It was a dark time that still haunts many of us. You had to be there, live through it, to understand it all: crime up double digits every year, vigilante gangs patrolling the streets, and hit movies with names like “Death Wish” portraying a metropolis in chaos. It was New York in the 1970s.
The nation’s largest city was gripped by a wave of murders and felonies that now marks a generational divide, as Americans debate our criminal justice system — and even the very purpose of a police force.
I grew up in New York in the 1970s and ’80s. We kept ten dollars of “mugging money” in our wallets, hid a couple of twenties in our shoes. At night, we avoided subways and side streets as often as possible. By 1979, there were more than 250 felonies a week on the subways; 1980 was the highest overall New York crime year on record — the murder rate more three times what it is today. The census that year revealed the city had lost nearly a million residents in a decade.
But no one needed to tell us that. Miles of burned out buildings in my home borough, The Bronx, already told the story, as did a barrage of dystopian movies: “Escape from New York,” “Taxi Driver,” “Fort Apache: The Bronx.”
But, starting in 1991, crime fell. It has fallen each year since then, to record lows in New York and nearly every major metropolitan area. That means most people under the age of 40 have no idea what it is like to exist inside a crime wave — pervasive, relentless crime that distorts every corner of civic life. It enables them to consider proposals like defunding or abolishing the police, something that strikes many older Americans as a puzzling non-starter. Even with the unprecedented decrease of the last 30 years, fear of crime remains strong in this country, thanks in large part to people like me. We wait anxiously for that haunted time to come back, for the cycle to come around again.
A reminder of that era is on Netflix, a documentary called “Fear City,” the nickname given to New York by its beleaguered police officers. It’s worthwhile viewing for a generation that wasn’t there, or in other cities which faced similar crime surges.
But the documentary is also important for my generation. “Fear City” shows that New York’s crime wave was not orchestrated by youth gangs in the streets, by low-level crack dealers or people with brown and black skin. Those were the faces of crime, for sure, the ones you saw cops dragging away in handcuffs on the 11 o’clock news. But the ringmasters were the very non-minority Italian-American capos and captains of the city’s five Mafia crime families.
The “Five Families” were not some relic of 1940s gangster movies. They remained, in the 1970s and ’80s, aggressive organizations that controlled every aspect of the drug trade and most other facets of city life: construction, garbage collection, transportation, a sizable chunk of New York’s labor unions. Not surprisingly, getting to the men in power was hard — so petty criminals, mostly minorities, bore the brunt of arrests and incarceration. Frightened residents didn’t question it, not in a city where nothing else seemed to work.
“Fear City” makes clear that street crime was often the trickle-down result of desperation created by Mob enterprises like the crack epidemic, prostitution, loan-sharking and protection rackets. The documentary shifts its focus away from ground level and tracks the years-long FBI effort against the top men of the Five Families: understanding how they controlled crime in New York and elsewhere, how they acted in concert with each other, how to finally put them away. It was a lot harder to pull off than a sweep of small-time hoods working out of Washington Square Park — but it helped to shatter the chaos.
In the end, “Fear City” demonstrates how knee-jerk assumptions about race and crime can misdirect us, leading us away from the worst bad guys if we allow it.
Right now, clashing views on crime and policing face a test: Recent figures indicate a sharp economic decline — worse than the 1970s. Predictably, criminal activity already has begun to show signs of increasing in New York and other cities. The challenge is to move beyond the false choice now offered between supporting the police or dismantling those racial assumptions about crime. Early results from small-scale experimental programs in New York suggest ways in which the city can fight criminals without undermining yet another generation of minority youth.
We can do both. The ghosts of the ’70s are telling us we don’t have a choice.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.