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The Park Is Elevated. Its Crime Rate Is Anything But

The Park Is Elevated. Its Crime Rate Is Anything But

The New York Times 6/10/2011

By MICHAEL WILSON

The images on Christine C. Quinn’s television a few years ago would seem to have been a worst nightmare for everyone — including her — involved in a highly anticipated new attraction for tourists and locals.

The cameras were filming up on the elevated train line in Chelsea, which was soon to be called a “park in the sky,” and showed the sprawled body of a woman, murdered and dumped there.

Ms. Quinn, the City Council speaker, recalled the scene this week, not with a shudder, but with a broad grin.

“ ‘Law & Order: S.V.U.,’ ” she said. “My favorite!” On Tuesday, She stood somewhere in the vicinity of the spot on what is now the High Line, at the ribbon-cutting of its new extension. “The body was up here,” she said with pride. That is when she knew: “We had made it.”

The High Line park turned two years old this month, commemorating the occasion by doubling its length to about a mile, from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. Among the many facts and figures people keep track of in this much-studied park, essentially found space on a crowded island, are statistics that tell whether crime has found it, too, and the numbers are in.

Or more accurately, the number is in: zero. The police, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the founders of the High Line all say there have been no reports of a major crime — assault, larceny, robbery, worse — since its opening.

“Are you disappointed?” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly asked on Tuesday.

Certainly curious. Not a single stick-up? No fights? How many other mile-long sections of New York City are this safe? The questions come not long after someone opened fire Thursday on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk after what some witnesses described as a perceived dirty look toward gang members. Apples and oranges, yes — Crips have shown little interest in the High Line, and the drinking that is said to have fueled the Boardwalk shooting is forbidden there. But the tale of two walkways suggests that what the newer one is doing to curb crime is a combination of passive and active, design and deterrence.

It is strenuously policed. Parks Enforcement Patrol officers walk the High Line all day. They have written, as of Wednesday, 362 summonses for quality-of-life infractions, roughly one every other day. A vast majority were for drinking. Others were for dogs and bicycles, also forbidden. Officers and employees in the park, who are not permitted to be quoted by name, said the total could be quite higher. Most people get off with a warning.

By comparison, officers in Central Park wrote 3,275 summonses in the past two years, nine times as many written in the High Line, but Central Park saw 19 times as many visitors last year. The police have taken two complaints at the High Line, a spokeswoman said: one in March for graffiti on a staircase and one, just Wednesday, from a man who said he had lost his wallet but did not think it had been stolen.

Other features of the High Line keep crime out with obstacles as obvious as a padlock and as subtle as the psychological effect of a nearby window. Most of all, there is the design itself, essentially a chute with a handful of entries, all closely watched.

“You see the cameras up there,” Mr. Kelly said, pointing. “This is a much more controllable space. You know who’s going in and who’s coming out.”

A thief would have to plan carefully for a getaway, using one of the staircases or elevators. “It’s not like you can jump off,” Ms. Quinn said. “Well, you can, but it’s not going to end well.”

Those access points are locked up at 11 p.m. in the summer, perhaps the greatest preventer of crime. Other city parks are “closed” at night, but that does not stop people from entering. At the High Line, trespassing, while not unheard of, is rare, usually somebody dropping in from an adjacent building.

And those buildings are extremely adjacent. The park’s designers turned to the late, great Jane Jacobs for guidance on keeping out crime, adopting her “eyes on the streets” theory, in which windows facing the street bring a feeling of security. Several buildings, including new ones like 245 Tenth Avenue, which partially leans toward the park, seem close enough to high-five someone inside.

“Empty parks are dangerous,” said Joshua David, one of the founders of Friends of the High Line. “Busy parks are much less so. You’re virtually never alone on the High Line.”

Police officers patrol the High Line sporadically. Most of it falls in the 10th Precinct. An officer from that command strode north on the High Line Thursday afternoon. He said he was heading toward the new Section 2, which he wanted to check out in case of an emergency someday.

And, he added, “it’s a nice walk.”

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