Policing and Privilege in the Urban Wilds: Whiteness, Sex, and Nature Enjoyment in New York’s Central Park

Authors: Dawn Biehler*, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Topics: Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race, Sexuality
Keywords: whiteness, urban nature, policing, sexuality, public space
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: 8217, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In August, 1926, a white police officer, Joseph Higgins, beat Clinton DeForest, a black actor and popular “female impersonator,” as DeForest traversed Central Park. DeForest soon died from his injuries. In Central Park in the early 1900s, police brutality and harassment particularly affected park goers like DeForest: people of color, people suspected of transgressing norms of gender and sexuality, or those otherwise accused of “acting suspiciously” in urban nature. Black women in the Park faced harassment from police and other park-goers, who presumed they were sex workers. Police also arrested and sometimes beat men who visited the Park to seek other men as sex partners. Despite potential dangers, Central Park remained an important public space for blacks and gay men. Meanwhile, police actively supported an emerging group of Park users: bird-watchers, who were mostly white, affluent men. The ornithologist Ludlow Griscom recalled that his “clan” of birders was “quite eccentric and barely respectable” when they began gathering in the Park. By the 1920s, however, police generously accommodated birders, ferrying messages about where to find a newly-arrived heron or warbler. Birders leveraged whiteness to become privileged users of urban nature and public space, in spite of their eccentricities, at a moment when police surveilled the same parts of the park for even vaguely unusual behavior. Meanwhile, some users who would have otherwise faced harassment could gain safety or cover through nature enjoyment activities, such as equestrian classes for black women; men cruising for men sometimes took on the mannerisms of birders.

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