Three decades after the Central Park Jogger case inflamed tensions and racial rifts in the City, a significant new commemoration in the Park—the Gate of the Exonerated—has brought a marker of healing and history for the community. Led by members of Manhattan Community Board 10 (CB 10), Harlem residents—alongside other New Yorkers and Park neighbors impacted by the case—had sought to commemorate the five men who were convicted as teenagers, imprisoned, and subsequently exonerated. Inspired by the story of the “Exonerated Five,” the newly named entrance on Central Park North (110th Street) honors all who have been wrongfully convicted and recognizes the ongoing struggle to ensure justice for all.
The unveiling of the Gate of the Exonerated on December 19, 2022, caps several years of community talks and collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy, City of New York, and the Parks Department. It is the first and only official addition to the original named entrances created by the Park’s founders to honor the people and professions of New York City. Those names—including Merchants, Artists, Children, Strangers, and All Saints—were chosen to embrace the vision of Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for a democratic and inclusive greenspace that welcomes all New Yorkers.
A PAINFUL PAST
“The Gate of the Exonerated is a very contemporary gesture when we’re looking at social justice and the criminal system today and trying to correct some of the inequities in them,” says John Reddick, the Conservancy’s Director of Community Engagement Projects and a seminal figure in raising awareness of Harlem’s history and culture, as well as spearheading civic improvements. “It’s really set in the context of the history of the Park and the community, and so it bridges a lot.”
The gate dedication comes 20 years after the NYS Supreme Court vacated the convictions of five Harlem youths, by then young men and known as the Central Park Five, for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman, Trisha Meili, in 1989. Each had served between six and thirteen-plus years in prison before a jailed serial rapist confessed to the crime, confirmed by DNA evidence. A lawsuit filed by the group—Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam—was settled for $41 million in 2014, with the City of New York denying any wrongdoing.
Their arrests and the media coverage surrounding the case left members of the community feeling stigmatized and exiled from the Park, says John, who was part of the Conservancy team that worked closely with CB 10 to discuss the community’s concerns and to develop ideas for remediation. “All the joy they had coming to the Park before that incident—they no longer felt welcome,” he says.
Located on the Park’s northern border midway between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue, the Gate of the Exonerated stands at a threshold between the Park and the neighborhood where the five boys lived. For local residents and families, the open spaces and facilities just beyond the entrance are an essential playground and source of nature and its benefits.
“What was taken away from people in the community in the wake of the incident was a place that was meant to belong to everyone and a place of reprieve from the stresses of the city,” says Lane Addonizio, the Conservancy’s Vice President for Planning, Capital Projects. “For some it really cast a shadow over their relationship with the Park.”
RECONNECTING TO THE PARK
The Conservancy’s decades-long relationship with the Harlem community and work on transforming the northern end of Central Park proved vital in the effort to create a commemoration that would signify a sense of closure, healing, and welcoming back to the Park for the community.
“What we were hearing was the desire to have something that would make it clear that the community belonged in the Park and that the Park belongs to the community,” Lane says. “There was a desire for healing and for a reconciliation and reconnection to the Park.”
There was robust discussion about what healing means, how to mark a historic event, and how to stay true to the purpose and core vision of Central Park, she notes. The idea of naming a Park entrance to commemorate the exonerated was in keeping with the tradition of the Park founders who named the Park’s original 20 entryways to reflect the diverse human mosaic of New York City and to “extend to each citizen a respectful welcome.”
“Central Park is for the people who visit,” confirms Stormy McNair, Fundraising Manager for the Conservancy’s Women's Committee. Born and raised in Harlem, Stormy attended middle school with one of the boys, Raymond Santana, at the time of the conviction and saw first-hand the impact it had on her community. “It is truly an emotional moment for me,” she says of the unveiling. “This is how the Conservancy is giving back to the community, by understanding that these gentlemen’s entire lives changed when they entered the Park. It may not be what was supposed to happen, but it did.”
As Cicely Harris, CB 10 Chair, notes, the gate represents a social justice movement that is even bigger than the Exonerated Five themselves. “You can’t ignore the history of how Black, Brown, and economically disadvantaged people have been treated in the criminal justice system,” Cicely says. The gate, while speaking directly to the inequities experienced in the Park, is intended to “shed light on a larger issue.”
A NEW PATH FORWARD
The Gate of the Exonerated is the first entrance to be inscribed since the Conservancy finished etching the majority of the original gate names into the stone wall surrounding Central Park in early 2000. Fittingly, the techniques for inscribing the newest moniker also closely matched the methods used for the original entrances. In addition to hand chisels and mallets, the Conservancy’s expert preservation team used air scribes (a kind of pneumatic chisel) and various types of files to prepare and carve the sandstone.
“It’s not very often that you get to insert something into the Park that’s new and permanent, and something that means so much to the entire community,” says John Harrigan, Director of Park Infrastructure at the Conservancy, who oversaw the carving and placement of the new gate name and inscribed some of the words himself.
With its knowledge of the Park’s history and founders’ intentions, along with its familiarity with City requirements and guidelines, the Conservancy was able to play a key role in exploring options and bringing about a commemoration aligned with all parties.
That process, it turns out, brought its own benefits. Says Lane: “Working toward something as a community—through shared history and experience—is itself a form of healing.”
Stormy agrees: “It’s a difficult conversation to have, but with the Gate of the Exonerated, we are not only supporting these five men but the freedom of every young person who enters and exits through the gate, giving them the chance to feel pride in who they are.”
Luna Shyr is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal.
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