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 a sad story. This picture shows a hotel where a 15-year-old prostitute died in 1975.
The Hotel Belmore in Manhattan marked the end of Karen Baxter's life. As 15-year-old runaway from Cambridge, Mass., she resorted to prostitution to survive New York City until one of her customers choked her with a metal chain in 1975. The photo was taken five days after her murder.
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 theatres, massage parlors, adult bookstores, or peepshows.
A poster advertises a peep show in Times Square, the epicentre of the sex industry in New York City, in 1981.
This photo from 1971 shows three vials of pure heroin. By the 80s, Bryant Park became known as 'Needle Park,' due to the used syringes strewn across the ground. Heroin abuse didn't decline until the 90s.
Dysfunction in the NYPD didn't help the city's drug problems. This picture shows detective Frank Serpico (with beard) is his famous 1971 testimony about widespread corruption, as officers bought drugs, took bribes, and paid prostitutes 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. 1000 fires were reported.
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.
Stanley Patz--Etan's father-- and his son Ari hold a photo of Ian on the fire escape of their home. Investigators began searching a basement near the Patz' home in 2012, but they never found the boy's remains.
The city's budget problems affected the Transit Authority, too. The organisation cut much of the subway's maintenance to save money, leading to a build-up of graffiti.
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.
Turn-style jumping was common during those years, giving thieves a chance to mug people without having to pay high fares.
A transit officer tries to stop a man from handing out leaflets protesting the rise in New York City subway and bus fares from 35 cents to 50 cents in 1975. Turn-style jumping reached an all time high in the 70s.
Bernhard Goetz, who shot four youths in a subway train in 1984, became a symbol for 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, centre, 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. Reyes became known as the 'Central Park Jogger.'
The decline of New York City was chronicled in pop culture by movies like 'Death Wish' (1974), 'Taxi Driver' (1976), and 'Escape From New York' (1981 — pictured).
The number of murders in New York City peaked 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 of his position, crime decreased in every category.
Source: Harvard Business Review
Mayor Rudy Giuliani, elected in 1993, subscribed to the similar 'broken windows' theory of crime, which held that minor things 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.
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