Monday, April 16, 2012

The Most Dangerous Place in the Most Dangerous City

Last year, the local Columbia University press began to report on gun shootings taking place in Morningside Park, in addition to an increase in overall crime in the park. (Leland, 2011; Vigeland, 2011; Lopez, 2011)  Even the New York Times commented on the crimes, which shocked a neighborhood known for its extensive restoration of the area. (Leland, 2011)  Parents openly spoke to reporters about the pressure they felt to leave for the suburbs, and neighbors put pressure on the New York City police to patrol Morningside Park and make arrests. (Leland, 2011)  People raising children in million-dollar brownstones along the Park’s main boulevard expressed fear of enjoying its nearby playgrounds, ball courts, and pathways. (Leland, 2011) Most notable, however, was the immediate response of the city authorities in what seemed like a speech from a long-gone era:  that when crime happens in an area where “everyone knows crime happens,” such as a Harlem park, a basketball court filled with teenagers, or an area where drugs may be sold,  people should feel pressure to despair and let events take their course, as if city landscapes somehow have an immoveable identity produced by some heavy historical force, the weight of the past directing events which take place today, which cannot be altered. (Leland, 2011) 

Morningside Park 01.jpg
Morningside Park ball fields.

While the subsequent response of local Morningside Park residents was immediate and successful in attracting assistance to their plight, the experience and the interest it generated for them highlighted the precarious nature of their neighborhood. (Leland, 2011; Vigeland, 2011; Lopez, 2011)  Morningside Park is hallowed and, in many ways, haunted ground in the Columbia University and Harlem area because of its history, and for the lingering memory it holds of an old New York City landscape which is still in the process of passing away.   

Morningside Park is famous, first and foremost, among Columbia neighborhood residents as the contested site of a gym which the university proposed to build in 1968 under circumstances which the community and its own students found unacceptable.  Dramatic public protests and students occupations of campus buildings erupted and led to the reorganization of university life. (  However, Morningside Park has a second identity which was representative at the time of the city as a whole:  as a dangerous wasteland of romanticized urban decay.  This emblematic degradation was viewed as if it had always existed, both as some reflection of an existential state of mind which was projected on the world as a criminalized landscape, and as the result of elitist public policy which, through some undefined natural law, could somehow never extend to the residents of certain areas such as black Harlem because of an intrinsic flaw in the municipal system's identity.  

In the reality of the 1970s through the 1990s, Morningside Park itself was so dangerous that everyone near it was warned never to set foot in it at any time of the day or night. (Leland, 2011)  Drug dealers, homeless alcoholics, and criminals hid in the park's trees and cliff face caves, waiting to attack any wandering student or child who ventured near them.  Gangs pulverized whatever remaining markers of civilization were left standing.  From outside its grassy borders or from high terraces overlooking its paths, the innocent people of the neighborhood or tourists hoping to see the most dangerous spots in the city could peer inside and attempt to observe the guilty, a raggedy group of New Yorkers who could easily be stand-ins for every victim of Wall Street’s financial boom.  New York City seemed, from the outside, simultaneously like a preserve for the unstoppably successful and the hopelessly lost and left behind—and like a stray wanderer in the wrong park, any New Yorker could find him or herself on either path with one wrong step.  As a result, places like Morningside Park held a thrill of fear and fascination, because whatever urban force had made them so dangerous could not be contained and might spill over into the streets at any moment.  The park, and also the New York landscape which surrounded it, suggested that modern civilization had some elemental thanatos, a drive to self-destruct, as its inevitable companion.  For those who could not find a safe path through life in time, there might be a fall through every safety net of urban civilization to some dark lower region where one’s choices were limited to perpetrator, victim, or helpless bystander.  This process seemed to affect so many people in New York at that time, when the city was famed for its violence and trashy grittiness, that it assumed a self-perpetuating epic quality.

Morningside Park pathways.

This epic quality can still be seen in many contemporary discussions of racial tensions surrounding Morningside Park’s history, especially surrounding the Columbia gym and its impact on the neighborhood’s collective memory.  Although many years have passed since the student protests of Morningside Park, the story of those events still brings up strong emotions regarding racism, city politics, and the tensions between rich and poor New York residents.  This suggests not only that certain problems may still exist in the community, but also that the protest events of 1968 can still be seen as a backdrop for an ongoing battle between light and dark social forces.  Morningside Park certainly lends itself to such a staging, as its forested paths are attached to a cliff face that visibly separates a wealthy area that is primarily white and educated from an area that is primarily black with a mixed economic constituency.  

The cliff face divide between Columbia University and Harlem.

At first glance, logic would suggest that people produce landscapes.  Artists and philosophers may argue over the mythic qualities of an area as if it was representative of some eternal idea, but when public policy is put in place, neighborhoods change, and suddenly the disputed, seemingly unchangeable landscape fades from view.  Or the opposite may occur:  people may militate for a change in policy to alter an urban landscape as if this were easy, even as that landscape is generating obstacles to change that override all their efforts, as if it had a life of its own.  Over the past ten years, the Morningside Park neighborhood has seen median home prices triple, and median family incomes have risen 48 percent.  (Leland, 2011)  Yet the recent shootings in Morningside Park sent a chill through the community, as if its middle-class success was still, in people's minds, holding back some inevitable tide of violence that could sweep back over the neighborhood at any time.  In a white, educated neighborhood, it would be the violence, not the middle-class success story, that would likely be the anomaly.

Morningside Park brownstones in Harlem.

Are people a part of their landscapes, like the tiny villagers who populate medieval paintings of pastoral farmland, or do they create landscapes as agents of civilization, which makes civilized landscapes the responsibility of their creators?  And is civilization’s progress a force of creation or destruction?  These questions can paralyze people from taking actions that seem simple, such as mobilizing with a sense of entitlement to stop crime in a black neighborhood, or lead them to preserve what might be better off replaced, such as the ungentrified neighborhoods of old New York City, whose local color included public spaces that resembled war zones.   Few would suggest that Morningside Park be abandoned to crime again in order to spark a debate on the social inequalities of New York, or to expose the city’s lurking Wall Street-driven decay.  Yet people still point to it as a boundary between the rich and the poor, not between millionaire black and white homeowners, and the initial reaction residents met after the recent shootings in the park demonstrates there is still a lingering fear of shifting the landscape, once and for all, to one of integration, safety, and success.


City of New York Parks and Recreation Department. 

Friends of Morningside Park. 

Leland, John.  “A Summer Idyll, and Then Three Bullets.”  The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2011: New York City/Region. 

Lopez, Lolita.  “Frightened Harlem Residents Avoid Morningside Park.”, July 12, 2011.,0,7700292.story

Vigeland, Finn. “Community forums address violence in Morningside Park.”  The Columbia Spectator, Aug. 16, 2011: Spectrum.


Walter Murch said...

Very well written and observed. I grew up in Morningside in the 1940's and 1950's and witnessed the initial slide of the park to its precarious state in the 1970's.

Anonymous said...

We live by and walk in the park at least once a day
This post is misleading in the extreme. Yes, there have been some instances in the past, but if you compare on spotcrime, the frequency of any crime in this area is typically much lower than in parts of the upper west side, and certainly well below midtown and downtown