Wednesday, March 12, 2014

1303 Sounds of Screams, Sounds of Silence

(KEW GARDENS, QUEENS) -- When you get here on the E train or the F and it’s one of those dark hours when it could be either last night or tomorrow morning, you think you’re on an urban movie set where they’ve left only the emergency lights on so nobody trips over something.

This is a good neighborhood.  Nice, well preserved ancient apartment houses, slick semi-modern middle aged apartment houses made of brick, not the all glass kind you find in Manhattan.

Yes, there have been a few muggings lately, a New York welcome to a befuddled new mayor and his befuddled new police commissioner.  But mostly, you get nothing more than a schoolyard bully you can chase off with a dirty look.

And things weren’t all that different 50 years ago tomorrow when Kitty Genovese walked into the courtyard of her apartment house at around 3 in the morning.

She would be 79 years old now if Winston Moseley hadn’t stepped out of the darkness and stabbed her.

The story has become part true and part urban legend.  Originally, the newspapers reported that she was stabbed several times in that courtyard while neighbors looked from their windows and did nothing.

Much later, much much later we learned that wasn’t the way it happened.  One guy stuck his head out of his window up high and shouted down “Hey, leave that girl alone.”

That distracted Mosely long enough for his victim to make it into the apartment lobby.  There she collapsed and Moseley finished the job.

She was 28. He was 28. She’s been dead for 50 years.  He’s been in jail more or less that long.

But this is the story that gave New York a big chunk of its rep as the place where nobody cares, where you take your life in your hands by just walking around a good neighborhood on your way home from work.

Except the papers got it wrong.  Led by the haughty New York Times which has since run the true story at great length.

There was no 9-1-1 system in New York in 1964.  Futuristic like the World’s Fair going on a few miles away.  Four years later they finished installing the emergency phones.  1968.

Kew Gardens’ bum rap became the whole city’s bum rap, a reputation that remains today when a perfectly sane country boy says “I wouldn’t go to New York.  People there have guns and I can’t.” Or a country law enforcement officer says “I go there if I have to, but it scares me.”

Kitty Genovese was an unfortunate and innocent victim of a mad man who set out that night, he said, “to kill some woman.”  

But the mistakes in the newspapers did more good than harm.  The wave of “We can’t act like those guys in Kew Gardens” has survived these 50 years as has the memory of a horrible crime at a horrible time.

It’s hard to believe anything evil happened in the shadow of the Edwardian brown and tan buildings, so ugly they’re beautiful… and those newer brick buildings, without any detectable style, though not unpleasant.

But with the change of police commissioners, the muggers, at least, are testing the waters with their toes.  And they’re likely to find the temperature just fine.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2014

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