COLUMNIST DAVID BROOKS: Crime wave of '70s, '80s colors outlooks today

Today you can walk around the Upper West Side of Manhattan in such ease and safety that you could get the impression it was always this way. But it wasn't.

Today you can walk around the Upper West Side of Manhattan in such ease and safety that you could get the impression it was always this way. But it wasn't.

On July 5, 1961, a gigantic brawl broke out on 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Two policemen, caught in the middle, fired warning shots into the air to stop the fighting, but a mob of 400 engulfed them. Traffic was halted on Columbus as bottles rained down from tenement houses, lye was thrown into one man's face and knives flashed out.

That section of 84th Street in those days was one of the most dangerous blocks in the city. The Times described it as "a block of decaying tenements packed with poor Puerto Rican and Negro families and the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts and sexual perverts." A local minister, James Gusweller, said there were five or six stabbings every Saturday night.

The violence built and built. Through the '60s and '70s, crime surged. John Podhoretz captures the atmosphere of that time in a wonderful essay called "Life in New York, Then and Now" in the current issue of Commentary. He describes the Upper West Side of his youth as a unique small town, an integrated mixture of professors and psychoanalysts, teachers and social workers, workers and the unemployed.

It was wonderful in some ways, but people in all classes lived in fear. "Mugging was nothing unusual. Everybody got mugged," Podhoretz writes. A serial killer nicknamed Charlie Chop-Off menaced the Upper West Side, emasculating little boys and then killing them, and such was the general disorder that his crimes were barely mentioned in the city's newspapers.


The city tried "slum clearance" to reduce the mayhem. Brownstones were torn down; 709 households were removed from 84th Street alone. More than 6,000 households were removed from the area between 87th and 97th Streets.

Crime did not abate. Passivity set in, the sense that nothing could be done. The novel "Mr. Sammler's Planet" by Saul Bellow captured some of the dispirited atmosphere of that era -- the sense that New York City was a place with no-go zones, a place where one hunkered down.

Things are different now, of course. By 1990, 5,641 felonies were committed in New York City's 24th Precinct, according to Podhoretz. Last year, only 987 were.

But some of the psychological effects remain.

We're familiar with talk about how Vietnam permanently shaped the baby boomers. But if you grew up in or near an American city in the 1970s, you grew up with crime (and divorce), and this disorder was bound to leave a permanent mark. It was bound to shape the people, now in their 40s and early-50s, reaching the pinnacles of power.

It has clearly influenced parenting. The people who grew up afraid to go in parks at night now supervise their own children with fanatical attention, even though crime rates have plummeted. It's as if they're responding to the sense of menace they felt while young, not the actual conditions of today.

The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem and the whole Dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around. The crime wave made it hard to think that social problems would be solved strictly by changing the material circumstances. Shiny new public housing blocks replaced rancid old tenements, but in some cases the disorder actually got worse.

The crime wave made it hard to accept the story line that the poor were always spiritually pure, noble and oppressed.


The crime wave eroded the sense of solidarity that existed after World War II. The rich isolated themselves. The middle classes moved to the suburbs.

Yet eventually crime was reduced, and the neighborhoods were restored. It's easy to be nostalgic for the supposedly more authentic New York of days gone by -- for Jane Jacobs's busy Greenwich Village block. But, as Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic recently observed, that golden image of New York really only applied to small parts of the city and only during a transition moment when the manufacturing economy of the mid-20th century briefly overlapped with the information economy of the late-20th century.

As Podhoretz rightly notes, if you grew up in a big city in the '70s, then life is better for you now in about every respect. Today, most liberals and conservatives have more sophisticated views on how to build and preserve civic order than people did then, and there is more of it.

The Upper West Side is still integrated. And despite all expectations, it's actually more religious now. For example, there are now 4,000 children attending yeshivas, Jewish schools and Jewish nursery schools in the neighborhood.

The children of the '70s grew up with both unprecedented freedom and disorder, and have learned, in mostly good ways, from both.

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