Politics & Law

The myth of urban insecurity

Jonathan Simon

In March 1964, when 28 year-old bartender Kitty Genovese was stalked and murdered by an assailant as she tried to enter her Queens apartment in New York, America was just beginning the great rise in violent crime that would shape the next four decades. It was not so much her murder that unnerved New Yorkers and other Americans at a moment when America’s cities were only beginning to suffer the great suburban exodus that would see many of them lose as much half their population, as the widely circulated claim that her murder could have been prevented if the dozens of her neighbors that reportedly heard her screams had called the police or done something more directly to intervene.

book cover

“Thirty-Eight Witnesses,” first published in 1964.

This claim became famous, because Abe Rosenthal, then still starting his career at The New York Times, wrote a large feature article and then with great speed a book promoting it.  The book became a bestseller and helped convince urban Americans that safety from violent crime required a suburban cul de sac. (I’ve written about this more here).

This week in the Times, Leslie Kaufman wrote a feature about the digital reissue of the Rosenthal book that focused on the fact that the book is being republished with no acknowledgment that a great deal of evidence has now accumulated that the horrifying story of witness indifference was false, that no more than a handful of witnesses may have heard her screams due to the cold early spring weather and the fact that Genovese managed to crawl toward a back entrance of her building, but also into a less visible area where the assailant resumed his lethal attack (read it here).

The episode offers intriguing suggestions about the fear of crime in the 1960s that helped create our culture of control.

According to Kaufman, Rosenthal got the story in an interview with New York’s police commissioner and then ran with it.  The role that urban police played in undermining confidence in the safety of their own cities is, in my view, one of the great untold stories of America’s urban crisis.

The media, like the police, seem to have viewed urban crime fear as a profitable enterprise.

Rather than testing Rosenthal’s thesis against the real facts, social scientists of the era ran with it to create a highly productive (for academic purposes) but dubious “bystander syndrome” which holds that when witnesses to a person in need believe others are available to respond, they are less likely to respond.  Throughout our urban crisis and “war on crime” social science has played a mostly negative role, promoting the view that rehabilitation in prison did not work; promoting the view that police patrols could not stop crime; and promoting the view that urban neighbors are unreliable.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, “Governing Through Crime.”

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Comments to "The myth of urban insecurity":
    • Patricia4470

      Yes, there were distortions in Rosenthal’s book, but gosh, have you been paying attention to what has been happening in Oakland lately? Or on International Avenue in Hayward? Between the lack of police to patrol and the trepidations caused by the Occupiers, the city has been pretty much trashed.

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