I'm old-school. It took me a while to realize that the park is safe.
NEW YORK — For as long as most New Yorkers can remember, the rules have been clear: Enjoy Central Park by day. Keep out at night.
Someone, however, forgot to tell Fleur Bailey, a petite Wall Street trader who was walking her two Dalmatians in the park after 10 the other night.
"I can't remember the last time I came across something that made me uncomfortable," said Bailey, who lives on the Upper West Side and takes her dogs into the park as late as midnight. "Some people say, 'You walk your dogs where at night?' But I tell them that it's perfectly fine."
And she is hardly alone. On any given evening, the park now hums with life well into the night. Couples stroll under pools of lamplight, while the park drive pulses with the footfalls of runners, the whir of cyclists and the desultory clop of horse-drawn carriages. Men and women jog happily around the reservoir.
"It's boringly safe," said Christopher Moloney, 34, who cuts through the park at night, usually around 9, to get from his job in the Time Warner Center to his home on East 70th Street. "I've walked through the park at 3 in the morning, and there are always a couple of people here and there."
Crime statistics for the park show a steady decline in menace. This year through mid-December, according to the police, 17 robberies had been reported in the park, down from 37 in 2001 — and 731 in 1981. Rapes, too, are down sharply, with only two reported this year. The last homicide occurred in 2002. And many parkgoers these days have never even heard of the 1989 attack on the so-called Central Park jogger, who was raped and left for dead while running in the park one evening.
Efforts to tamp down crime have been so successful that the park's own police precinct has lately taken to planting pocketbooks on benches to lure would-be thieves. More than three-quarters of the 68 grand larcenies in the park reported through mid-December resulted from leaving belongings unattended, itself a sign of the comfort level of park visitors.
The Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park for the city, initiated a late shift — from 1:30 to 10 p.m. — in the late 1990s, as the park became safer. In the past year, four more workers were added to that shift, for a total of 40. They do the usual tasks — picking up litter, inspecting bathrooms, recording broken bulbs — but, armed with cellphones and walkie-talkies, they also supplement the police as an official presence.
Despite parkgoers' late-night ambles, the Central Park police say that a main reason crime has fallen is the stricter enforcement of the park's 1 a.m. curfew. An increase in officers north of 96th Street, which historically has had a disproportionately high number of robberies, will probably push the overall number of robberies this year to the lowest level in memory.
The installation of 30 surveillance cameras around the perimeter of the park, each with two lenses, has also enhanced security. "We can view all these cameras from the desk," said Capt. Philip M. Wishnia, the commander of the Central Park Precinct. "That's a deterrent."
Those who use the park at night, however, do tend to have their own set of safety rules. A few nights a week, Pernilla Blomgren, 29, a consultant for the Swedish Trade Council, runs between 9 and 10 p.m. She usually heads for the path around the Reservoir, where Victorian-style lampposts provide ample light. She enters at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street, where joggers stretch out, and eschews an iPod.
"I feel like you should have your senses clear so you can register what's happening around you," said Blomgren, who moved to the city from Chicago and said she was unfamiliar with the Central Park jogger case.
Still, she said, but for the fact that she has to wake up early for work, she would run even later. "I've never seen anything bad happen," she said. "It feels like the streets might be more dangerous than the park."
The park conservancy's own surveys show a marked rise in the proportion of women and older New Yorkers using the park, regardless of the hour. From the early 1980s to today, the percentage of adult parkgoers over age 50 climbed to 40 percent, from 12. During the same period, the representation of women in the park rose to 52 percent, from 32.
In a major study of Central Park usage released this year, nearly 80 percent of the visitors who were interviewed reported that there was no part of the park they avoided out of safety concerns. Only 3.4 percent cited "safety concerns" as a major issue.
Park use has tripled since the 1980s, when the conservancy took over its management and began a hugely successful fundraising effort. The private money the conservancy raises has helped cover the cost of meticulous restoration work across the park's 843 acres. "A lot of people take the park for granted, but 25 years ago, the lights were broken, the benches were broken," Douglas Blonsky, the conservancy's president, said.
Some people who frequent the park after sundown say they often have to reassure worried, often older, relatives. Others just tell fibs. Martin Blumberg, a 25-year-old theater director who lives on the Upper East Side, runs five nights a week around the 6-mile park drive, usually no later than 10. But he tells his mother that he runs before dark. "She's a worrywart," he said.
Blumberg prefers the park at night, when it is cooler in the summer and less congested in the winter. "It's never really desolate," he said. "Every 100 feet, I see other runners."
Some veteran parkgoers, like Dianne Montague, say that their fear of Central Park after dark had become so ingrained over the years that changing their conception was a slow process. Montague, a native New Yorker who lives on 86th Street and Madison Avenue, walks her four dogs (boxer, pug, beagle and poodle) every night there. As the years have passed, she has ventured into the park later and later. These days, a final pit stop at 11:30 is not unusual.
"I'm a little more cautious than my children, because they grew up in a safer New York," said Montague, who rescues dogs and teaches horseback riding to people with disabilities. "I'm old-school. It took me a while to realize that the park is safe."