The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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Crime in Central Park   |   Gays in Central Park
Crime in Central Park
Beginning in the 1930s and particularly in the postwar decades, journalists used any incidents occurring in Central Park as a powerful symbol for urban crime in general. Although this reporting exaggerated the problem, even incomplete and not entirely reliable evidence leaves little doubt that crime, particularly against persons and property, had indeed increased dramatically in Central Park and throughout the city since the park opened. Most park "crime" in the late nineteenth century -- and, it appears, in the early twentieth century as well -- involved violations of park ordinances (by, for example, "fast driving" or picking flowers) or of sanctioned norms of public behavior (by littering or appearing intoxicated in public). The number of arrests had gone up; in the 1860s felony arrests averaged about seven per year; by the 1880s they had probably quadrupled. Even so, felonies for all the city's parks in that decade were sixty-one per year, probably half or fewer of these in Central Park. One hundred years later, felonies in Central Park had increased almost thirtyfold, averaging close to nine hundred a year from 1979 to 1986. Serious crimes in Central Park in 1980 alone probably exceeded all felony arrests for the entire nineteenth century. [Ch1711]

Such comparisons should not be pushed too far, given significant changes in the reporting, gathering, and classifying of crime statistics as well as the growth of population throughout the city, particularly, on the park's borders. After all, people had been worrying about safety, particularly at night, almost since the park opened. In 1862 the park board had believed that "the closing of the Park at night is of such obvious propriety, that it requires no argument for its justification." A decade later Olmsted warned, "I recommend no woman to stroll in the Park" after dark, "and I answer for no man's safety in it from bullies, garroters, or highway robbers after dusk." In 1907 a visitor from New Hampshire scrawled on the back of a postcard of the Mall: "Bad place to be after dark." And in 1929 a British visitor said that walking in London's Hyde Park at night might land you in police court, but wandering through Central Park could put you in the morgue. [Ch1712]

The British visitor's perceptions had a firmer basis in 1979 than in either 1879 or 1929. Over the eight years from 1879 to 1886, the police recorded only two homicide arrests for all the city parks, but in the eight years from 1979 to 1986, thirty-five murders took place in Central Park alone. Yet murder in the park was always rare when compared with the rest of the city. In the 28th police precinct, directly north of the park, murders in the 1970s and 1980s were more than eighteen times as frequent as in the park, and even in the affluent district along the lower Fifth Avenue border, murders were three times as common. The rate of other felonies in the park was even lower than murders. Such figures support the protestations of park and police officials that Central Park did not and does not deserve a reputation as "a fearful menace," as one television commentator has called it. But if the park was, as officials never tired of reminding people, one of New York's "safest" police precincts, many people believed otherwise. [Ch1713]


Crime in Central Park   |   Gays in Central Park