Since the early 1990s, violent crime in New York City has dropped so precipitously that officials now call their city the Safest Big City in America. Homicides, for example, which climbed past 2,000 in 1990, stood at 496 in 2009. Reason to celebrate? Of course.

But in The Savage City, his gripping account of the decade between 1963 and 1973, “the ten-year period when New York City began its now-legendary descent into mayhem,” T.J. English sounds a cautionary note. He argues that the city’s criminal justice system is still based on assumptions about race and class, and fear is still its major tool of coercion. “The fault lines remain,” English concludes in his customary vivid style, “lift up the rock and you will see.”

It’s hard to argue with English’s conclusions, but it’s fortunate for readers that he confines this sort of overt analysis to his introduction and epilogue. Because what is best about The Savage City is English’s hurtling narrative of a city going seriously out of whack.

The story begins on August 28, 1963, the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C. On that day in New York two well-educated young women were found savagely murdered in their Manhattan apartment in what became known as the Career Girls Murders. After months of investigation, the police arrested George Whitmore Jr., an impoverished, sweet-natured black teenager, for the crime. The egregious police frame-up of Whitmore will make readers’ blood boil, and his arrest and his decade-long struggle to be exonerated are the bookends of The Savage City.

Why was Whitmore so easily framed? In large part, because the city’s police department was rife with racism and corruption. English follows the career of Bill Phillips, a thoroughly corrupt cop who spent more time collecting payoffs than enforcing the law. Exposed at last, Phillips wore a wire and testified before the anti-corruption Knapp Commission, thus doing more to expose a polluted police culture than Frank Serpico of movie fame.

The final element in The Savage City’s combustible mix was the rise of black nationalism, as represented by the story of Dhoruba bin Wahad, a small-time criminal who was radicalized in prison and became a much-feared member of the Black Panther Party—and a man violently opposed to the sorts of injustices visited upon Whitmore by the likes of Phillips.

English digs deeply, and often sympathetically, into the murky lives of these three men. Weaving their stories together, he delivers a pulse-raising narrative about an era we dearly hope is gone forever.

 

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