It’s 10 p.m. and we’re somewhere in Central Park, but it’s pitch black out, and so for the life of me I couldn’t begin to say exactly where the Guardian Angels and I have ended up.
We’ve precariously climbed a fairly large rock formation, and from high up in our perch, we’re still able to spy a fairly constant stream of men furtively crossing the narrow, unlit pathways below.
“There, you see?” Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, said, gesturing at two pathways that are converging into a choke point. “You’re up here. You signal to your two guys stationed there and there. You could jump a guy, beat him down, take his wallet, take his phone, or go Clockwork Orange on him, and bam. You’re gone.”
Sliwa, myself and two other Angels are deep in the Ramble, a stretch in the very center of the park stretching from 73rd to 79th streets, or, as the official website describes it, “a place for the urban explorer to escape the city and get utterly lost in nature.”
Since the turn of the century, it’s also been a prime spot for gay men to cruise, and as such, the people frequenting the Ramble have been particularly susceptible to violence, from muggings and assault to outright gay bashing.
Sliwa crouches and explains that an attacker that’s taken refuge on the hills and rock formations would be totally invisible to the targets down below, free to signal his cohorts by text message or even start throwing rocks to send a potential victim scurrying right into a trap.
“He who rules the high ground controls the Ramble,” he whispers.
And with that, Sliwa takes off, gliding down the rock back toward the pathway with a deftness and physical ease that belies his 61 years, already hunting out the next potential treacherous nook or cranny in this, his often embroiled 36-year quest to make the most dangerous parts of New York City safe.
Over the last few weeks, the Guardian Angels, bedecked in their trademark red berets and logo-emblazoned warm-up jackets, have returned to Central Park, patrolling for the first time since 1994. The all-volunteer, unarmed citizens group gained fame in the ’70s and ’80s, when crime in New York reached its nadir, and the city was assumed to be an uber-violent, dystopic wasteland, with neither a corrupt, ineffectual police force nor an equally compromised, incompetent mayoralty capable of solving the myriad, deeply intertwined structural issues, or at least proving capable of providing for basic public safety.
As Jimmy Breslin wrote in the New York Daily News: “The Guardian Angels appear to be the only idea presented in the city in at least 10 years, the only idea at this time in this city that can stir, cause hope and allow people to see that if their government cannot function, then the responsibility is the people’s.”
That said, the Guardian Angels say they are not back in Central Park because Bill de Blasio has turned the city into a fire pit of criminal behavior. Yes, there have been 193 murders committed through July 26, an increase of 10.9 percent compared to the same period in 2014. Shooting incidents have also increased by 2.8 percent to 761 from 740. There’s also been a serious uptick in crime in the park, including 22 robberies in 2015, up from 11 in 2014, and 35 acts of grand larceny compared to 29 the year prior.
Furthermore, as a whole, major index crimes—including robbery, burglary, grand larceny and car theft—are down 5.6 percent citywide, numbers consistent with the unabated decline that’s occurred over the last two decades.
“What people don’t know is, the reason we expanded from the subways into Central Park in 1979 was the gay bashings in the Ramble.” Sliwa said.
“All of a sudden, of late, I’m getting calls from people—gay guys and others—getting attacked again. Of course, I’ve gotta go in there and see for myself. So I spent a week, just going in there at night. And I said, ‘Holy shit! It’s like we’re regressing.’ The Ramble was just the same, except no lights! No cops on mountain bicycles, no foot patrols, no DTs [undercover cops].”
Sliwa explained that when he first started patrolling the park in 1979, the police were not particularly inclined to devote time and resources to protecting the gay community, even in the aftermath of a high-profile incident in which Dick Button, a former professional ice skater and TV personality, was beaten within an inch of his life in the Ramble.
Despite reluctance and skepticism, and yes, no small amount of homophobia on the part of his own charges, Sliwa was determined to act: “I said, ‘No, no, no. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. These guys are being victimized. So put aside whatever you think. We’re going in there.’”
There are relatively simple, practical solutions available: installing light stanchions throughout the Ramble, for one, marking signposts so that victims might be able to let the police know where they are is another. That responsibility would fall under the purview of the Central Park Conservatory, which Sliwa insists is flush with cash.
“These are logistical things,” Sliwa explained, but that doesn’t mitigate the need for a greater police presence. “They basically wrote off this area. Down on the transverse, in the area where the bicyclists, the joggers are, you’ve got cops bumping into one another like bumper pool, rolling around, patrolling and pounding doughnuts. But no foot patrols. If they would just sit down with me I could tell them and we’ll be out of the park! And if a guy who has street smarts is telling you, ‘Look, these two areas are unpatrolled,’ instead of shooting the messenger ’cause you don’t like the sound of the message.”
This is when Sliwa gets into the role Mayor de Blasio has in all of this.
“The mayor’s not a street-smart guy, and I understand that,” Sliwa continued. “He never was. And he never will be. But he’s got enough people who work in City Hall. I’m not talking the professional politicians who are too busy cutting ribbons and pulling the photo ops.”
Then, a plea.
“Bill, come with me. I’ll pick you up at Gracie Mansion. I’ll take you up the Great Hill. You’ll see for yourself. You’ll be shocked. If they would just sit down with me I could tell them and we’ll be out of the park!”
A further issue is the fact that di Blasio, unlike his predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, doesn’t regularly conduct town hall meetings. If he did so, according to Sliwa, he’d catch “serious heat.”
“This wasn’t like Chris Christie, El Jefe Shamu, saying, ‘We’ll decide who comes to the town hall meeting,” Sliwa said, “The regular people who have real concerns. Because it’s expected. Why doesn’t Bill di Blasio, the Mayor of the Peeps, do that?” he asks. “Because if he had a town hall meeting just on the Upper West Side, the west bank, the home of progressive, liberal, socialist, Bernie Sanders values, he would be catching so much hell over these issues.”
To be clear, the uptick in violence in the park is not directly connected to or the end result of a widespread “slowdown,” as Commissioner Bill Bratton described in the weeks following the shootings of two officers in December 2014. Nor is Sliwa putting the present-day increase entirely on the shoulders of Mayor di Blasio.
With regards to Sliwa’s criticism of the mayor, it’s worth noting that Sliwa was, until February of this year, in a relationship with Melinda Katz, the current Queens Borough president and the father of two of Sliwa’s children.
“I think a lot of the homeless and the mentally ill have migrated into the park, Sliwa said. “There’s a lot of homeless. And it’s like anything else. If there’s too many mentally ill and homeless, and nobody’s doing outreach, they’re roaming about and battling over turf.”
Determining the number of homeless in the city at any given time is tricky work, di Blasio’s insistence that the available data proves there’s been a decline notwithstanding. (And the New York Post’s reprehensible smear campaign isn’t helping anyone.) But if that is the case, Sliwa is insistent that the fault lies with Albany.
“I blame Andrew [Cuomo],” Sliwa said, working himself up into a still-friendly yet bombastic, near-frothing lather. “He’s got Manhattan Psychiatric on Randall’s Island almost empty. He’s got Creedmoor almost empty. He could easily open up those corridors. I mean we’re paying for them anyway, get these people in for observation… Start giving them their meds. ’Cause many of them have prescribed meds, but they just won’t take ’em. Or they’ve been kicked out of their homes after they’ve been released because the families just don’t know how to deal with them. We’re talking severely mentally ill people here.”
That’s when Sliwa goes full talk radio.
“So, Andrew, Andrew ‘Evil Eyes’ Cuomo, King Cuomo the Second, the Son of Mario ‘Faccia Brutta’ Cuomo, King Cuomo the First, you’re getting a free pass here. You’re attacking the mayor for something he didn’t create. You are responsible because you’re cleaning out these state-run facilities to save money.”
(Apropos of nothing, it’s definitely worth spending time with Sliwa, just to hear him mid-rant rattle off a string of colorfully insulting nicknames.)
On Thursday, I met up with Sliwa at 8:30 p.m. on the corner of 79th Street and Central Park West, just opposite the American Museum of Natural History. I’d missed their first citizen arrest of the evening, when a homeless man that was menacing people took a swing at an Angel. They managed to subdue him and deliver him to the police, even though “Crazy Jay” did get socked on the lip in the skirmish.
In contrast to the convivial, sprawling talk that we’d had earlier in the day in his office at WABC Radio, Sliwa is all business, eyeballing the procession of moms pushing strollers, gawking tourists, snuggling couples that were exiting the park, leaving outreach to the three other Angels, who passed out business cards and chatted up the various passersby who paused to say thanks or express a certain amount of surprise that the Angels were still active.
His gregarious, conversational tone, peppered with Yiddish, Italian and Latino slang had been replaced by stern, brief, borderline militaristic jabs of language, even for a task as relatively simple as making sure that one Angel would be able to get a ride to work later that night.
As we got deeper into the park, the number of lampposts did begin to steadily dwindle, and suddenly, we could have been anywhere.
Once we reached the center of the Ramble, we saw a fairly steady stream of men, heads bowed, clearly cruising. Even under the cloak of darkness, Sliwa was working, asking how they were, whether they’d seen any trouble, letting everyone know that the Guardian Angels were there.
After a few passes around the perimeter, Sliwa pointed out two men heading towards one of the rock formations.
“There,” he whispered. “You see those guys. They’re not cruising. There’s no reason to be heading that way if they were.’
We followed, eventually encountering them again on their way to exiting the Ramble. Sliwa approached them, going through his familiar patter, but one grunted and the other didn’t respond. Both men carefully avoided eye contact before walking away as briskly as possible without attracting any more attention.
Now, I didn’t see any actual criminal activity, and I’m relying wholly on Sliwa’s assessment that the two guys he scoped out were up to no good. But there’s no doubting that the Angels’ presence can serve as a deterrent. Watching him in action, they did not function like a gang of Trump-ian, Law and Order-humping vigilantes. To be honest, that’s the assumption that I had going in.
And yes, there is a need for this brand of neighborhood watch. Especially parts of the city or the park that are comprised of people who have a great deal of reason not just to mistrust, but to fear the police and are hesitant to report crimes at all—the homeless, immigrants, and the gay community.
“Our advantage is, although the police are getting much better in terms of their racial makeup, we’re very interracial,” Sliwa said. “So, we have young men, young women and older adults, there’s a nice mix and people speak Spanish. So you’re able to cut through a lot of those divisions. But basically: How do we remain cool, calm and collected? How to physically intervene, break up fights and perform citizen’s arrests without abridging somebody’s rights.
“That’s why we, at times, are better received by the community [than the police]. Because they know we don’t take advantage of situations even if we got hit first,” he says. “You get hit, you suck it up.”