How safe (or not) is Thornden Park?

While the 76-acre park adjacent to SU's campus has a reputation for criminal activity, actual incidents since 2008 suggest the popular spot may not be as dangerous as many believe.

What comes to mind when you hear the words Thornden Park?

Picnics, fresh air, long walks and gardens?

Or rather, is it rape, robbery, assault and murder?

If you’re a Syracuse University student, there’s a good chance Thornden’s sinister reputation as a place where criminals lurk behind every rose bush trumps nearly anything you’ve heard about the park’s assets.

Thornden Park is home to an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool; amphitheater; playground; athletic fields; basketball and tennis courts; a fitness course; free exercise classes led by a physical therapist from Upstate Medical University; a number of annual festivals and performances; and 76 acres of gardens and rolling green space, including an herb garden, and the famous E.M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden.

Many students take advantage of Thornden’s features.

“I run in there all the time,” said education sophomore Carly Romenesko. Romenesko said there are lots of rumors about the park being dangerous, but she feels safe when she’s there. “I’ve never seen or heard anything that led me otherwise,” she said.

Social work junior Carren Summerville likes Thornden Park.

“I’ve been on picnics at the park, I’ve been there with my sisters, I’ve taken pictures in the park.” Summerville said students should always be cautious, regardless of where they are. “Wherever you go, there’s going to be danger, even if you’re on campus or off campus,” she said.

“I play football there, during the day, sometimes,” said Bobby Kopp, a public health junior, who doesn’t perceive the park as dangerous. “I heard the rose bushes is a nice place to take a lady,” he said. But Kopp also acknowledged the park’s less wholesome reputation, as a place associated with rape.

Kopp’s friend Lauren Searles, also a public health junior, said she’ll never go to the park – rose bushes included – because of what she has heard about the dangers that lurk there. “We always get emails about muggings in the park, and just about it being a really unsafe place,” she said.

When she arrived at SU, Searles was warned by peers to stay away from the park. “You hear about it a lot,” she said. “They’re like ‘whatever you do, don’t go to Thornden Park.’”

The brutal 1981 rape of bestselling author Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones, 2002) as she cut through Thornden Park, one Saturday night when she was a student at SU, plays a role in the park’s infamy. Sebold eventually published a memoir of the experience called Lucky (1999).

According to SU Bookstore records, Lucky was ordered for three classes during the fall 2010, spring, and fall 2011 semesters, said Chris Jenkins in the bookstore’s textbook department.

Several months after Sebold’s rape, the Syracuse Herald-Journal reported four more attacks in Thornden Park. Over a period of one October 1981 week, an SU professor, two SU students, and one local high school student were assaulted and robbed in the park, separately.

Years later, crime data from the Syracuse Police Department tells a different story.

What the numbers show

This chart compares the number of major crimes in Syracuse's East Side community and those only in the Thornden Park area.

This chart shows the total number of major violent crimes in Thornden Park from 2008-2011.

According to SPD crime data, the kinds of violent crimes students associate with Thornden Park (rape, robbery, and assault) occur more often in the vicinity of campus housing, than the park.

SPD crime analyst Kim Brundage warns against looking at the park’s crime rate according to percentages, because the number of violent “Part 1” crimes (murder, rape, assault, and robbery) that have occurred in the park are so low.

Of the 570 violent crimes reported in the Eastside neighborhood since 2008, only 16 occurred in Thornden Park (zero murders, one rape, 12 robberies, and 3 aggravated assaults).

Although one rape in the park is arguably too many, there was also one rape reported on each of the following streets during the same 2008-2011 time period: Ackerman Avenue, College Place, Ostrom Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue, Walnut Avenue, Waverly Avenue, Westcott Street, and Winding Ridge Road.

What do students say?

Colloquially known as “rape park,” Thornden is avoided by many students, who are uneasy about its reputation for such crimes, said Searles. Adding to the folklore, firm warnings from upperclassmen, the SU Department of Public Safety, and residence advisers, have met incoming freshman for decades.

“I’m told not to go inside the park, so I haven’t ever stepped foot inside of it,” said Sabrina Cammock, an SU freshman who said she was warned about Thornden at the check-in area of her residence hall, on move-in day last August.

Katie LaMark, a senior drama major, recalls hearing an array of cautionary tales about the park when she arrived at SU. “I can remember that being one of the first things I heard about, and mostly from peers,” she said. Although LaMark lives directly across the street from Thornden, she rarely enters the park.

“I’ve gone closer, and I just turned back,” said Wailly Tamayo, a junior social work major, who sees the park as dark and foreboding. “Everyone says stay away from it. DPS says stay away from it, because you never know what might be there,” Tamayo said.

DPS officer Keith Schauer confirmed he personally advises students not to go into Thornden Park, if they don’t have to.

SU alumnus Julia Jones remembers similar warnings about the park as far back as 1973, when she was a freshman in the drama department. But Jones never bought into the folklore. Now, as a retired Syracuse Police officer, a resident of the SU neighborhood for more than 30 years, and a frequent visitor of the park, Jones says Thornden isn’t any more dangerous than other parts of the surrounding Eastside neighborhood.

“The park is not the negative factor,” Jones said. Instead, she explained the culture clash between “the haves, and the have-nots” creates opportunities for criminals to take advantage of naïve and comparatively privileged students, wherever they are.

More often than not, these crimes of opportunity don’t occur in Thornden Park, Jones said, but in and around student housing. Crime data from the Syracuse Police Department confirms this is true.

Search Syracuse Police crime data

The following database compiles police report for for the Eastside neighborhood from 2008 to 2011, including the four types of violent "Part I" crimes: murder, rape,
robbery, and aggravated assault. Use the dropdown menu to select a year (or all years) and enter a street name into the search field. You
can also search for "Thornden Park" in the field below.

Note: Robbery refers to stealing through the use or threat of physical force (i.e. "strong-armed robbery"). Aggravated assault includes domestic

here to load this Caspio title="Online Database">Online Database.

Jones said students are asking for trouble by displaying expensive electronics, walking alone late at night, and failing to pay attention to their surroundings. “I call it a farmer’s market for criminals,” she said of the university neighborhood.

DPS emails are a source for students’ wariness of the park, said LaMark, and for good reason. Of the 29 public safety notices regarding robberies and assaults that have occurred since January 2008, six of them (that’s 20 percent) mentioned Thornden Park. According to the reports, four of those crimes occurred in the park. Two didn’t, but the park was used as a geographical reference in the description of the incident.

Police records show the overall ratio of crimes in the park vs. those in the surrounding neighborhood isn’t accurately represented by the DPS alerts. A side-by-side comparison of DPS emails and Syracuse Police Department crime data, since 2008, show DPS does not communicate every violent crime that’s reported to students.

For example, there were three robberies reported in Thornden Park during 2011. The same number occurred on Euclid Avenue, alone, during that year. But DPS alerted the SU community to two of the three Thornden Park robberies, and none of the Euclid Avenue robberies.

Why the discrepancy?

DPS Chief Tony Callisto explained that public safety notices are typically confined to cases where a perpetrator is still at large and may pose a continued threat to students. Also, there are instances where the Syracuse Police have undercover officers in the field, and request DPS refrain from alerting the community.

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