Neighborhoods

I Walked Through Central Park at Night

"Central Park at night has a deadly reputation, but fear is in fashion. How many people have actually walked through the park at night to find out for themselves what goes on behind the trees?"

by

I Walked Through Central Park at Night

I went over the wall at 59th Street and Columbus Circle and angled northeast through Central Park. It was 9:15 on a warm Saturday night. Harlem was two and a half miles away. If I maintained my usual block-a-minute sidewalk speed, I would exit onto 110th Street in just over an hour. Unless something went wrong. 

I circled a deserted playground and waded through weeds, aiming for the Carousel, which I knew was up ahead in the shadows. So far I had seen no one, but there was probably nothing to worry about in any case. Central Park at night has a deadly reputation, but fear is in fashion. How many people have actually walked through the park at night to find out for themselves what goes on behind the trees? 

I found a paved walkway and followed it in a long curve to the left. There was the Carousel, on the far side of an empty softball field. A string of streetlamps showed the way. Still no one in sight. To my right were outcroppings of rock and shrubbery in heavy shadow, with a whole choir of urban insects warbling away in the darkness. I glanced back through the dry foliage at the illuminated towers of Central Park South. I was leaving the light behind, and as I turned back to the night, my imagination spontaneously generated three muggers and a homici­dal maniac and placed them in the bushes to my right. They were watching me walk along my little lighted path like a shooting-gallery target. 

Now wait a minute. That’s why the people in this town have been abandoning their streets and parks. Fear. Why not imagine somebody nifty in the shadows instead of cooking up an ambush? 

Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because if Doris Day leaps out of the bushes at me, all I’m going to get is a chorus of “Que Sera, Sera.” But if a mugger jumps me, I’m dead. Therefore I imagine the worst, so if it happens I’ll be ready to deal with it. Understand? 

I was almost to the Carousel and almost was close enough. A man suddenly appeared from the shadows and moved toward me on a collision course. I held my ground for a couple of seconds, then my nerve collapsed. Without missing a beat I stepped off the path and scrambled up a hill into the obscurity. A felon in the hand is worth two in the bush. But this shortcut was not in the script. I had planned to stick to walkways and confront anyone who came my way. 

Some plan. You went over the park wall at 59th Street because there were four guys by the entrance who looked as if they ate bottle caps for breakfast. 

If I appeared calm and confident, I would look like “Death Wish” warmed over. Someone walking alone in the park at night must have a good reason for not being afraid, right? Let them worry about me. They don’t know that I’m armed with only a Bic ballpoint. 

Great. And when they pull out their Saturday Night Specials, you can whip out your Bic and describe them to within an inch of their lives. 

At the top of the hill I paused by the Park Drive, just below the chess house. I turned north, but before I could move I heard the unmistakable snick of a switchblade knife snapping open. I sprinted up the road and looked back over my shoulder to catch a traffic-signal control box in the act of changing colors. On cue, a convoy of cars came rushing around the corner and raced past me. I relaxed a little. If I were mugged among the cars, there would be someone to ignore my cries for help. Home again. 

Then I was alone with the crickets and immediately spotted three perpetrators walking south on the other side of the road. As they came abeam, they called across to ask directions. They were young. Two males. One female. I asked them if they weren’t afraid to walk in the park at night. They weren’t. You’re from out of town, I said. They were. Suddenly I was seized by an overwhelming urge to mug them. They waved and walked south. 

I headed north, past a jogger in a yellow sweatshirt and a horse-­drawn cab whose aroma preceded it by 50 yards. My spirits were up again. Look at all those windows over there on Central Park West, filled with people wondering who’s out there in the park. Well, I’m who’s out there tonight, fellow citizens. I crossed the 66th Street transverse road and skirted the eastern edge of the Sheep Meadow. I looked around in the dim light. Except for the memories of too many demonstrations, it was empty. Nine-thirty on a Saturday night and there was no one in sight. 

I walked down the brightly lit Mall to the bandshell. Ranks of loosely arranged benches faced an empty stage. In the front row two men sat smoking a cigarette. I stopped to ask them from the middle distance if they weren’t afraid to be in the park at night. They shook their heads and said that they had come to hear the bands. “What bands?” I asked. 

“Lost Hope and New Horizon,” the first man said, inhaling smoke. “No, man, New Hope and Lost Horizon,” the second man said, exhaling smoke. “But they’re gone now. Everyone’s gone.” 

So was I. Across the 72nd Street transverse and down the first few steps to the Bethesda Fountain, and stop. There was no one in sight except the angel on top of the fountain sculpture. The plaza was deserted. Abandoned to the amber custody of four big sodium lamps, a science-fiction scene the day after the plague arrives from Altheranon IV. In a flash my courage had collapsed again. I didn’t want to walk down those steps. I felt safe on high ground and didn’t know much about the park north of 72nd Street. It seemed insane to go down to the empty plaza. If this park were safe at night, there’d be more people around enjoying the spectacular chiaroscuro scenery, right?

Not necessarily. Maybe they don’t know it’s safe in Central Park at night. 

Oh, yeah? Well, maybe they know it’s dangerous in Central Park at night and you don’t. 

Come on, move. You can’t stay here. 

I trotted down the steps, crossed the plaza in the eerie yellow twilight, and followed a walkway around the lake. Dark undergrowth on both sides of the path, curves ahead and behind to obscure a clear view of anyone coming. Modified panic began to set in. What was I doing in here? Walking to 110th Street, that’s what. 

Relax. Eight years on the Lower East Side taught you something about street smarts. 

Right. And those street smarts are now screaming “Schmuck! Get out of the park!” 

Steady. Enjoy the sights. Reflected light on the lake. Beached boats. And the boathouse itself, coming up fast. 

I walked around to the left, heading for the Ramble, but the appearance of three men on the path ahead inspired me to change plans and cross the road. I went down toward Fifth Avenue and drifted right, around Cedar Hill, toward the Metropolitan Museum. I knew I was letting myself be driven away from the middle of the park. 

Who are you afraid of? You’re 6-foot-3 and weigh 190 pounds. 

Who am I afraid of? I’m glad you asked. I’m afraid of an asthmatic midget with a firearms fetish. No, that’s not it. I pass murderers on the street every day. What I’m really worried about are the headlines if anything happens: “Stupid Writer Killed in Park.” I’d probably end up with a smart-ass epitaph as well: “He Died to Prove What Everyone Already Knew.” That’s it. You get no sympathy these days unless you’re bumped off within 50 feet of your front door. When artist Roger Hane was murdered for his bicycle in Central Park last summer, I remember someone wondering why Hane was foolish enough to enter the park in the first place. And that was in daylight. 

I slowed my pace to size up three men on the path ahead. One was leashed to a black-white pair of Scotties, the second lounged under a tree, the third turned his back as I approached and began to bend over and touch his toes. A few yards off to the right an exit onto Fifth Avenue urged me to step out into the light, just for a minute. No. Once out I’d never go back. I followed a graffitied fence around the construction site behind the museum and struck for the open country beyond Cleopatra’s Needle. Two men and a Saint Bernard were gamboling on the greensward just ahead. Dog owners generally aren’t dangerous unless you try to explain responsibility to them, but I gave them lots of room just the same and passed between the trees to the Great Lawn. It was deserted. No one in sight. Incredible. The park can’t be that dangerous, can it? 

As long as you asked, there were 4 reported murders in Central Park last year, along with 18 rapes, 513 muggings and robberies (about 40 percent of which involved the forced transference of bicycle ownership), 66 felonious assaults, 64 burglaries, 325 larcenies, and 7 auto thefts. Through October 10 of this year there have been…

That’s enough. Forget it. 

Oh, no. You asked the question and since you are now walking through the bushes near the south gatehouse of the Central Park reservoir, you should know. Through October 10 of this year there have been 2 murders, 19 rapes, 486 muggings and robberies, 25 felonious assaults, 32 burglaries, 141 larcenies, and 5 auto thefts. And since a federal survey showed that more than twice as many felonies are committed in New York City as are reported to the police, you can reasonably double those numbers to get a more accurate estimate of the crime problem in Central Park. 

Up a steep slope and onto the lighted path that circles the reservoir. A chain link fence to my left, dark shrubbery to my right. From somewhere below came a long scream played to the tune of slide­-whistle police sirens coming down Fifth Avenue. I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the reservoir, but I couldn’t relax. When a man appeared on the pathway 50 yards behind me, I dropped down the slope and found myself in the soft cinders and sand of a bridle path. The way to Fifth Avenue was blocked by another fence. I trotted along in the darkness, looking for a way through, but there was none and my imagination suddenly invented a land parachute. It straps to your back like the real thing, and when you get into a jam in street or park you pull the ripcord and a giant helium balloon pops out and lifts you straight up into the air. 

Relax, will you? What are the chances of something happening? One in 10,000? 

Fine. If someone hands you a 10,000-cylinder revolver, do you play Russian roulette? If you win, you get to keep what you already have. If you lose, you lose everything. Some odds. 

The darkness on the bridle path was too much. I went back up to the reservoir walkway, but now there was someone in front of me as well as behind. Off to the right was the Guggenheim Museum, coiled in the light of Fifth Avenue. 

Isn’t that interesting? And while you were eyeballing a crummy museum, the guy behind you got 30 feet closer. 

Down the slope again, across the bridle path and YAAAAAAH!! Two people burst out of the underbrush to my left and ran off into the trees. My heart whirred without bothering to beat. Too stunned to run, I kept moving north and found myself hemmed in by the trench of the 96th Street transverse, and as I searched west for a bridge, two hounds came up behind me, barking and snapping at my heels. 

“Thunder! Lightning!” a man called from somewhere out of view. The dogs retreated. I picked up a two-foot length of wood from the middle of East Meadow. Empty. No one in sight. At the north edge of the meadow I followed a path through dense thickets of anonymous greenery until it abruptly ended at an iron picket fence. Now what? I had to ask. Someone whistled twice from the shadows, just as I had coincidentally decided to double-time in the opposite direction. I found another walkway with lights and steered north by northeast. I relaxed again. For one thing, I had run out of new emotions. For another, the north end of the park is not necessarily the most dangerous. It is if you’re riding a bike, but other serious crimes are evenly distributed to all parts of the park. Except for public lewdness. That’s a West Side specialty in the Seventies. 

The path rose gradually upward. I was climbing the Mount. Not far to go. There were deep pools of shadow on both sides, and I used my wooden club to push aside the overhanging foliage. The big danger now was running into a reporter from the Amsterdam News heading south and beating each other over the head in mutual surprise. A minute later I saw the red and green lights of Fisherman’s Cove Restaurant with the Harlem skyline beyond. Down the north slope of the Mount and I was out of the woods. Almost. To reach 110th Street I had to double back into the park around one end of Harlem Meer or the other. I went east, circled the water and headed back toward 110th. Four men stood talking on the path in front of me so I kept one hand under my jacket, which meant I was carrying either a Luger or lice, and walked past them to the street. It was 10:30. Pretty good time. And the park really wasn’t that bad at all. 

Sure. That’s why your shirt is sweat-plastered to your skin and why you just tightened your belt two notches. 

If you’re going to use the park at night, however, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. First, go in with a positive attitude. Expect to be safe and have a good time. 

Is that why you left your wallet home? 

Second, bring a friend or two with you. Although 12 million people use Central Park each year, between 59th and 110th Streets on a warm Saturday evening in October I passed only 26 people, including those glimpsed at a distance. 

That’s right, folks. Pile into Central Park at night. It’s much more efficient for muggers and victims to meet in one place. 

Not so long ago, large numbers of people felt safe using the park at night. If large numbers of people use the park again, it will be safe again. And that’s the end of the story. 

Not quite. Someday you’ll have to tell them what happens when a sweating six-foot white man carrying a two-foot wooden club climbs onto a crowded Fifth Avenue bus in Harlem. 

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