I expected this blog to feature me eating a hefty dose of crow. By way of background, in my entry about Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City,” I said I was frustrated that people act as if New York City was on the verge of collapse in the sixties and seventies. I asserted that it couldn’t possibly be that bad. Then I saw T.J. English on The Daily Show and read the book jacket of “The Savage City.” The entire premise of the book was about how awful New York City had gotten in those decades. Because I like to know when I’m wrong, I picked up the book.
English uses a familiar tactic to describe a period of history–he follows three characters through tribulations which help demonstrate the time period. On the dust jacket, Douglas Brinkley calls this “social history.” As I have mentioned before, I enjoy this technique. Unlike the three characters in “The Warmth of Other Suns,” English’s chosen three characters are far from perfect heroes, a decision English surely made on purpose. The first is a uneducated and poor African American man who was framed in one of New York’s most famous murder cases. He struggles through the legal system for more than a decade before being cleared. The second is a New York City cop who is on the take and who after getting rich (and caught) exposes the corruption in the system. The third is a militant African American activist who ends up a leader in the Black Power movement. All three are connected by the fact they were bit players in a period of great strife in the city and oddly, all three were accused of, and served time for, murdering someone else.
George Whitmore (framed for committed several murders, including the famous Career Girls Murders) is the closest candidate for the hero/protagonist of the book, and it is nearly the end of the book when he is finally set free. Here’s English summarizing the time period when Whitmore was in legal limbo:
From the time of the Career Girls Murders, the city had descended into a kind of urban madness; a tidal wave of injustice and insurrection, ambushes and assassinations, led some to believe that the city could not be saved. White people continued their exodus from the city, and black people stepped forward to claim what they felt was rightfully theirs. Others–black and white–tried to cauterize the trauma with words of caution, with nonviolent protests and peaceful marches, but the historical moment seemed to hold forth its own bloody agenda.
First, that’s just brilliant writing. Second, here’s his thesis. Monumental and violent struggles centered around racism, law and order, and injustice led to a period of time when New York City was indeed perceived as a war zone. Many of the changes taking place in the late sixties were noble, necessary, and they resulted in a more just America. But at times the violence was all anyone ever saw. America knew that there was tension between blacks and whites, and this played out, however unfairly, between cops (largely white stereotypes) and criminals (largely black stereotypes). To some, this was simple law versus order, to others this was white versus black, and to yet others, it was about achieving equality and justice by any means. Sometimes the violence was protest violence, and sometimes it was just violence that existed because the uncertainty of the times created an opening for the worst criminals. New York City was seen nationally as a symbol of hopelessness, injustice, violence, and poverty. English gives us a portrait of a city (and by extension, country) on the brink.
What English misses in detail, and what would have led me to eat my full dose of crow was the impact that all of this had on ordinary/uninvolved New Yorkers. The crime was outrageous, but it is outrageous today, too, in a place like Over-the-Rhine. Gang-bangers shooting druggies is violent struggle (with not exactly noble purposes), but it ever-so-rarely touches the pharmacist who lives with her family in say, Loveland. These individuals are largely absent from “The Savage City.” I can only surmise that while there were incidents of random robberies, crimes, and murders, the ordinary New Yorker was more often harmed by the fact that the country’s perception of the city went straight to hell and as we know all too well in Cincinnati, perception can cripple a city.
English hits this point of perception perfectly in his epilogue–perhaps his most personal chapter. He writes, “The Savage City was like a kaleidoscope, its moods and shadings shifting with the angle of the instrument and the perspective of the participant.” A perfect analogy, for any city.
He goes on to raise appropriate cautions about the city today, and implores us to understand that just because its reputation has changed, the underlying fissures of race and class still exist: “But the scars, emotions, and underlying causes are still present. They remain embedded below the surface of the city like a dormant but smoldering volcano, one that could rumble to life at any time… Lift up the rock and you will see,” he concludes.
Back to my crow. I think I deserve some but not a hefty dose. This was a picture of a city in trauma. But I wasn’t fully convinced that the sense of hopelessness extended to every outer-borough, every investment banker, every rich heiress, and every other “minding my own business” type of individual. Ultimately, too many millions of people lived there and too much money and power was invested in the city’s long term success. It was a savage city for a time (and to some, maybe still) but the city’s destiny was never to cease being the center of, well, everything.
To me, “The Savage City” was more a history of a certain moment in a larger struggle in late-sixties, early-seventies America than a chronicle of just how dangerous the city actually was for those who lived there.
Thanks for reading.