The New York City of the 1970s looked very different from the gentrified metropolis we know today. The Bowery, now lined with luxury apartments, housed much of the city’s illicit activities, while drug dealers and prostitutes worked openly from Park Slope to Times Square.
Industrial decline, economic stagnation, and white flight led to the dramatic downturn for America’s largest city.
Gotham had an unprecedented fiscal crisis in 1975, and two years later the city descended into chaos after the power went out for 25 hours. New York City saw 1,814 homicides in 1980 — three times what we have today — while the population declined to just over 7 million from nearly 8 million a decade before.
At the same time, crack and heroin infested the city, driving the crime rate even higher.
Robert Stutman, a former special agent for the NYC DEA, told Frontline, “Crack literally changed the entire face of the city. Street violence had grown. Child abuse had grown hugely. Spousal abuse. I had a special crack violence file that I kept to convince the geniuses in Washington who kept telling me it wasn’t a problem.”
By 1990, the annual homicides in New York peaked at 2,245. The city lived in fear.
In 1976, 2,383 arrests were made for prostitution citywide. Of these, 1,165 were girls between the ages of 15 and 20.
There were an estimated 40,000 prostitutes in New York City in the ’70s, many with sad stories. This picture shows a hotel where a 15-year-old prostitute died in 1975.
Authorities were of little help. In this picture, Sydney Biddle Barrows, the “Mayflower Madam,” celebrates with champagne after pleading guilty to promoting prostitution in return for a $5,000 fine and no prison sentence.
During the ’70s, the New York City Planning Commission estimated the city had about 245 stores with “adult uses,” like adult movie theaters, massage parlors, adult bookstores, or peepshows.
By the mid-’70s, an estimated 200,000 people abused heroin in New York City.
Cheap and destructive crack also spread rapidly through the city in the ’80s.
Dysfunction in the NYPD didn’t help the city’s drug problems. This picture shows detective Frank Serpico (with beard) during his famous 1971 testimony about widespread corruption, as officers bought drugs, took bribes, and paid prostitutes while on duty.
Fiscal problems forced the NYPD to lay off 50,000 employees in 1975. In the next five years, as cuts continued, the police force would shrink by 34%, while serious crime increased by 40%.
The financial crisis coincided with the blackout of 1977, which led to looting and arson throughout the city. 1,000 fires were reported.
1,600 stores were looted, contributing to a $300 million tab for the city.
In a little more than 24 hours, police arrested 3,700 people.
David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam” serial killer, also terrorized New York City the year of the blackout. He murdered six people and injured seven during a 13-month blood-lust ending in 1977.
A couple of years later, parents had cause to fear for their kids. Etan Patz became the first “kid on a milk carton” in 1979. He disappeared in SoHo after a short walk to the school bus stop.
The city’s budget problems affected the Transit Authority, too. The organization cut much of the subway’s maintenance to save money, leading to a build-up of graffiti.
Graffiti even covered Grand Central Station, shown here in 1973, the most popular subway stop in New York City.
Much of New York City’s crime happened on the subway in the late ’70s. The Lexington Avenue Express landed the nickname the “Mugger’s Express.”
In the first two months of 1979, six murders occurred on the subway. Nine occurred that whole year. By September 1979, the police recorded over 250 felonies on the subway every week, the highest crime rate for any mass transit network in the world.
Turnstile jumping was common during those years, giving thieves a chance to mug people without having to pay high fares.
Bernhard Goetz, who shot four youths in a subway train in 1984, became a symbol for the paranoia New Yorkers felt about getting robbed or attacked.
Much of the tension and fear was related to race. One man was killed and another was beaten in a string of racially-motivated attacks in Howard Beach, Queens in 1986.
Police escort Jason Ladone, center, 17, one of four teenagers charged in connection with the death of Michael Griffith. The Trinidad-born man was run down on the highway by a car and killed.
A female investment banker was raped, beaten, and left to die in Central Park in 1989. Four black males and one Hispanic man were later falsely charged with the crime.
Five teens went to prison for the crime. But 13 years later, a convicted rapist named Matias Reyes admitted he alone attacked the jogger. The assaulted woman became known as the “Central Park Jogger.”
Movies like “Death Wish” (1974), “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “Escape From New York” (1981 — pictured) chronicled the decline of New York City in pop culture.
The number of murders in New York City peaked in 1990 at 2,245, but then the tide began to turn.
High profile crimes pressured Mayor David Dinkins to hire more police officers. One of the worst was the 1990 murder of 22-year-old tourist Brian Watkins, who was killed when four teenagers attacked his family on the subway. This photo shows a memorial for Brian in Flushing.
In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins proposed a $1.8 billion plan to “fight fear,” which involved hiring around 8,000 new police officers.
Dinkins also hired a police commissioner with a fresh outlook on stopping crime. Lee Brown (left), sworn-in as the city’s police commissioner in 1990, subscribed to the idea of “community policing.”
Brown believed in cops walking the streets, getting to know people, and solving problems — rather than just responding to 911 calls. After one year in his position, crime decreased in every category.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani, elected in 1993, subscribed to the similar “broken windows” theory of crime, which held that minor offenses like vandalism were gateways to more serious crime.
By 2001, crime had fallen 56% in New York City. More and better policing helped, as did the booming economy and the national decline of hard drugs.
Crime also fell 33% nationally. Berkeley Law professor and author of “The City That Became Safe,” Frank Zimring gives Giuliani “derivative credit” for making New York safer. What he calls the “great American crime decline” had a huge effect, as well.