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Morningside Park Neighbors Seek ‘Honest Conversation’ After Tessa Majors Slay

A rose lies near the steps where Barnard College freshman for Tessa Majors was killed in Morningside Park in December.
A rose lies near the steps where Barnard College freshman for Tessa Majors was killed in Morningside Park in December. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Six weeks after the killing of Barnard College freshman Tessa Majors — and the arrests of two young teens — thrust Morningside Park into national headlines, local leaders want to bring neighbors together for an “honest conversation” about moving forward.

The group Friends of Morningside Park and the Manhattan Borough President’s Office are set to hold a public discussion Wednesday involving residents and an array of organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club and NYCHA tenants associations along with representatives from P.S. 180 and the NYPD. Organizers say the forum will cover security as well as a wide range of issues from opportunities for youth to park maintenance.

“The idea is to have a dialogue because we are concerned about Morningside Park,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “It is all open. Nothing closed at all. And all ideas are welcome.”

A memorial for Tessa Majors in Morningside Park, Dec. 16, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Organizers said they are trying to avoid the forum turning into an “airing of grievances.” So after intros and updates, facilitators will lead six breakout sessions on topics such as “Unifying/Bridge Building,” “Public Safety,” “Park Improvements” and “Implicit Bias/Professional Development.”

“I hope that all voices get equal airing at this meeting and no group dominates it,” said Councilmember Mark Levine, a Democrat who represents the area. ”I know there will be sensitivity about that potential.”

“Until all parties involved are willing to bring their authentic self and honest conversation, there will be no trust,” said Aissatou Bey-Grecia, vice president of the Friends of Morningside Park.

Killing Sparked Strong Reactions

Majors was fatally stabbed Dec. 11 on the steps of Morningside Park. The next day police arrested a 13-year-old boy and said he had made a statement implicating himself as an accomplice, although only his uncle was present at the time, not a lawyer. Investigators alleged Majors’ death was the result of a mugging carried out by three teens.

A 14-year-old boy was later picked up for questioning, after police gave his picture to the media, but he was later released. Authorities have not yet charged anyone with carrying out the killing.

The killing of the white 19-year-old Virginian and arrests of the black youngsters sparked differing reactions across the community — from calls for more police presence to urgent reminders of the Central Park Five case, recently reintroduced to the American mainstream via Netflix.

The neighborhoods that sandwich the park, Morningside Heights and Central Harlem, have both changed over the last couple of decades, Census data shows. In 2000, Morningside Heights was about 43% Hispanic, 29% black and 20% white, while in 2018 those numbers shifted to 40%, 23% and 26% respectively. In Harlem, the black population dipped from 77% to 56% during the same period, while the white population rose from about 2% to 14%.

Meanwhile Morningside Park, which is 30 acres, had more robberies last year than any other park in the city, excluding Central Park, which is nearly 30 times larger.

Calls for Security and Calm

As dusk fell on Morningside Park Monday, families raced up and down the steep, winding steps that ascend to Columbia University and descend to Central Harlem. Bundled-up kids giggled in puff jackets as they climbed and played on a jungle gym.

Parents watched from park benches and talked to THE CITY about what they wanted to see come out of the Wednesday night gathering.

A flyer on a bulletin board near the playground advertises the Morningside Park Community Forum.
A flyer on a bulletin board near the playground advertises the Morningside Park Community Forum. Photo: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

“Not criminalizing the kids is important for me,” Joshua Marte said as he kept an eye on his kids, who were playing on a jungle gym. “I have daughters and I have nieces and nephews and I wouldn’t want them to be you know prosecuted or wrongly mishandled because of other children. I know NYPD can be a scary thing depending on how you come across them.”

Marte said he might attend the forum in a more official capacity as a supervisor at Street Corner Resources, a nonprofit that works with young people to lessen violence. He also suggested a solution: more emergency phones on park paths.

Johnny Ortiz walked a small terrier, Zoe, on Morningside Drive along the park. He said he’d grown up in the neighborhood and used to run around in the park.

He hopes to see more lights in the park and increased police patrols. More importantly, he said: “Everybody just needs to keep an eye out for each other.”

The forum will take place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Police Athletic League building at 441 Manhattan Avenue, and is open to the public.

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