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Morningside Park Shootings Worry Area Parents

By Jeff Mays | July 12, 2011 12:42pm
Melissa Chu has not brought her daughter Emma back to the park since a June 30 shooting on the street behind the playground.
Melissa Chu has not brought her daughter Emma back to the park since a June 30 shooting on the street behind the playground.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — For a year, Melissa Chu, 36, had been taking her daughter Emma to the 116th Street Morningside Park playground at least once a day.

The five-year-old playground, close to her home on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is always filled with children and their parents.

But Chu hasn't been back since June 30.

She was in the park that night at around 8 p.m. when a teenager across the street pulled out a gun and fired shots. That shooting, along with another on June 3 at a basketball court on 118th Street, has parents worried about bringing their kids to the park.

"I just grabbed my little girl and ran in the other direction," Chu said of the June 30 incident.

"Some parents were yelling, others thought they were fireworks and others started yelling, 'gun!'"

In the earlier shooting, a 16-year-old was playing basketball when he was approached and shot twice. He was taken to an area hospital and listed in stable condition, according to the New York Post.

"The playground is beautiful and I never felt intimidated before, but I haven't been back," Chu said.

"We go to Central Park. The walk is a little further, but I'm not willing to take chances. This happened when the playground was crowded with people, not in the middle of night."

Over 200 area parents, a mix of newcomers and long-time residents, have drafted a letter asking for an increased police presence, and are meeting with members of Community Board 9 and local politicians this week.

"These are kids with guns on bikes who are riding around shooting at one another," said Jake Barton, 38, a designer who lives across from the playground with his wife and two children.

Barton said some parents were angry because they felt their concerns about the shooting were not being taken seriously enough by police and elected officials.

Calls for comment were not immediately returned by the NYPD.

One parent, Barton says, was told that shootings happen all the time in Harlem and that the two June shooting incidents were no big deal.

"Ten years ago, people would shrug these shootings off by saying: 'It's Harlem.' Now the neighborhood is not willing to accept that as an answer," said Barton.

In addition to a thorough investigation of the shootings, parents want to know what is being done to address the larger issue of gun violence by young people.

They also want help addressing other quality of life issues such as the littering and proliferation of the homeless in the nearby subway station, since the token booth clerk was removed.

Brad Taylor, a board member and former president of Friends of Morningside Park, and a member of Community Board 9, claimed the incidents are being taken seriously and that the park has undergone a revitalization in recent years.

"Safety has to be our No. 1 priority," Taylor said. "This kind of thing can also set back the revitalization of the park, so we need to get a handle on it."

The park, designed by Central Park's creators, received landmark status in 2008. In February, the Parks Department unveiled plans for renovating its northern end from West 121st to West 123rd streets.

Fueled by an increase in residential construction along Morningside Park and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the 116th Street playground is used heavily.

On a recent summer night, dozens of kids and parents played on the jungle gym while others frolicked in the sprinklers. Two blocks away, another dozen or so kids were running a full court game of basketball.

Lynette Velasco, a spokesperson for Councilwoman Inez Dickens, said she is alarmed about the shootings in and near Morningside Park because of how heavily the playground is used by area kids and parents.

Dickens wants to address some of the issues raised by area parents by requesting more foot patrols from police, but also providing programs and jobs that address the root causes of gun violence, Velasco said. Funding cuts to programs such as the summer youth jobs has made that more difficult.

Indeed, many area parents say they have noticed more teens filling areas of the park normally reserved for younger kids.  Residents also said they have noticed an increase in the number of fights and gunshots that they hear.

"We can't use a band aid approach. It's not really one incident we are trying to deal with, we are trying to deal with an increase in the proliferation of violence that has hit our kids," Velasco said.

Despite the recent shootings, many parents said they feel comfortable enough to continue to bring their children to the park.

Dean Phillips, 40, said when he heard the shots on June 30 he grabbed his 6- and 2-year-old sons and left the park. But yesterday, he was back.

"I still come all the time because there haven't been any problems since," he said. "What we need is more trips for these kids who are doing the shooting. Get them out of the city so they can see more than brick buildings and gangs."

Chris Robinson, 42, said the shootings are one of the reasons he and his wife constantly debate about whether they should flee to the suburbs with their young son.

"Every time you get lulled into this notion of a new Harlem you hear about incidents like these. It reminds us that there still is a certain element that chooses to use weapons to solve their problems," Robinson said.

Hugo Bastidas, 54, a painter, said he was more aware when he brings his 23-month-old son, Theo, to the park. As he encouraged his son to use the slide yesterday, he said he wanted more of a police presence to discourage crime.

But what has kept him coming to the park has been the overwhelming community response to the shooting.

"I know the neighborhood is safe because of all the concerned people here," Bastidas said. "I'm hoping that, as more concerned people move in and join with the people who are already here, we will feel even more empowered to address this issue."