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.

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

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."

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.

Q: What surprised you the most about looking back at that period?

What surprised me were the phenomenal demographic shifts that were taking place in Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. You could write a version of this book for every major city in the United States, about the great migration of Southern blacks who were heading north and also west in search of a new life.

You saw this incredible transformation over a short period of time, and there was nothing in place to deal with it, no social programs. And law enforcement proved to be very inadequate at dealing with it. It's just startling.

Q: You write about white flight and the incredibly rapid change in the ethnic makeup of certain neighborhoods. Was the white flight justified?

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot of it was just racism. But there were also elements of genuine fear. I talked to a lot of cops who were on the job during these years. Looking back on it, most of them mentioned how they'd be approached by a Jewish or Italian grandmother, and they would say, "You've got to help us save the block. We're losing our community and neighborhood."

The fear was quite genuine. Was there race behind that? Probably. But there was also general survival instinct.

Q: What role did the more radical segments of the civil rights movement play?

The traditional civil rights movement of nonviolent resistance was transitioning into something more militant in the Black Panther movement. New York City was ripe for that. You have the first generation of young African-American males and females who are not inclined to sit and take it anymore, to accept business as usual anymore.

The very genesis of the Black Panthers was the relationship between police and blacks on a daily basis. This was at the nexus of so much of black liberation and the black power movement. I hope what the book gets at is the degree to which racial attitudes became engrained in policing in America. They became how segregation was enforced.

In the South, it was enforced through Jim Crow laws. In the North, there was de facto segregation: if a black youth strayed into the wrong neighborhood, he was likely to be on the receiving end of police action, if not a beating.

Q: What does your book have to say about hope and the potential for change?

I do think the book is hopeful in a sense. The hopeful part of the story is that it traces George Whitmore's 10-year saga to clear his name from wrongful prosecution. [Among other things, the young black man was framed and convicted in one of Manhattan's most famous murder cases, the so-called "Career Girls" killings.]

He pays an incredibly heavy price. But you get to the end of his saga, and you see it is possible to move forward; that if we continue to go back to the legal foundations of the Constitution and everything the United States claims to stand for, there is hope and the possibility of progress.

Randy Dotinga writes regularly for the Monitor's Books section.

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