Panic in Central Park?

There are many symbols of New York’s revival in the early 21st Century, but Central Park surely is among the most prominent. A generation ago, the park was equal parts Dust Bowl and Wild West. Today, thanks to the city’s innovative partnership with the Central Park Conservancy, it is the great urban oasis that Frederick Olmsted envisioned more than a century and a half ago.

The other day, however, we were reminded that only a fool would take public safety and basic civility for granted, especially in a large, rambling public space like Central Park.

A group of mindless thugs went on a spree of idiotic, pointless vandalism last weekend, badly damaging gazebos, breaking windows, turning over trashcans, and tearing up irrigation hoses in Strawberry Fields. No arrests have been made.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt and crime was restricted to property. But the incident should be a wake-up call for the police, for the Conservancy, and for any city official—from top to bottom— who is inclined to believe that public safety is inevitable.

New York’s successful campaign to reclaim the streets and public spaces is at the core of the city’s dramatic renaissance since the early 1990s. It is why billionaires choose to live in Midtown high-rises; it is why there is a demand for affordable housing for the poor and middle class. Mayor de Blasio has ambitious plans to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. That’s great, but the need for this housing—for all housing—will shrink if crime rises along with new construction.
Acts of vandalism, even in a place like Central Park, are hardly the harbingers of an urban apocalypse. They are less worrisome than the outbreaks of gun violence in the Bronx and elsewhere since the end of stop, question and frisk. But they are warning signs.

New York doesn’t need a viral video of idiots creating a swath of destruction in the crown jewel of the city’s park system. As a new season of Shakespeare in the Park opens, the NYPD and the Central Park Conservancy should be especially vigilant in case vandals decide to ramp up their stupidity.

It would be wrong to dismiss last weekend’s rampage as an isolated incident. Rather, think of it as a warning.