Let me preface by saying that I haven’t seen Central Park Five yet, so I have no clue whether it actually “defines” one of the major cities on the planet. It’s quite possible this film, like many great documentaries, sets out only to exonerate people who have been wrongfully accused of a heinous crime. A story that, nonetheless, should be told because these men were innocent and a city dropped the ball.
For me, though, the Central Park jogger story shaped an impactful
portion of my childhood. As a kid growing up in New York in the early
90s, this horrible rape (a word I remember misusing over and over, causing some severe embarrassment for my parents) marked the first bit of scary news I remember being able to process and digest. Everybody remembers that one crime that they hear at four or five years old, when they might first be able to associate it with fear. People may not go into places like alleyways or cornfields, because something bad has been so burned into their memories. I will never step into Central Park at night because of this one event. The crime swept through New York, for reasons I could only mildly comprehend at the time. Looking back, it single-handedly defined the city that I grew to have a loving, difficult, and important relationship with.
I was too young to understand the polarizing racial tension going on in New York at the time. Being Caucasian, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the word “gook” or “nigger” thrown around my home during family gatherings. That’s the way it was in New York. There’s a lot of races and people divide each other naturally along those lines. But I had good friends who were African-American, Chinese, Korean, Dominican, Puerto Rican, etc. Did I know they were different, yes. But the friends who didn’t look like me were far less different than the girls that I was starting to see as a strange species I wanted to be close to, but was also sort of scared of. Basically, people were different, but I was okay with it.
The Central Park Jogger case was something that burrowed deeper into my psychology, something I still think about almost preternaturally. I think of it in parks, on asphalt paths lined with lamps, and on empty streets. Crime in a major city has a way of existing like a faded scare on someone’s face. A blemish. A hiccup. A memory. An embedded sense of character. Los Angeles has that quality. Chicago has that quality. Detroit has that quality. The psychology of crime in a city doesn’t disappear. It hides, fades, manifests in other ways. Lawmakers spend decades trying to erase past events. But history teaches us only that history teaches us nothing.
By the time I got to my teens and started going into Manhattan, or “The City” as every New Yorker calls it, it was a very different place from the one that watched the 1989 Jogger Case become “the crime of the century.” The graffiti was gone from the subways. The switchblades weren’t popping out from people’s pockets. I’ve never been mugged or jumped or robbed or even threatened. We were all far more terrified of people in burkas (no less stupidly) than those who wore hooded sweatshirts. Giuliani had cleaned the streets by mysteriously chopping homicide rates by the thousands. For anyone who was young enough not to remember the abundance of crime in New York in the 70s and 80s, the Jogger case was the one that specifically triggered the crackdown. Even for those who know better, it may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I had my first kiss in Central Park. My most memorable dates happened while circling the fountains. Some of my best cries came on those paint-chipped green benches. I read some of my favorite books on the large rocks. Nonetheless, that rape in that park will never leave me. You can get me to do a lot of things nowadays and you will never, ever, get me to walk through Central Park at night. I don’t just mean after 10pm. The second the sun is gone, I’m gone. I’ll walk along it. But through it? Never. Ever. The Central Park Jogger case did that to me. And did that to many, many people my age, whether they realize it or not. I actually have no idea if Central Park at night is still unsafe. That doesn’t matter.
Ken and Sarah Burns’ Central Park Five has played to outstanding reviews at a few festivals already. It’s garnered hostility from a city embroiled in a $250 million lawsuit. I’ll see it at the AFI Fest in a few weeks when it premieres in Los Angeles. It starts rolling out into select theaters soon after.