When "Ricky" was growing up, he witnessed firsthand the devastation crack cocaine unleashed on his down-at-the-heels Manhattan neighborhood.
He saw drug dealers, competing for turf and customers, carve Washington Heights into dangerous zones. He saw how the drug - one of the most addictive ever introduced in America - "messed people up."
Now Ricky is a high-school sophomore, an assistant Little League coach, and a major-league shunner of crack. Using crack cocaine, he says, is destructive.
This attitude - evidently shared by many young people in inner cities across America - has led to a wholesale shift in the nation's drug culture. In turning en masse from crack use, these teenagers are helping to finally bring to an end one of the most destructive drug epidemics of the century.
In doing so, they've also made a major contribution to cutting violent crime across America. Crime rates are at their lowest levels in 30 years, and many troubled inner cities are safer and more prosperous than they've been in decades.
"The youths who reached adolescence in the 1990s saw their parents, siblings, cousins, and others in their community very active with crack, and they didn't like what they saw," says Bruce Johnson of National Development and Research Institutes, a leading drug-research center based in New York. "They made a whole major shift in the local norm that crack use is no longer acceptable."
Crack first appeared in the early 1980s, when a small group of dealers and wealthy individuals realized the cocaine high could be intensified when the drug was smoked, rather than snorted. By the mid-1980s, smoking crystallized cocaine, called "crack" for the sound it made when lit, began to reach epidemic proportions. Crack was inexpensive, easy to make, and very addictive.
"Crackheads," as frequent users came to be known, developed a reputation for being unpredictable and paranoid, and for doing almost anything to get their next high. Dealers, often young, armed, and disorganized, carved many low-income neighborhoods into fiercely protected "turf."
By 1988, 70 percent of the young people arrested in Manhattan tested positive for crack cocaine. The rates were as high in Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Washington, between 40 and 50 percent of young people arrested tested positive for crack cocaine.
"It was so powerful that people simply could not stop using it once they started. It was the power of the thing that frightened people," says David Musto, a professor of medical history at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The decline begins
By the early 1990s, crack use began to slowly decline among all users. But among young people in major cities on the East and West Coasts, it started to drop dramatically. In New York, crack cocaine detections in youthful arrestees dropped from a high of 70 percent in 1988 to 31 percent in 1991. By 1997, the rate was down to 20 percent. In Los Angeles, it dropped to 25 percent. In Philadelphia, the rate dropped as low as 21 percent by 1993.
"Crack is basically being contained. It's now the drug of your frequent offender, your hardened criminal," says Eric Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland at College Park. "These are the last people to give up the drugs."
Those statistics are more than just numbers for Salahmor Had. He works at his cousin's deli and stationery store in Washington Heights - one of the birthplaces of the crack epidemic. Ten years ago, he kept all of his money locked up in a "big safety box."
"There was lots of problems, robberies. I see a lot of people here doing a lot of things, crack and all of that," says Mr. Had. "Now, I don't have a safety [box] here because the neighborhood is really safe."
The shop is a few blocks from the site of one of the city's most famous drug deals ever. More than a decade ago, New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and then US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani dressed up as a garbage man and a motorcycle gang member, respectively, drove into the neighborhood, bought crack, and then held a press conference to show how easy it was.
"The neighborhood has been hurt," says Dennis Reeder of the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corp. "The only time it got press was when someone got shot, for drug dealing, and when our ... senator shows up in fatigues to buy crack. But it's recovering."
A neighborhood in recovery
In the past year, Washington Heights has begun to generate positive press. The neighborhood, which overlooks the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, and maintains an architectural heritage of the 1920s and '30s, was "rediscovered" by the middle class, according to local papers. The economy has picked up, along with property values, which have jumped 40 percent in the past two years.
"The neighborhood isn't a secret anymore. A lot of young professionals are moving in, people feel safe walking in the neighborhoods now, business is good," says Louis Pulice, an agent with Stein Perry Real Estate Inc.
But drugs are still a problem, in Washington Heights and across the US. In a few Western cities, the rate of crack use has not declined. Nonetheless, most young people are shunning crack, but use of marijuana and malt liquor has generally shot up since 1992.
Many experts believe the crack epidemic is finally waning, but they're still puzzling to find ways to be sure it won't return again.
The last US cocaine epidemic peaked around 1910 and petered out around 1930. Tough drugs laws were imposed, horror stories about cocaine's destructiveness were common, and there was a consensus that in the future, the less said about it the better. Experts hoped such policies would ensure cocaine would never return.
But starting in 1970, it did, again carving a destructive path through the culture, says Professor Musto. "Whether it will return has to do with how we handle the decline this time," he says .