Dennis Torres walked along the George Washington Bridge in Washington Heights one recent night, handing out card after card. Torres, who also goes by the nickname "Super Stretch," was offering two things: free self-defense classes and the services of the Guardian Angels, the red beret-wearing patrol group that walks among some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Torres, 51, reached a woman who was walking with four young kids -- two of them were hers and the other two were neighbors. He offered the kids free kickboxing lessons, which he often does. With older teens, he asks if they want to join the patrol or the group's junior program.
"I've been praying for this," the woman said. Torres was quick: "We're the Guardian Angels."
Torres is one of the original members of the group Curtis Sliwa started in 1979, which began with subway patrols and grew from there. In its heyday, the Guardian Angels counted about 1,000 members in its ranks -- many of whom Sliwa said volunteered because they were tired of seeing the city "out of control." But today, with crime having gone down significantly since the early '90s, Sliwa said attracting recruits is difficult.
"Remember, people respond to their local needs. They don't necessarily want to patrol an area that they don't directly benefit from, their family and relatives. And that's what we try to encourage: you gotta take responsibility for your neighborhood," Sliwa said, speaking at the group's training center in Washington Heights. "Nobody wants to join anything nowadays. It's very much of an 'I and me' kind of world."
The Guardian Angels has about 150 members available, but regularly patrols only a handful of locations with an average of six to eight people in each group, Sliwa said. The group will approach hundreds of people each month, signing up just over two dozen. Most of those fizzle out, Sliwa said.
"It's like a salesperson, you're getting rejected all over the place," Sliwa said. "And that's because people, they either know about the group and they say, 'That's crazy with all the guns out on the street because we're in the high crime areas,' or they have no idea what we are and we have to start from scratch."
Alexis Cromwell, 34, from the Gun Hill area of the Bronx, joined the group in the spring after a nearly yearlong campaign from one of the local leaders.
"I had heard about them a long, long time ago, [but] I hadn't really seen them around," said Cromwell, who works as a building porter and maintains garages in Brooklyn. He kept bumping into one of the Angels and eventually decided to check out the training. "He just kept saying, 'You should really think about joining the Angels if you've got some spare time.' He made it sound really good. I'm glad he did that, I'm glad he was really persistent."
Ivan Cruz, 16, was taking the L train to school when he saw the group's flier, took down the information and gave it to his friend. Cruz, who lives in Bushwick and wants to be a police officer, joined a few months later. He now patrols out of the Angels' Coney Island chapter.
"It was nice to see how they communicate with the public, how the public communicates with them," said Cruz on a recent night after a patrol in Central Park, where he and the other Angels navigated a steep dirt path with only a small beam from a flashlight to illuminate the way. "I wanted to help my community."
Sliwa said there was a dramatic drop in membership for the New York chapter after former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was elected. The group focused efforts elsewhere -- it now boasts chapters in more than two dozen states and several countries -- but started to see a resurgence in the city around spring of last year, when shootings started to increase as well.
They regularly patrol Coney Island and Canarsie in Brooklyn, Corona and Elmhurst in Queens, the Fordham section in the Bronx (where they started), and Washington Heights and Greenwich Village (on Saturday nights) in Manhattan.
This summer, they added Central Park patrols seven nights per week to the mix again -- something they hadn't done in many years.
Cromwell said he's not surprised it's difficult to recruit new members.
"People are just more afraid to join anything today. There's just no heart," he said. "Back then, there was more of a 'big mob mentality.' Now, you don't have that so much."
Sliwa said people under 35 years old have little to no knowledge of the Guardian Angels. On the other hand, those who are 55 or older, he said, know all about them.
But during a recent patrol in Washington Heights, a young man spotted the group's signature red berets and immediately got excited. "Hey, I was such a big fan of you guys growing up," he said.
In typical fashion, the group's trainer Torres handed him a card.