In December 2019, Barnard and its surrounding community were struck by the tragic death of Tess Majors in Morningside Park, and many community members gathered together to grieve the immeasurable loss. For many students and residents, the tragedy also revitalized conversations surrounding violence-prevention in the community.
However, these conversations around safety and crime in Morningside Heights have proven to be inherently fraught, especially as students and residents alike grapple with issues of excessive policing and the dangers an over-vigilant criminal justice system pose for marginalized communities.
In the immediate aftermath of Majors’ death, some local politicians called for an increased police presence in the park while speaking at a vigil, which angered some students and community members. Many residents called for the city to finally fulfill its promise to fix the lights within Morningside Park; others advocate for after-school youth programs as vital efforts toward violence prevention.
More than a year after the tragedy, Spectator examines what has changed in the neighborhood as local residents and Columbia affiliates grapple with the best ways to prevent violence.
Morningside Park has long been perceived as “dangerous” by Columbia affiliates, but the park has always served as an essential public space for the West Harlem community to gather. Even so, residents have long called for the city to address safety concerns in the park.
“It’s been a long-standing issue: poor visibility in the park,” said Anthony Carrion, co-chair of the Landmarks Preservation & Parks committee of Community Board 9—a local advisory board that represents the Morningside Heights and West Harlem communities.
In the immediate aftermath of Majors’ death, the Department of Transportation committed to prioritizing Morningside Park for light replacement. A DOT spokesperson told Spectator in early 2020 that the department would update lighting to LED lights, which are far brighter than traditional bulbs, in Morningside Park later that spring.
Since then, local residents said they have been satisfied with the significant safety improvements in the park. Brad Taylor, president of Friends of Morningside Park, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and improving Morningside Park, said that he has seen “pretty dramatic improvements” in the park, like the implementation of LED lights.
Both Friends of Morningside Park and CB9 have been working to implement safety changes, and the board’s Landmarks Preservation & Parks Committee even addressed the first anniversary of Majors’ death and subsequent changes made to Morningside Park at their monthly meeting in January.
“We have lit up all our main corridors—staircases that go east and west throughout the park,” Carrion said at the January Landmarks Preservation & Parks Committee meeting. “This spring, DOT will be working on converting the rest of the lights over to LED.”
Additionally, Taylor noted that the DOT has become more responsive with addressing light outages in the park.
The number of security cameras throughout the park has also increased thanks to the advocacy of local residents. “With help of NYPD and DOT and collaboration with Parks, we installed three additional camera locations which have multiple camera viewpoints, which go live into NYPD’s camera feed,” said Matt Genrich, a resident present at the committee meeting.
Taylor still feels that Morningside Park needs more security. “There are a couple of locations that are crucial and key, and they have not been addressed,” he said.
In addition to lights and security cameras, unarmed Park Enforcement Patrol officers constitute another major change to Morningside Park. Though they are not members of the police force, PEP officers patrol the park on foot and give tickets.
“We’ve been asking for PEP officers for years,” Taylor said. “[And] the parks department stepped up.”
However, with increased patrols and surveillance of the park comes questions of over-policing, particularly because the neighborhood has a predominantly Black and Hispanic population. Nationwide, Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately targeted by police. Historically, New York Police Department initiatives like “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” have served as excuses to increase contact between police and vulnerable communities to funnel people into prison, according to experts.
“Last January, after the murder, there was a lot of over-policing. … People were pretty upset about that,” Taylor said. “It was off-putting.”
Priti Patel, the program manager for Placemaking at Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit for preserving public spaces, said that balancing desires for safety with discouraging over-policing is “a challenge in every public space.”
“[The solution] starts with asking community members: How would you feel safer?” Patel said. “The challenge is that there are often many people who show up to engagement efforts and would like to see more police and security, but that isn’t the same response you would hear from vulnerable populations—people experiencing homelessness, young Black men.”
Amid the increased police presence, as well as the national attention garnered by the case, community residents called for fair treatment of youth suspects and raised concerns about local policing practices in regards to the case.
“The way that many of our young men of color were being taken in for questioning, whether or not there was any evidence relating them to that, was something that deeply troubled us,” CB9 Chair Barry Weinberg said at a board meeting in February 2020. “That caused a lot of fear in our community.”
Residents have still expressed desires to collaborate with the NYPD, even calling for the 26th Precinct to conduct a “walkthrough” for Morningside Park with residents. However, Carrion and Taylor both emphasized their belief in alternative methods of violence prevention beyond the scope of policing—namely more programming for young people in the area.
For Friends of Morningside Park, Taylor says that forums in January 2020 brought to their attention the importance of bringing youth programming to the park. Last year, the organization started a program called Harlem Youth Gardeners, which employed 22 local teenagers in the summer and into the fall to learn about plants, horticulture, and gardening.
“Lack of investment in youth is a nationwide issue; there’s a long-standing history,” Carrion said.
Continue reading part 2 to hear more about how youth programming, an essential element of violence prevention, has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
News Editor Sofia Kwon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sofiamkwon.