’s slowly coming back — just look at the crime statistical numbers,” he added.
While on patrol, Sliwa gives his fellow Angels tips and instructions. He nimbly climbs up the rocky hills off main paths and silently surveys the valleys below to gauge any scenarios developing nearby.
Walking through The Ramble — an area roughly adjacent to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and made infamous for men cruising to hookup — Sliwa pauses atop one of the park’s natural rock formations to inspect the area below. After about five minutes, he moves the group along and cautions that while so much has in New York has changed, there is still danger and crime.
Sliwa is concerned that today people think everyplace is safe. He believes areas like The Ramble still host vulnerable people who criminals are looking to take advantage of. He has raised this concern with de Blasio’s office, but feels not enough is being done.
“Every time I have conversations with the police and the Central Park Conservancy, they say no one goes there,” Sliwa said. “There used to be [plainclothes detectives] DT’s on bikes, now none.” According to its website, the Central Park Conservancy, “a private, not-for-profit organization, was formed in 1980 by a group of concerned citizens determined to improve Central Park. Today, we manage Central Park under a contract with the City of New York.” It also raises 75 percent of the park’s annual budget and is responsible for keeping it beautiful.
“Now I got an 11-year-old son, it gives me more the opportunity to show him the right path. It’s about teaching about the importance of the world of we and not the world of me.”
Guardian Angels member Jose Gonzalez
And it’s not just the more everyday-type craziness that the Guardian Angels are concerned about. They told me about a man who takes baths in the fountains, but more troubling is the story of unprovoked violence that confronted members a few weeks ago.
Gonzalez, nicknamed “Crazy J,” approached someone smoking what could have been marijuana or synthetic pot right outside of the park about a month ago and, without warning, was then assaulted. Besides how incredibly thoughtless it was to smoke there, Gonzalez was treated to a punch in the face after the man became irate about being approached. He was held by the Angels after the incident and later arrested, but the anecdote tells of how unpredictable people can be — and how quickly violence can erupt from a seemingly innocuous situation.
This is a small part of what Sliwa means when he worries the city is slipping. The Guardian Angels do these missions to provide extra safety and security in a crazy city, and passersby seem to have welcomed the group’s return. Most younger people probably don’t know of the Angels role in patrolling what was once a crime-filled and dangerous city. When older residents walked by during my time with the group last week, many stopped to comment that they were glad, if not surprised, the group had returned.
And anyone 16 and older can join the Guardian Angels. Along with the patrols, members are expected to contribute at least four hours a week to be eligible for free martial arts training, first aid courses and CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams).
That’s what first got Gonzalez interested in the group 21 years ago, he said. But as he’s grown up with the Guardian Angels, volunteerism has become a big part of his life and keeps him going. He now brings his son on patrols and believes it sets a good example for him to follow.
“Now I got an 11-year-old son, it gives me more the opportunity to show him the right path,” he said. “It’s about teaching about the importance of the world of we and not the world of me.”
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.