Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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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

http://www.dnainfo.com/20110612/washington-heights-inwood/two-sex-assault-suspects-on-loose-upper-manhattan

http://www.dnainfo.com/20110611/washington-heights-inwood/woman-raped-inwood-hill-park-sources-say



About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

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

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