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Race and Injustice in 'The Savage City'

In 'The Savage City,' author T.J. English chronicles one of New York's most racially divisive decades by telling the stories of a corrupt police officer, a wrongfully convicted African American, and a Black Panthers activist.

By Randy Dotinga / March 11, 2011

Author T.J. English says his book conveys New York City's 'incredible transformation over a short period of time' from 1963 to 1973.

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For a decade, the Big Apple didn't just peer into the abyss. It fell in, becoming mired in crime, racial strife and injustice, as author T.J. English writes in his gripping new book "The Savage City."

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Many of the cops were corrupt. Many of the residents were criminals, and those who weren't lawbreakers risked being framed if their skin was brown or black.

"If New York City today is a place of prosperity, safety and good times… it is useful to remember that these things have come at a price," writes English, who has written several books including the best-selling "Havana Nocturne" about Cuba and the mob.

Somehow, New York City managed to move past its horrific past. In his book, English tracks New York City's progress from 1963 to 1973 by following three men – a shady policeman, an innocent victim of a unscrupulous legal system, and an activist who embraced the violent beliefs of the Black Panthers.

In an interview, I asked English to describe the gritty world of New York City and explain how we can find hope in an unhappy tale.

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Q: You describe New York as "The Savage City" in your book's title. What do you mean by that?

The book deals with the period from 1963 to 1973 in which the crime rate in the city soared. And more importantly, an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and dread would come to characterize New York in many ways. This is the period in which New York began its descent into this level of darkness.

The book details quite specifically the manner in which the dynamics of race – particularly in relation to the criminal justice system – began to play themselves out in a way that it had never had before in the city's history. They created a level of turmoil, violence and hostility that was unprecedented.

"Savage City" is a sort of a play on the phrase "The Naked City" [the title of a TV series and film noir], which was about New York in the postwar era: a place that had crime and eight million stories. It was an urban jungle, but ultimately the cops were good and there was a pretty good sense of good and evil. The Savage City was a little bit darker. The issue of race – hardly evident in "The Naked City" – becomes front and center, and the police department is revealed to not be the benevolent institution that it had been perceived to be.

Q: Do TV shows and movies set in that period reflect the New York City of that time?

We all do have a cinematic vision in our heads of the New York of this era, movies like "The French Connection" and "Serpico" and a number of others that were filmed on location in the city. You can quickly get a visual sense of the decay that was taking place, the grittiness that had come to dominate the city.

Q: What about "Mad Men"?

"Mad Men" is up in the office towers. This is down in the streets. There's this whole racial fault line that revealed itself during these years, and the front line was the relationship between blacks and cops and how they related on the street level on a daily basis.

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