Kitty Genovese Was Raped and Killed 50 Years Ago, But…

Everybody who was around in 1964 knows the story of Kitty Genovese. She’s the young woman who was stabbed to death on a street in New York City while 38 witnesses supposedly did nothing to help.

The lesson we all learned back then was that society was falling apart. People would listen to somebody screaming outside their window and do nothing because “they didn’t want to get involved”, especially a bunch of self-centered, cowardly, unfeeling big-city types. I was only 12 at the time, living on the other side of the continent, but it was easy for me and everyone else to form a mental image of what happened that night: a woman repeatedly crying for help in a narrow street or alley as onlookers looked down from their windows or sat on their fire escapes doing nothing.

An article in the New York Post (by the way, one of the most unreliable newspapers in America) tells a very different story, based on a new book called Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.

It was 3 a.m. Somebody called the police immediately after Genovese was stabbed on the street (although the police didn’t show up, not realizing the nature of the incident). She was able to walk home but collapsed in her apartment building’s vestibule, not outside where people could hear her. Her killer was initially scared away by a witness, but then followed her into the building and attacked her again. That’s where she died as one of her neighbors held her in her arms.

According to the article, there were two witnesses who were certainly blameworthy. One of them even said “he didn’t want to get involved”. But if you believe the Post article, this is another case in which a story got told and retold because it confirmed something people already believed: people who live in big cities aren’t real Americans and don’t care enough about anyone else to bother calling the cops when a young woman is being raped and murdered. Which, if you’ve ever spent much time in New York City, where you tend to rub shoulders with lots of different people every day, you know isn’t true at all.

On a related note, does living in a city like New York make you more or less accepting of people who don’t look or sound like you? You see people whose families came from everywhere in the world going about their daily business, sitting next to you on the subway, or waiting in line at the deli. Familiarity breeds contempt sometimes, or a bad experience does the same, but I think that sharing space with a wide variety of people all behaving in similar ways tends to make city-dwellers more favorable toward democracy and social programs. Maybe it’s easier to be a liberal, less fearful or disdainful of those “other” people, if you see all manner of human beings up close, following the rules, doing the same things you do every day. 

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