Thirty years after they began patrolling streets in the South Bronx, the Guardian Angels gathered on Feb. 12 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to reminisce about their early days and celebrate their global success.
“This was an organization that had a difficult time getting a word in edgewise,” said Curtis Sliwa, the group’s founder and talk show host on New York’s WABC radio. “Here we are, 30 years later, with chapters in 136 cities in 13 countries.”
Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels on Feb. 13, 1979, when, as manager of a McDonald’s on East Fordham Road near Webster Avenue, he tired of the rampant crime that had overtaken the Bronx.
“The area was the worst example of how people had lost their sentimentality,” he said. “People looked the other way when crimes happened on the arteries and veins of New York—the subways—because they just wanted to get home alive. It was survival of the fittest.”
The city’s police force and administration didn’t welcome the original 13 members, who patrolled the streets wearing red berets, a symbol that has become synonymous with the Guardian Angels worldwide. In fact, then-Mayor Ed Koch called them vigilantes.
But Fordham University students and staff, like many New York residents who were sick of crime-filled streets and subways, expressed admiration for the unarmed patrol.
“Fordham was always a safe haven for us,” Sliwa said.
Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., professor of psychology, recalled taking his social psychology students into the streets in the 1980s, to survey the public about the Guardian Angels.
“With the exception of two people who weren’t from the area and didn’t have a clue who the Angels were, there was an overwhelmingly positive response,” he said.
Takooshian, one of the featured speakers at the event, discussed pro-social behavior and why the Guardian Angels were able to turn at-risk youths into community leaders.
“Whether they were teenagers that hung out on the streets or not, those who eventually became Angels had role models in one way or another,” he said.