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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Hudson River Park, known as a quiet oasis from the hustle and bustle of Downtown, was the setting of a sexual assault on Sat., Sept. 22 — the second such incident to transpire in Lower Manhattan in the last two weeks.
Shortly after 5 a.m. before the break of dawn, a stranger attempted to converse with a 21-year-old girl who was perched on a bench near Pier 25. A short while later, the man struck the woman in the face, attempted to strangle her and then dragged her into the bushes, where he raped her. The girl broke free and reported the crime to Parks Enforcement Patrol (P.E.P.) officers who were preparing for the park’s 6 a.m. opening.
Police chased down the man, 25-year-old African-American Jonathan Stewart, who was charged with rape in the first degree and faces a “potentially long prison sentence,” according to New York Police Department Commissioner Paul Browne. Stewart’s last known address was a homeless shelter on Wards Island.
Though the incident was the first of its kind in Hudson River Park, according to officials, it has raised red flags among local and citywide politicians and residents, who are calling for increased safety in the city’s parks. The assault follows a Sept. 10 incident at the South Street Seaport’s Pier 15, where a man sexually abused a 54-year-old woman and proceeded to throw her off of the pier’s second story railing. The fall gave her a broken pelvis and other serious injuries. According to police, the two had become acquainted at Occupy Wall Street protests.
The perp, 44-year-old Jackie Barcliff — who police had been searching for in connection with the Aug. 12 rape of a 14-year-old girl — turned himself in to cops days later after seeing his photo in the media. He was subsequently charged with rape and attempted murder for the Pier 15 incident.
Per the usual protocol, the victims’ names have been withheld by the N.Y.P.D.
One incident of sexual assault in the park is one too many, asserted City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who organized a press conference near Pier 25 early Mon., Sept. 22. “We’re not going to yield one blade of grass, one acre of park, one corner, to perpetrators who think women are going to live in fear and hide in their homes,” she said. “This is our park; this is our city!”
The Speaker continued, “This victim needs to know that the city is with her and behind her.”
Quinn invited Tribeca resident Annie Weir and her three-year-old niece, Isla Paull, whose favorite place to play is the Pier 25 playground. Speaking at the press conference, Weir said, “I think it’s important ‘cause the parks are supposed to be a safe community place, and any act of violence is inappropriate.”
The Hudson River Park’s P.E.P. officers involved in Saturday’s rescue and chase voiced satisfaction in the job they performed — which entailed wrapping the naked rape victim in a blanket, calling the cops and aiding in hunting down Stewart at a nearby intersection.
“We’re glad we were able to assist in catching the rapist,” said Brenda Cruz, adding, “We were just doing our job.”
Between four and five P.E.P. officers patrol the park during nighttime hours, according to former Community Board 1 chair Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, the public benefit corporation that oversees the 550-acre park. “It’s because we were able to have security 24 hours a day — because we’ve chosen that’s a priority for the park — that the perpetrator was apprehended and the victim was come upon quickly after the rape,” she said.
Nevertheless, the incident had already occurred, making Saturday a “sad day” for her and her colleagues, she said.
Wils stressed the importance of adhering to the park’s hours of operation, noting that the 21-year-old victim was using the park while it was closed to the public. “When it’s open and the sun is out, it’s obviously a lot harder for these types of actions to take place,” she said. “It doesn’t defend an action taking place at any time…but I think it’s important to respect the rules.”
Bob Townley, director of the Manhattan Youth Downtown Community Center who has a daughter the same age as the victim, said that additional enforcement in the park is necessary to keep Stewart and other perpetrators away. While the park polices itself during the day and early evening, it becomes a desert in the less popular hours, thereby posing a threat to the occasional passerby during the off-hours, he said.
Townley and others are protesting the forthcoming budget cuts of the New York Police Department — by close to 3 percent percent this year and 4 percent the following year — which they fear will have an adverse effect on community safety. Wils mentioned that the P.E.P. officers responsible for monitoring Hudson River Park are solely funded by the Trust.
Additional enforcement is crucial, according to Townley, who predicts that Hudson River Park will grow to be as popular as Central Park in the coming years.
“At the advisory committee one-and-a-half years ago,” he said, “I was on record saying this type of thing could happen, because there are a lot of people jogging here…and there’s a lot of times where there are no park police here.”
Currently, the First Precinct boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the entire city, according to Commissioner Browne. The area’s rape rate, in particular, has decreased from eight last September to five such cases since January 2012.
Browne denied a pattern that could explain the occurrence of two rapes in such a short period of time, saying, “A pattern indicates the same individual in a crime.”
Another means of preventing such incidents is training park users on how to protect themselves, the politicians indicated. City Council Member Margaret Chin, for one, has set aside discretionary funds to start a self-defense class in Chinatown in the coming months. Chin herself takes Tai Chi classes once a week on Baxter Street.
“People think it’s slow movement, but it also makes you more aware of your environment,” she said of the exercise. “You could use it to protect yourself.”