By Carla Zanoni
UPPER MANHATTAN — Three weeks after a string of unsolved sexual assaults left residents in Inwood and Washington Heights fearful for their safety, area residents gathered in uptown parks to reclaim their safety in the neighborhood.
Police have yet to make arrests and have publicly stated they have exhausted all leads, leaving women in the area anxious and worried about repeat incidents.
But rather than stay home paralyzed by the fear, many said they are taking steps to reclaim the streets and parks with at least three groups reigniting neighborhood group initiatives meant to empower residents so that they feel comfortable enjoying the neighborhood at all hours.
"This is our neighborhood, we are making a statement that we have control here, not the bad guys," said Inwood resident Karen Mullens, who attended a "Take Back the Parks" event and said she plans on taking a self-defense class soon.
The event was started by astronomer Jason Kendall, whose Inwood Astronomy Club has been hosting popular astronomy nights in uptown parks for years.
Kendall rebranded the stargazing events in order to rally residents into a more proactive protection of their neighborhood., and added self-defense classes for women every two weeks.
"The Inwood community's response should be to increase our responsible use of Inwood Hill Park after dark," he wrote in a missive right after the sexual assaults. "If we do not go out and use it after dark with friends and family, we cede the Park to the miscreants. We cannot allow that to happen."
In addition to organizing the events, Kendall has called on the Parks Department to investigate lighting conditions in neighborhood parks, suggesting that better targeted lighting – akin to placing a lampshade on streetlamps – instead of the current system of shining light up and overhead might improve safety in parks.
"You can’t see if someone is 200 yards in front of you in this park," he said during a recent night walk through Inwood Hill Park. "More people would use the park if they felt safer here and lighting plays a large role."
For two cycling friends, using the park at night has been an interesting way to get out in the neighborhood and exercise, so patrolling the parks at the same time just made sense.
"We ride together anyway, so why not do it at night when there might also be some community value?" said night ride organizer, Keith Snyder, who thought of the idea for nightly rides with the Angel Figueroa, the Inwood man who first created the Inwood Safety Patrol in 2010 after a spate of muggings and sexual assaults.
"Other than offering us the ability to cover more ground and cover it quickly, we get the added benefit of being outside being a presence in the neighborhood," Figueroa said.
In addition to nighttime use of the parks, women in the neighborhood are also learning self-defense techniques should they ever be confronted with a violent situation.
The Guardian Angels returned to Northern Manhattan to teach self-defense tactics to women after first teaching classes in the area in response to last year’s sexual assaults and muggings of women.
Organized by the 34th Precinct Community Council, the group is now exploring whether to hold biweekly "academy-type" classes where women can build their knowledge of self-defense techniques, instead of just repeating the same class every two weeks, the Manhattan Times reported.
For some, the mere presence and availability of such classes is empowering.
"I learned a lot about how to protect myself," said one female Inwood resident who took the first class on June 23 and asked to remain anonymous for safety. "Most importantly though, I feel stronger, both for myself and my community."