Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips. Their black tenants defied them and in many cases the landlords walked away from their buildings, left them to run down.
Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents.
Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing. Many gave up because the streets and the schools were so bad, especially middle-class blacks who could at last go elsewhere. But jobs were plentiful in the city. If you didn’t like your boss, an old head told me, you could quit and have a new job by the end of the day. Some people had jobs as well as welfare. Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say. If whites found themselves in Harlem, then they had to run. But you can meet whites who have spent their lives in Harlem, in their family homes, tolerated because they’d always been there, hadn’t run.
Things began to change under Mayor Ed Koch. Though the city itself had no money, black policemen in the 1970s were not afraid of Harlem. The story is that the first black police commissioner, Benjamin Ward, told dealers to get off the corners, which meant that the avenues, the main thoroughfares, were restored to ordinary people. But things fell into something worse with the coming of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s. A deranged population hunted the streets. Everything sexual and druggie went on in unbelievable numbers under the bridge at 125th Street or in Marcus Garvey Park, one block…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.