Kharey Wise, the oldest of the Central Park Five, is arraigned in court (Photo by NY Daily News via Getty Images)
When I dig for memories of New York City’s mood at the hinge of the 1980s and ’90s, I come up with those “No Radio” signs then visible behind every other car windshield. For those too young to remember, these mostly handmade signs were supposed to let thieves know in advance that the drivers had temporarily extracted the car radios they were seeking—or that, as was often the case, they were already too late. I never saw these signs before, and I haven’t seen them since. Dashboards aren’t what they used to be. But neither is the level of anxiety pervading the city in the wake of the 1987 economic crash that, for a time, crimped New York’s Reagan-era swagger and reawakened fears of widespread physical squalor, emotional imbalance and fiscal decay.
Both The Central Park Five and Koch, two recent documentaries released in theaters within months of each other, evoke what many New Yorkers were afraid of losing—or retaining—a quarter-century ago. It may be only coincidence that they’re arriving as the economy is shaking off another case of the bends—or, more precisely, just shaking. This time, New Yorkers have talked themselves into believing that we all get along with each other better than we did four mayors ago—even though the disparities between the city’s classes have not been so deep or so wide since the Gilded Age. These films, contrasting in some ways, congruent in others, allow us to peek nervously over our shoulders at those disquieting times, while making us wonder whether we shouldn’t be so sanguine about the present day.
In Koch, scenes of graffiti-smothered subway cars, burning tenements, vandalism and crime flash by in what has become a customary visual shorthand for New York’s economically blighted condition in the 1970s. In Central Park Five, there’s another montage of images where there’s much more energy on the streets, reflecting the succeeding decade’s financial turnaround. With this energy comes a spike in street crime, a crack cocaine epidemic, and a surge of racial tension also redolent of the go-go 1980s. All these manifestations of hubris and anxiety provide a rough portrait of the city’s state of mind leading up to the night of April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old investment banker was severely beaten and sexually assaulted in Central Park, where she’d been jogging.
As recounted in Central Park Five, a stirring j’accuse produced and directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, confessions were secured over the course of two days from five minority teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam—who later recanted, but were convicted in 1990 and ‘91 and spent as many as thirteen years incarcerated before Matias Reyes, who was already doing time for murder and other rapes, declared that he was the only one who’d beaten and raped the woman. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed his guilt, which led the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to vacate the original convictions.
One would have thought, upon reading most of the reviews of the Burns family’s film late last year, that this reversal had only now been publicly disclosed, even though Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau declared their innocence of the crime ten years earlier.
If anyone during the original trials (other than the defendants’ families or their supporters) had even vaguely suggested that this could have been the ultimate outcome, they would have likely been greeted with, at best, an angry glare. In the newsroom of New York Newsday, where I started working while the trials were taking place in the spring of 1990, I especially remember the seething fury of a white woman colleague when I tentatively expressed doubt about the prosecution’s case. I resolved never to bring it up again (and didn’t). Yet, as just about everybody who’s seen the film is now willing to acknowledge (along with many more who will likely see it this month on PBS), there was at the time a more than adequate foundation for reasonable doubt, not the least of which was the lack of physical evidence corroborating the boys’ confessions and the discrepancies between those confessions and the scenarios put forth by the prosecution.