Thanks to BAAS and the British Academy I was able to organise two fruitful archival trips to New York in 2014 and 2015 that have resulted in two articles and a possible book proposal, says Joe Merton, recipient of the BAAS Founders’ Research Travel Award. My archival research sheds light on public fears of predatory crime in 1970s New York City and reveals a city in crisis – a crisis not simply of crime, but also of confidence, authority and legitimacy.
Thanks to the BAAS Founders’ Research Travel Award I was able to make two research trips to the US in autumn 2014 and June 2015, supplementing a larger research travel grant from the British Academy, to support a new research project on fear of crime and urban restructuring in 1970s New York City.
My project considers how public fears of predatory crime – and the response of political and corporate elites to those fears – permanently transformed the political, cultural and spatial landscape of New York City during the 1970s, two decades before the advent of “zero tolerance” and “quality of life” policing. It assesses the impact of a perceived
“crisis” of crime – a crisis as significant as the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975 – in restructuring city politics and local political coalitions, public policy priorities, labour relations and the role of the state, the use of urban space, development and design, and the city’s media cultures, with lasting significance not just for New York but for many urban centres across the Western world.
Spending such an extended period of time in New York enabled me to access materials off-limits to a UK researcher typically limited to browsing the historical New York Times. Much of my time in the city was divided between the chaos of the New York City municipal archives – home to the subject files of various city administrations, many city-sponsored publications and coachloads of flustered genealogical researchers – and the relative tranquility of the New York Public Library, where I was able to consult the papers of various citizens’ advocacy groups, the New York Times’s editorial staff and a wide range of city newspapers unavailable in the UK (New York Post, New York Daily News, Village Voice, New York magazine). These materials illustrated both the universality of public anxiety over street crime – fear of crime transcended cleavages of race, ethnicity and class in the city – but also, against the backdrop of fiscal retrenchment, the increasingly tortured efforts of city government and public institutions such as the Police Department or Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to alleviate those concerns.
Valuable materials on crime and city government were also available at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives and the Columbia University Special Collections, home to an impressive oral history for the Koch administration (1977-89), while the collections of the Brooklyn Public Library and the splendid Brooklyn Historical Society offered insights into the attempts of private citizens’ groups and neighbourhood organisations to confront crime at a time of dwindling faith in the state: self-help guides, vigilante patrols and advice on alarm systems and attack dogs predominated here, not sympathy for police officers or public officials, while tirades linking crime to city welfare and drug treatment programmes could be found amongst the letters pages of local newspapers and community newsletters. Beyond New York, I was also able to make trips to Yale, to access the papers of former mayor John V. Lindsay; Albany, to view the microfilmed papers of State Governors Nelson Rockefeller and Hugh Carey (and gaze at the modernist splendour of Empire State Plaza); and Sleepy Hollow, home of the Rockefeller Archive Center and the collections of some of the business advocacy groups central not just to the reordering of the city’s finances in the 1970s but also its criminal justice priorities. Together, my research has revealed a city in crisis – a crisis not simply of crime, but also of confidence, authority and legitimacy.
Support from BAAS also enabled me to attend the biennial Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia and deliver a paper on fear of crime and the crisis of expertise in New York during the Lindsay years (1965-73). Further developed using primary material from New York, this paper has since been expanded into an article under consideration by the Journal of Policy History, while a second article on the crime-fighting activities of private foundation the Association for a Better New York has been submitted to the Journal of Urban History. The UHA also provided an opportunity for me to forge initial contacts with Columbia University Press, who have expressed an interested in publishing the eventual manuscript.
I am deeply grateful to the BAAS Awards Committee for giving me the opportunity to conduct this research and finally kickstart my project.
Joe Merton is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at University of Nottingham.