Why do certain urbanscapes offer more opportunity for violence and crime than others? This past week at Herald Strategies, we've been trying to get to the heart of this question. Back in February, a close friend and client was assaulted in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Rabbi Aaron L Raskin was approached by teenagers, and punched in the face. He isn't the first victim of violence in the park, and he certainly isn't the last. This past spring, park-goers have been pelted by basketballs, threatened with knives, and in a sort of West-Bank-like situation, assailed with heavy rocks. But the most recent case was the fatal shooting of Michelle Marks. She was walking home from work last Monday night when she was murdered by her boyfriend.
Rabbi Raskin has been speaking out to the press this week regarding the ways in which the growing danger the park poses to residents of Brooklyn Heights. But the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation argued that the death of Michelle Marks was a domestic dispute. They were shocked that we were linking Michelle Marks' death to the earlier throngs of crime that used to take place in the park.
Being trained for four years as an Art Historian, I'm greatly interested in Urban Planning and Architectural Theory. From an academic perspective, I actually believe that there is a sound reason why this park can serve a range of criminal intentions: from gang violence near the basketball courts to domestic violence near the dog run. The park serves as a heterotopia, a "space" that really isn't a "place." Think of it this way: the park is a border between Brooklyn Heights and New York Harbor. Brooklyn Heights is one of New York City's richest neighborhoods, and is rather unmanned when it comes to police and other city services. New York Harbor is one of the most observed and patrolled pools of water in the world, but it is rather a bit of it's own entity. In between we have a park. Up until a few months ago it has been patrolled by only two rangers, rather unmanaged in terms of night security, and its safety has been rather "assumed."
In our urban mindsets, the park is a place where our actions are "passed-over," and forgotten about. Have you ever began a classy or reputable story with "we were at the park, when..." ? Parks, especially smaller ones that are wedged in the cityscape, are meant to be places were the forbidden happens. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation argues that there is no relation between Michelle Marks' death and the rest of the crimes in the park. But now that we know about this place's special status as a "non-place" or as a "border" we can say that it "attracts the violence." People assume they can go there and get away with anything. People assume they will face no penalties, not because what they're doing isn't wrong, but because what they're doing will go unnoticed.
So if that is true, why are we supporting Rabbi Raskin? Why are we trying to change the unchangeable?
Interestingly enough, Rabbi Raskin is changing the park's status by making news about it. By continuing to comment on the park's constant violence, he is changing it from a non-place to place... he is giving it "spacehood." Our urban concept of a place develops and changes the more we hear about it - especially if the more we hear about it, the more we demand police presence there. In other words, we feel safer when places are "put on the map." This is why Central Park went from being such a dangerous place in 80's and early 90's to being a rather safe haven for runners... even in the dead of night... in the 2000s.
To say that one person is responsible for changing an urban layout, and for making a park become a safer place, might be a bit excessive, and it's not something that Rabbi Raskin would want to hear either. Instead, Raskin is calling for the whole community to work together to make this park a safer destination for Brooklyner, New Yorker, and tourist alike. We all have to work together to change a place that many criminals consider to be "nowhere" to a place that all New Yorkers know as "somewhere."