The Bystanders’ Tale, With Second Thoughts

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, rest her soul, would be 80 years old this July. Instead, she ran into a serial rapist-murderer on her way home from work on this day in 1964, and became a symbol. The influential New York Times coverage of her murder, spearheaded by then-metro editor A.M. Rosenthal, framed it indelibly as a crime of apathy as well as violence.

But the famous story of the 38 uncaring witnesses in Queens is not completely true. Yes, two in particular would qualify as villains in this piece. But of all the dozens of potential Good Samaritans, it transpired very few heard the struggles clearly enough to understand their seriousness. As it was, one neighbor shouted from his window at Genovese’s attacker, driving him temporarily away. Two others called the police. And Sophia Farrar, far from cowering behind a closed door, left her apartment to try to help Genovese, who was lying in Farrar’s arms when the ambulance came. A 2014 review of the case by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker is interesting reading, and recommended.

To me what bugs the most about the legend is its vision of city dwellers as a bunch of urban zombies jammed uncaringly together. Why, somebody could be murdered right in front of them and they wouldn’t lift a finger! The uncritical belief that every single one of Genovese’s neighbors turned over on their pillows and went back to sleep always seemed odd to me, given my mother’s account of her Greenpoint girlhood, where a night out meant risking the window thrown open, the nosy neighbor’s pointed query: “Coming in a bit late, aren’t ya?”

So in addition to noting the genuine advances that resulted — the birth of New York’s 911 system is the major example – I’d also like to remember the neighbors whose actions remained unsung for decades. They reflect the outer boroughs of today and of my parents’ day – places where people are simply people, for bad and, yes, for good too.

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