Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York
Hunter College

The Night that Astronomers Took Back the Park

An article for the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York, June 18, 2011

There are times when astronomers are called upon to do more than just relish the wonders of the night sky. Sometimes they must address the deep needs of their community.

Such an event happened on the night of June 10. In upper Manhattan's Inwood Hill Park, where I do all my public stargazing events, a woman was raped. I didn't know about it until the next day, and in between, two other women were sexually assaulted in Washington Heights, just down the street.

These three events stunned everyone in my neighborhood. Until I learned otherwise, I was afraid that the rape victim had been attacked as she tried to find my observing event, even though I'd canceled it due to clouds. It was no comfort to learn that she was attacked while walking alone in the Dyckman Fields, far from the hilltop.

Outraged, I talked with police and wrote an open article on my web page about the attack and how we must not cede the parks at night to criminals. We needed to take back our Park.

As northern Manhattan's most vocal advocate of the use of the parks at night, I quickly realized it was my responsibility to state unequivocally that the criminals wouldn't take our safety from us. I decided to hold a stargazing event in support of community safety.

On Wednesday, June 15, the call was heard. With more than 2,000 hits on my article and the stargazing-event announcement in two days, I knew I had done the right thing. That night, more than 100 people showed up, including AAA members Bruce Kamiat, Howard Fink, Leo Genn, Jordan Kushner and Ji Yong Chung, each of whom brought equipment and enthusiasm. Sam Grundell of the Columbia University astronomy undergraduate group Redshift brought a telescope and three people.

We looked at the storms of Saturn and the craters on the Moon. Their grandeur gave everyone pause, helping ease concerns and giving a hopeful turn to the evening. And the community responded. I saw more women at this event, especially in groups, than I'd ever seen come to these events. Many offered thanks, some tearfully, for our effort and support.

Some who came out were quiet, just chatting among themselves, considering what's next to be done. Even the neighborhood group of hula-hoopers, about 15, brought their hoops out at night, and taught people their dance. The Inwood Safety Patrol talked to people informally about the park, and people of all kinds chatted about the horrible events and how to make our living area safer, which was the real purpose of the event.

We needed to come out and take back our park, to demand that it be ours and to show support for the women whose lives have been horribly altered. As urban astronomers, we have a keen interest, and a sometimes lonely voice, as we advocate the night sky. But as much as we love the sky, we need to be aware that people can perceive our outreach as naïve, and even dangerous. It's our obligation to make our sacred night sky sessions safe, so that fear doesn't win. To that end, every stargazing event must be thought of, in an urban environment, as an opportunity to help keep our parks safe for everyone's use, not just astronomers.

We all hope that the club's efforts to take back the park remove one more hiding place for such criminals, preserving room for our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and friends to experience the night sky safely in our great city.

Articles on the Attacks



William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific