The park is now a 120-acre ribbon of forests, ponds, and clearings straddling the boundary between the Westville and Edgewood neighborhoods. Since the days of Olmsted, the communities have added a gazebo, a skate park, a basketball court, seven tennis courts, and a paved path for walking, jogging, and biking that people still call the “carriage road,” which runs the length of the park.
This past summer, a series of attacks disturbed the tranquility of the Edgewood Park community. Two similar, unresolved attacks occurred in daylight on an isolated section of the carriage road only seven day apart. On Fri., July 26, a 63 year-old resident of Beaver Hills was assaulted by a group of teenagers on bikes while he was taking a jog. They beat him up without a clear motive, as he had no valuables with him, then fled on their bicycles. The New Haven Independent reported that the man sustained a broken arm and required stitches in his forehead.
A week later, on Fri., August 2, an adolescent struck a jogger in the back of the neck with his arm as he and his friends were passing by on bikes. The jogger continued on, and when he came upon the group again they began to taunt him. He decided it was unsafe to confront the teens and turned back towards the duck pond where there would be more park visitors.
Following these incidents, a stigma attached itself to Edgewood Park, with residents anxious about safety and traveling alone in some of the park’s more secluded areas. In response to this shift, the Friends of Edgewood Park, an organization created over thirty years ago to advocate for the park’s health and safety, hosted a rally on Tues., October 1. At the event, the group announced a new campaign to reclaim public perception and citizen involvement surrounding this recreational space. They’re calling the campaign “Take Back the Park.”
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The other night, I found myself pedaling through the Edgewood Park entrance at the corner of Chapel and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard (an intersection 16 blocks west of Cross Campus). The carriage road was deserted as I accelerated downhill towards the center of the park. I knew Edgewood closed at sunset, and I began to think I was trespassing.
As I reached the base of the hill, a pond appeared to my left. I barely tapped my brakes. In only a minute and a half, the quiet park had filled me with an anxiety that my Vermont mind usually reserves for Manhattan. My head pivoted back over both shoulders every few pumps of the pedals.
As I approached the underpass below the great stone bridge that carries Edgewood Avenue over the West River, I came to a stop. The next stretch of the carriage road was fifty feet of shadow followed by several hundred yards of empty straightaway lined by stands of tall hardwoods. This was the segment creating all the stir; this was where the attacks occurred over the summer.
Martin Torresquintero, who has worked for the New Haven Parks and Recreation Department as the Outdoor Adventure Coordinator since 1999, has witnessed the decline in park safety firsthand. “When I started working for the New Haven Parks, we used to have 104 full-time employees,” he said to me. “Now, we’re less than 50. Every time we lose staff, everything suffers a little bit.” He said he remembers when there used to be two park rangers assigned only to Edgewood Park, whereas now there is one that three different park facilities share.
I pushed off on my bike towards the site of the attacks. I worked myself into a frenzy, checking blind spots as if assailants might collapse on me from the trees. Just as my sensations of fear and vulnerability reached a peak, a clearing opened on my left. I almost laughed out loud. Here, on the banks of West River, where I was feeling more unsafe than at any other place in New Haven, was a group of adults sweating through a game of volleyball. I slowed and watched the ball float back and forth over the net.
Just then, a man emerged from the woods on my right, catching me off guard. The blood rushed fast to my face as I prepared for every possible confrontation in my head. He smiled at me and walked across the width of the road, throwing his athletic bag down next to the volleyball court and exchanging greetings with the other players.
I continued on towards the west end of the park, and with each new runner, dog walker, and family on bikes, I became increasingly embarrassed. The attacks over the summer had distorted this place, painting it as some strange criminal hotbed in my mind before my first visit.
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This is exactly what the Friends of Edgewood Park are attempting to battle. Willie Hoffman moved to New Haven two years ago with his wife and two young children, and now he acts as the organization’s president. “It’s a grassroots rallying of all people and all neighborhoods of the park to take ownership,” he said of the Take Back the Park Campaign. Hoffman said that the park’s change in public image following the attacks is understandable, but argued that the concern is not based in fact: “Crime data shows that maybe once a year something happens, but for the most part we’re one of the safest parks in the city. So it’s taking back that perception.”
The New Haven Police, like Hoffman, are confident that Edgewood Park is a safe community space. Sergeant Renee Forte, the District Manager at the Westville / West Hills New Haven Police Department Substation, said that although no arrests were made following the attacks to joggers, there is no reason to stop visiting the park. “Since we made the public aware, and it made the news, so maybe the suspects were made aware, we have not had any further assaults in Edgewood Park,” Forte said. She explained that while crimes can occur at any time and for any reason, an increase in police bike patrol and civilian reporting has been helpful in calming the anxieties from last summer.
Proof of this can be found any weekday evening at Edgewood’s west end—the skate park, tennis courts, and jogging paths are full with New Haven residents seeking to play and plug back into the landscape. The Take Back the Park campaign is in its early stages, but the vitality of the park reflects a promising community energy. “The park’s essential function,” Hoffman said, “is for the overall health of people and the city—to be able to go and recreate, and have a piece of nature, and go outside, and have a space where people can relax in different ways. That’s kind of its heart, I would say—the health aspect.”
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As I biked back along the full length of the carriage road, I thought of 67 year-old New Haven resident John Ellis, who lives on the perimeter of Edgewood Park. While walking his black lab around the edge of the park, he commented, “I would feel bad if we were going to say, ‘If you’re young and riding a bike then you have to get out of the park.’ That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what New Haven’s about.”
I climbed back up the first hill and pedaled out through the gate onto Chapel Street. Leaving Edgewood Park, I was suddenly very glad that I would be allowed to return.