If you were old enough – and I was – the name of Kitty Genovese was a name you knew. Not just that she was a murder victim in Queens, NYC, stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, “one of six hundred and thirty-six murders in New York City that year,” but that the apparent indifference to her plight by over three dozen “witnesses” spoke volumes about the apathetic nature of a segment of American life:
…the gist of the [New York Times] piece lent itself perfectly to Sunday sermons about a malaise encompassing all of us. It was a way of processing anxieties about the anonymity of urban life, about the breakdown of the restrictive but reassuring social conventions of the fifties, and, less directly, about racial unrest, the Kennedy assassination, and even the Holocaust, which was only beginning to be widely discussed, and which seemed to represent on a grand scale the phenomenon that one expert on the Genovese case calls Bad Samaritanism.
Except that the narrative was largely untrue. Not that her murder was not horrific, but read the New Yorker article, and you will recognize that the story had done a grand disservice to our views of the cities, especially The City.
The Kitty Genovese narrative – I was 11 at the time – terrified me. It fit into a narrative of black people, and their white supporters – disappearing in the South and ended up dead. But that was far away, down “there”. This story, not just the murder but the indifference, 180 miles from my home at the time, made my world just a bit of a scarier place.
I remember that after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, one pundit noted that one would not expect that sort of thing in “the heartland” – my, I HATE that word – though you would EXPECT that sort of thing in NYC, and he used the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as an example. The people in what the NY/LA folks sometimes call “flyover country” is supposed to be immune to that sort of thing, because, it seems, they care more about each other. The one oddly beneficial thing about 9/11 was that, for a time, EVERYONE was a New Yorker, and that kind of divisive thinking went away, if only for a while.