Nicholas Lemann, noted author and Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has an essay in the latest New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Young readers will recognize the name, if they recognize it all, as a case they heard about in Psychology 1 illustrating how people can be indifferent to others in need. The March 27, 1964, headline in the New York Times said it all: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The next day’s installment was headlined: Apathy Is Puzzle in Queens Killing: Behavioral Specialists Hard Put to Explain Witnesses’ Failure to Call Police–Interpretations Vary–Some Say Tendency Not to Get Involved Is Typical Others Call it Uncommon.
As Lemann recounts the oft-recounted story, two new books on it having just appeared, he describes a case of journalistic – and perhaps, academic – malpractice. The best estimate, per Lemann, is that only a handful of people were actually aware that she was being attacked and about half of those tried to do something. (The assailant was at first chased away by neighbors yelling at the initial attack. He came back later and trapped Genovese in a stairwell out of all but perhaps one witness’s sight and in earshot of only a few.) In the end, maybe several people could be fairly charged with apathy – or fear – although the debate about that still rages (e.g., see here and here). (Update: And a 2015 film by Genovese’s brother, “The Witness,” further undermines the classic story.)
Whatever the facts, the story, magnified by noted New York Times writer and later editor A. M. Rosenthal, set off decades of philosophizing about the human condition, black humor about New York City, and hundreds of psychology experiments – a form of academic headline-chasing – probably starting with this one four years after the murder. Since then, research on “bystander intervention,” asking when people do or do not intervene to help a stranger in need, boomed into an even bigger research field on “pro-social behavior,” asking why anybody ever helps anybody at all.
The story has lasted amazingly long. Kitty Genovese’s name appeared in the New York Times – and in social science journals – more often in the 2000s than in any previous decade. Except for a brief surge in 1975, her name has appeared in American books at a steady rate for the last roughly 45 years (nGram analysis).
Lemann does a great job of exploring the case, the coverage, and its cultural resonance. Here, I want to comment about the Kitty Genovese story’s role in accentuating and embellishing the late-twentieth-century image of the nightmare city.
Western culture has long described cities as dangerous places, even though for most of human history they were safer than rural areas. In an earlier post, I quoted as illustration a study of 19th century Massachusetts which documented the higher murder rates in the rural parts of the state. Nonetheless, in literature, both elite and popular, cities are full of strangers, criminal associations, and great risk. (For example, see here, here, and here.)
The city image nonetheless also included a frisson of excitement, a glamorous side, the bright-lights — New York City most of all. American films reflected some of that with “On the Town” (1949) and “Guys and Dolls” (1955) dancing giddiness. The 1960s and ‘70s destroyed that. Much of the disillusionment was founded in a changing reality – soaring rates of violent crime, civil disorders, financial crises, and middle-class flight to the suburbs.
These realities fed and may have been amplified by a cultural shift, the increasing depiction of cities as nightmare landscapes of violence amid decay, with New York City again the prime example. Famed New York Times film critic Vincent Canby complained in 1974 that “New York’s Woes are Good Box Office.” One analyst of the New York “brand” noted that “the late 1960s was the turning point in the representation of New York City on film,” with the arrival of bleak dramas such as “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Taxi Driver” (1976), and later many vigilante movies like “Escape from New York” (1981). While the threat and the reality of violence was central to many of these dark-city films, the sense that nobody cared, that the protagonist was alone in the crowded city, was also a key part of the theme.
Similarly, the commonplace jokes in the 1970s and ‘80s about getting mugged in New York were often accompanied by bleak humor about bystander apathy. An episode of the ‘70s sitcom The Odd Couple had one of the leads fake a mugging in a subway car – not unlike some staged psychology experiments, by the way – and ask, “Why doesn’t somebody help this girl?” only to receive a “chorus from bystanders: ‘Why don’t you?’.”
It is perhaps hard to appreciate these days, now that crime rates plummeted back to pre-1960s levels and when the big-city issues seem to be about gentrification, overpriced cupcake stores, and street fairs crowded with food trucks, how bleak the popular image of the city, especially of the Big Apple, used to be. The Kitty Genovese case — the real case — was probably not that rare. Violent crimes often happen in front of witnesses who’d rather not get involved. But Rosenthal’s story about the case — in some versions, dozens of people passively watched the whole murder unfold — resonated in part because it fit existing stereotypes. And it was such a powerful story that it has further fueled the stereotypes for decades after.