Decades after her teenage son was cleared of a brutal and high-profile rape in Central Park, Sharonne Salaam still wanted public acknowledgement of the injustice that had been done to him, and others like him.
On Monday, she got her wish when the city dedicated the “Gate of the Exonerated” at the northeast entrance of Central Park in Harlem. It was 20 years to the day after her son, one of the so-called Central Park Five, was cleared by DNA evidence. The gate serves as an ode not only to them, but to all exonerees.
“That desire to clear their names is burning into them deep down on what I would call a soul level,” she said.
For Yusef Salaam, one of the group now renamed the “Exonerated Five,” the “Gate of the Exonerated” is a powerful retelling of a systemic problem that the city and the country are still experiencing. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 3,000 people have been exonerated since 1989 – 319 of them in New York.
“This is a tragedy that should have never happened,” said Yusef Salaam, who was 15 when he was arrested. “But [this gate is] also an opportunity for us to look at and point to in order to make sure that we say ‘never again,’” he said.
“When people start looking at the number of individuals who are exonerated, that story tells the whole story. It tells us we have a problem and we need to do better,” Yusef Salaam continued.
Five men – all teenagers from Harlem at the time – were arrested in 1989. Their police-coerced confessions and subsequent wrongful convictions later became ominous symbols of a legal system stacked against poor people and people of color. Each had served between six and 12 years in prison.
The men were cleared in 2002 and received a $41 million settlement from New York City. This summer, a lesser-known sixth co-defendant, Steven Lopez, was also exonerated.
The 20 original entrances to Central Park were named in 1860 after groups of people that the park was meant to belong to, such as the “Strangers’ Gate,” which is named after immigrants who contributed to the city’s development. Most of the other entrances were named after people with various roles in the workings of the city, such as the "Artisans’ Gate," the "Merchants’ Gate” and the “Scholars’ Gate."
Now, etched in stone some decades later, the “Gate of the Exonerated” is a rare move by the city, enshrining a grave injustice that took place here.
Standing in front of the newly named gate on 110th Street between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue, Sharonne Salaam said she hoped it would help exonerees, their families and the Harlem community heal.
“This hopefully will be at some moment a healing for all of us cause our families went through a big amount of hell, the community went through hell, it wasn’t an easy process,” she said.
In 2019, Sharonne Salaam began working with Manhattan Community Board 10, which includes Central Harlem, and the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that acts as the park's steward, about permanently memorializing the Exonerated Five in Central Park.
Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president at the time, helped facilitate conversations among all of the borough's 12 community boards. Last year, the boards unanimously passed a resolution for a permanent public display.
“This gate will be very meaningful to everyone, but particularly to the Harlem community,” Brewer said. “People coming out of incarceration do not get a lot of support, and that's why this gate is very special.”
For so long, Black and brown children in Harlem were warned by their parents to not enter Central Park because of what happened in 1989, said Cicely Harris, chair of Manhattan Community Board 10. She called the Central Park Five case “a Harlem story,” and this entrance marks a sort of “welcoming of Harlemites back into the park.”
The details of how the gate would look took years to flesh out.
A proposal to create a sculpture of the Exonerated Five was quickly scrapped because the city does not allow monuments of living people.
There had been a moratorium on constructing any more sculptures in Central Park, but that was broken in 2020 with the installation of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument to address the gender disparity in public art.
The idea of naming one of the entrances on the Harlem side of the park germinated with the help of the Central Park Conservancy. Renaming this gate will cost around $100,000. Workers will remove a section of the wall, inscribe the words, and rebuild the wall, according to the Central Park Conservancy, which will pay for the job.
But not everyone thinks the gate is a good idea. Ken Frydman penned an opinion piece in The Daily News saying the monument should commemorate both the exonerated men and the rape victim, Trisha Meili.
Harris said the crime should also be remembered – but separately.
“We never want to take away from the injustice that was done there,” Harris said. “We are highlighting another harm that was done.”