They entered the northeast corner of Central Park one night in 1989 and were later falsely prosecuted for the brutal attack and rape of a woman who was jogging. Now five Black and Latino men, who went to prison as teenagers and spent years behind bars for a crime they did not commit, are being honored by the city, which is renaming a gate to the park for them.
“The Gate of the Exonerated,” it will be called.
The men, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, were cleared in 2002. Ever since society has tried to understand and make amends for a mistake that cannot be undone. The men received $41 million in a settlement with New York City. Their case was the subject of a 2012 documentary, a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera and a 2019 Netflix mini-series exploring how so much could have gone so wrong.
The designation of the gate is a rare instance of a municipality formally memorializing its colossal mistake, acknowledging the error in sandstone, etched onto the wall at the point where the teenagers entered the park that evening.
The project began three years ago when members of the local community board and members of the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that administers the park for the city, began discussing possible ways to recognize the injustice in a public way. Final approval came Monday in a vote by the Public Design Commission, the New York City panel that oversees the city’s art, including its public monuments.
Yusef Salaam, one of the men who had their lives upended by the convictions, said in an interview that the gate was a form of vindication, one he had actually envisioned years ago as a fitting way to record the wrongs.
“Every time people go by the gate and remember what happened here, even after we are gone, our story will enlighten people,” he said.
America has typically marked incendiary moments of social injustice with murals on walls, or impromptu memorials created by family and friends. The killings of Amadou Diallo and George Floyd have been recognized that way. Much rarer are moments when government entities use the enduring language of a public space to record their own misdeeds.
One other example cited by experts is the 2015 decision by lawmakers in Chicago to build a monument honoring more than 125 people who were physically tortured by a former police detective to extract false confessions. Finding the funds to create that monument is still a work in progress.
In New York, even before Monday’s final approval, workers for the conservancy had begun chiseling away the sandstone sections of the wall using pneumatic devices and hand tools.
Revisiting the Central Park Jogger Case
Five teenagers of color, known as the Central Park Five, were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in 1989 in a case that shook New York City and the nation.
- Exoneration: The convictions against the five men were overturned after the true assailant was identified in 2002. They would later win a $41 million settlement from the city.
- A Sixth Co-Defendant: In 2022, Steven Lopez, who had also faced rape charges in the 1989 case, had a robbery charge linked to the attack cleared from his record.
- ‘When They See Us’: In 2019, a Netflix mini-series retold the story of the case, depicting the excruciating toll that persecution and incarceration had on the five boys.
- Looking Back: In a series of conversations with The Times, the Central Park Five discussed the fateful events of the case 30 years later.
“It is a self-flagellation at the official level,” said Michele H. Bogart, an art historian who specializes in public art.
Many miscarriages of justice attract attention, but the jogger case convictions had drawn particular scrutiny because of the speed and ferocity with which the news media and others had demonized the teenagers before trial.
When their convictions were overturned, the Central Park Five — Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson — had already served between six to 13 years in prison. The admissions made during police interrogations were later discredited as coerced when an older man with no connection to the teenagers, Matias Reyes, confessed to the attack. DNA evidence later confirmed that he was the attacker.
Central Park has dozens of entrances including 19 named gates that were designated as part of the original 19th-century design, all with purposefully broad titles like Artisans’ Gate, Merchants’ Gate and Women’s Gate. In 1862, park commissioners said the names should “be representative of the whole people” and “extend to each citizen a respectful welcome.” The new gate will be the first to be named since then.
The Gate of the Exonerated was previously unnamed; it was a newer entrance near the park’s northeast corner that Robert Moses added during his reign as park commissioner in the 1950s when he also added playgrounds and pathways to the greenery.
In discussion before the vote on Monday, several members of the design commission spoke passionately about the importance of recognizing the injustice. “I feel like it is a moment of truth and reconciliation,” said Mary Valverde, a member. “It is a gesture for not just the city, but for the country to recognize.”
The conservancy is covering the cost of refashioning the gate, a project it said would probably have cost as much as $100,000 if it had not been able to use its own workers to make the adjustments. An unveiling ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 19, and the conservancy is working on additional programming and signage at the park that will help tell the story of what happened to the men who supporters now refer to as the Exonerated Five.
Community Board 10, which includes Central Harlem, first raised the suggestion of creating something in the park to recognize the injustice during a meeting hosted by the Central Park Conservancy to discuss improvements to the northern section of the park.
The following year, the board unanimously voted to support the installation of a permanent exhibition to commemorate the wrongfully convicted men. Sharonne Salaam, Yusef’s mother, became involved, as did the Manhattan borough president at the time, Gale Brewer.
“I love statues like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but we need more of these kinds of remembrances in the park,” Brewer, now a councilwoman, said in a phone interview.
The project was approved by Manhattan’s 11 other community boards ahead of the final vote by the design commission. Though the unanimous approval of community boards is not typically part of the public art review process, Brewer said she asked for additional input because she sought a broad consensus.
Several years ago, Brewer had supported creating a monument in the park to honor suffragists, a project that drew criticism for lacking Black women. The civil rights activist Sojourner Truth was later added to the monument, which now stands a few blocks south of Bethesda Fountain.
“I did not want to go through all that again,” Brewer said.
Over the course of the three years, the conservancy worked with the local officials and the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation to refine the proposal through several iterations. There was initially some conversation about creating a monument but officials later decided to designate an entry point where people move in and out of the park, a marker with resonance for men who had unfairly lost their freedom.
Officials described the decision as a unique response to the appalling aftermath of a horrific crime that was now part of the park’s history.
“It is not a routine thing,” said John Reddick, the conservancy’s director of community engagement. “We aren’t going around to name the other gates.”
Though public monuments have become a flash point in recent years, supporters of the gate project said it faced little opposition during the approval process. One objection was raised by a former consultant to the Central Park Conservancy, Ken Frydman, who published an opinion piece in The Daily News that questioned whether the jogger’s name should be included in any remembrance.
The jogger, Trisha Meili, has not commented publicly on the gate’s dedication.
“We are just focusing on the experience of the Exonerated Five,” said Karen Horry, chair of the parks and recreation committee of Community Board 10. “There are so many stories like theirs, unfortunately, where people have suffered similar injustices.”
Cicely Harris, the chair of Community Board 10, said, “We aren’t taking away from the seriousness of the crime; we are highlighting another injustice.”
For Salaam, the gate is a sign of respect. “This is about giving recognition to something that should have never happened,” he said. “The gate is just one example of healing, and how our path to healing is continuous.”