Ted Gross: How Did He Get From City Hall to the City Morgue?

I used to feel that I belonged on the Harlem streets. To me home was the streets. I suppose there were many people who felt that… You might see somebody get cut or killed. I could go out in the street for an afternoon, and I would see so much that when I came in the house I’d be talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Dad would say, “Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’. You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.” But I knew I had. 
— Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land

It wasn’t so much that Ted Gross actually publicized himself as a “street nigger” as that he never objected to being lionized as one. When people asked him where he was from, he would proudly tell them Harlem, not so much with a smile as with the smugness that comes with viewing oneself as special — a chosen survivor of deprivation. As it was, most people just assumed when Ted said he was from Harlem, that he had grown up in the streets. He thoroughly enjoyed the mystique it swathed him in in white society’s eyes, and the acceptance — the sense of commonness and belonging — it gave him with blacks. The only problem was that after a while Ted, too, came to accept the masquerade or perhaps he never saw that it was one — right up to the time he suffered the type of violent death accepted as part of the street life.

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Ted Gross’s death was more than just a sudden, inexplicable tragedy. Nor was it the death of just another black street hustler. It wasn’t that simple because Ted Gross was no ordinary street hustler. His background contained more book than street learning; he was more house than street nigger.

Gross’s upbringing was decidedly middle class. He spent part of his youth in the East Harlem middle-income Riverton housing development, where the community’s elite lived. His mother, Gerty West Brown, was a socially conscious, upwardly mobile black woman who later became one of the founders of HARYOU, a social-services organization. His father was a schoolteacher. From the time he was seven, Ted lived outside the city. He attended private secondary school in rural Virginia, did his collegiate studies at Shaw University, and, later taught primary school. In the early ’70s Gross began his rapid ascendancy in the John Lindsay administration, rising to become commissioner of the vast and troubled Youth Services Agency. In 1973 he was indicted for taking bribes and misspending close to $400,000 in ­taxpayer’s money. Gross pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. He was released on parole late in 1974 and began a steady decline that culminated in his death on June 9, 1976.

It happened on a deserted thoroughfare in Brooklyn early one Sunday morning when Gross, sitting in his late-model Citroen, was gunned down from behind by a man he had met and befriended in prison. Aided by two strokes of good fortune, police investigators were quick to make an arrest: A woman companion of Gross’s who was also shot survived the fusil­lade and identified 21-year-old Kenneth Gilmore, an ex-drug ad­dict and ex-convict who had already done time for manslaughter, as the assailant. Three days later, Gilmore surrendered to authorities in Charleston, South Carolina.

The arrest, however, answered few — if any — of the myriad ques­tions raised by the murder and by the extreme reluctance of the police to discuss the case. What was Ted Gross involved in that finally took his like?

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When the story broke in the local dailies there were intimations that Gross had been involved in criminal activity. The Daily News story mentioned drugs and numbers. One theory postulated that Gross’s death had been ordered by someone high in the narcotics world. Although they had the suspect identified as the triggerman, the police had little else. They didn’t know what had precipitated the shooting and so went off chasing any leads that emerged, many of them blind, most just fruitless.


I had more than a passing inter­est in Ted Gross. I had never met him but had, even in Newark, where I worked at the time, heard about his exploits in the New York City government. I remember once attending a meeting with Amiri Baraka and hearing several blacks discuss how Gross was messing up, buying boats, parading around in fur coats, flaunting white women, and pretty much playing the role blacks had just fought and died in the streets across the country to shake off. Another time, I recall watching a group of black and Puerto Rican kids from the South Bronx on the Dick Cavett show accuse Gross of taking better care of his dog than he was of them.

But it wasn’t these isolated incidents alone that interested me. Neither was it the fact that his name had been tied to drugs and numbers, though that was surely fascinating. What was more puzzling was the fall. Few blacks I know saw it as anything more than further evidence of the white conspiracy against competent blacks who, the rhetoric went, “get too high in the system.” There was more there than that, I suspected. The evidence that sent him plummeting out of office was unequivocal.

But drugs? Numbers? How? Why? I realized that the search would perhaps help me resolve other questions left over from my own childhood — a youth that held painful memories of friends who had died of overdoses or in the crossfire of street violence, or who had just never escaped the magnetic pull of the street life. Deciphering the guarded code might explain what had killed, physically and spiritually, some of my friends — and Gross.

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Ted’s friends and relatives are reluctant to talk about him. There is a disturbing realization by those who considered themselves his intimates that no one really knew him. Everyone I talk to possesses a fragment of recollection that, in light of all that has passed, is clearly not the total picture. Moreover, there is the unsettling thought that there is even more corruption than they will ever know.

His mother, I sense, feels an enormous, brooding compassion for her dead son. Distraught by the murder and the suggestion of drugs, she went around defending his honor by telling friends that it was a government plot to destroy him. When I arrive at her apartment on the upper tip of Harlem one night to keep our appointment, a young girl answers the door and tells me Gerty is not home. I linger in the lobby a while, then call upstairs. Gerty answers the phone. She tells me that she changed her mind about the interview and won’t be giving any for a while.

Initially, all my attempts at interviewing street people who knew Ted are defensively rejected. Street people will talk about anything but dope. It is everywhere, but the answers to probing questions flow with a lot more difficulty. Writers and narcotics cops ask questions. In the eyes of street people, both spell unwanted attention and trouble. The streets are silent. Most of the people I know from Harlem, or those who hang out but don’t live there, grow quiet and hesitant when I mention the name Ted Gross, except to make it clear that they don’t know anything, don’t know anyone who knows anything, and wish I wouldn’t pursue the story. Even Harlem cops won’t talk about the case. Several people ask me not to take notes during interviews, and just about everyone I talk to asks that his or her name not be mentioned.

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In a Bronx bowling alley that Ted frequented, a man tells me that Gross could not have been involved in dope. “To sell dope,” he says, “you have to hate people. I don’t think Ted could have hated the same young cats he tried to help when he was in office.”

It’s a fair theory, but it’s flawed. There is already evidence that Ted had been involved in dope. And besides, selling dope in no more difficult than sending nameless people off to fight secret wars. You don’t have to face the helpless victims. It’s easy.

I decide to pursue the drug angle if only to establish to what extent Ted had been involved. I go to the office of city narcotics prosecutor Sterling Johnson, half expecting to be searched there, given recent disclosures that Harlem’s major drug dealers have put out a $100,000 contract on Johnson’s head. The story broke in the New York Post, despite Johnson’s request that the reporter not write it, and was more recently alluded to in a New York magazine piece.

I ask if the allegations that Gross was involved in dope are true. Johnson says they are. How involved, I ask. Johnson hesitates, then says he can’t answer that since it might compromise ongoing investigations. He quickly asks me if I know who James Mosley is.

I do. Mosley was indicted along with Gross in the YSA scandal. At the time, police called him the bagman in the kickback deals. Mosley is also the owner of the Bronx bowling alley where Gross bowled on Wednesday nights and where Kenneth Gilmore worked as night manager. Mosley and Gross were close friends at one time and were still on good terms when Gross was murdered. According to newspaper stories, Mosley had turned state’s evidence against Gross in the YSA scandal, a charge he later denied. But I don’t think Johnson is about to tell me something I probably already know.

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“Mosley is a close associate of Pete McDougal,” he says. When I show no sign of recognizing the name, Johnson continues, “McDougal was recently acquitted on a major drug charge.”

The McDougal case was no ordi­nary drug bust. Ten men were named in the massive indictment in a case involving well over 50 kilos of heroin. Of the 10 men including McDougal who were indicted and later acquitted, one was subsequently murdered, another was shot when word circulated that he was a police informer, and a third has turned up missing.

McDougal, Johnson says, is also an established numbers runner in Harlem. “Ted Gross associated with these guys,” says Johnson. “If you saw a guy with faggots all the time, what would you say? Ted was a flashy guy. He liked to hang out with the big guys. He had a jones for the street and fine women. When you hear a name like Ted Gross associated with Mosley and McDougal, you pick that up right away because of who he is. His name came up frequent­ly enough for us to know it wasn’t casual or chance meetings. He was always seen at the bars, clubs, night spots with these guys.”

Johnson tells me that the drug business in Harlem is [so] vicious now that the so-called black mafia has forced out the Italian families who once held tight control over drugs and numbers. Recently things have been complicated by the emergence of a new generation of young blacks who have begun to encroach ruthlessly on the older generation. The old rules no longer apply, and people are dying with alarming regularity.

I ask Johnson if he’s surprised that Ted Gross was killed.

“No,” he says. “I’m not shocked.”


Ted has been dead a week. As I walk back from another tense and unproductive interview, I stop at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street before going down into the subway. The corner is quiet. The languor at dusk will soon build to a disquieting frenzy as night, high humidity, and a mass of hu­manity descend on Harlem’s streets. I watch the faces of the people passing the intersection. People in Harlem always seem to be living life at its most violent extremes. In the group experience of blacks in this country, every­thing is being tried, everything is being felt, but this is especially true in Harlem. This was the Har­lem Ted Gross wanted so much to feel he was a part of, the Harlem he was born in but never really made it in. I search the faces of passersby, looking for what Ted Gross sought here.

I grew up in Newark, not Har­lem, but the streets are the same wherever you find a concentration of blacks living in urban pockets of tenements and projects, and so are other constants: drugs, women, numbers, violent death.

Heroin was the big thing when I was young. We had a lot of names for it, but horse was the most popular. Most of the guys I grew up with couldn’t wait to rush out and start using it. If you weren’t doing dope — mostly just snorting it — then you weren’t hip, and to be accused of being unhip was to be a social pariah.

Just about everyone wanted to be part of the street. It was the first social environment many of us came in contact with, which held out a chance for acceptance and possible success. And though it was insulated, it was, neverthe­less, exciting and alluring. Sure, there were dangers, but that was part of the glamour.

There is no ritual to street life but there are rules. They are un­written and unspoken, but all who drift into or grow up on the streets quickly learn them. Primary among these if you are doing or dealing dope is the understanding that death is always waiting. Life spans in the drug trade are fright­eningly short, determined by a law of diminishing odds: The more successful one is — or the longer one stays in — the greater the like­lihood of never getting out un­harmed. Few die natural deaths. It is not uncommon now for newcom­ers to the business to make big money and quit early, attracting little attention from the narc or competitors. There are, however, those who, for whatever reason, choose to ignore the rules and their instincts and stay longer than they should, or start when they shouldn’t — according to several of his friends, Ted was one of them.

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It is well over a month after Ted Gross’s death before bits of infor­mation about the last three years of his life begin to emerge — from the time he began serving a 16-month sentence in prison until his murder. I get conflicting pictures of Ted in prison. Some sources describe him as constantly brood­ing and often by himself, suggest­ing that he was not making a successful adaptation to prison. Others, however, describe his prison stay as merely uneventful. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer (special assistants to the mayor at the time Gross was YSA commis­sioner), who saw Gross frequently in prison, recall he was coping reasonably well. “He had the in­tellectual tools that made it poss­ible for him to deal with physical confinement,” Gottehrer tells me.

The truth is that he did, in fact, experience alternating periods of high spiritedness and severe depression. He blamed himself for his family’s deteriorating condition, particularly his daughter’s emotional problems. At other times he was lively and active in prison programs. At Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Storm­ville, New York, he belonged to what the inmates called the “think Tank,” an inmates’ group that arranged for visiting speakers and helped inmates adjust to incar­ceration. Gross also turned to handcrafts, creating works of glass that he would send to his close friends.

One ex-convict who was in prison at the same time tells me that Gross commanded a great deal of respect from the other inmates. “The cat didn’t come across as an inmate the way he handled him­self. In fact, a lot of the younger dudes used to call him Mr. Gross.”

The first year Ted spent outside of prison was difficult and cata­clysmic. His family was fragment­ed. His daughter required psychia­tric counseling. His wife was emotionally tense from the pressure of keeping the household in­tact while Ted had been away. Ted’s first job after he left Green­haven was selling advertising space for the thousands of cement trash containers that had sprung up on street corners around the city. He was on a work-release program at the time at a facility based in Harlem. Several of his Lindsay administration friends say he often called, seeking con­tacts and potential clients. The job didn’t pan out however — the com­pany eventually ran into financial trouble, and its New York opera­tion folded.

Ted must have thought he had achieved redemption when, after he left the work-release phase of his parole, he secured a job with the Department of Corrections, assigned to the state Chaplains program. Reverend Earl Moore, who hired Gross, tells me that Ted was in his element again, working as a liaison between prison in­mates and their families. He pro­vided counseling for inmates and was wheeling and dealing, just like in the Lindsay days — until a Daily News reporter who learned of his new employment wrote about the irony of an ex-convict working for the corrections department. The story generated enough pressure from high up in the corrections hierarchy to get Gross fired.

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“He was so broken up,” Rever­end Moore recalls, “that he sat in my office and cried. He even of­fered to work for nothing, but he still had a family to take care of.”

After that Ted drifted. And at some point his anxiety intensified. He tried to start a gypsy-cab com­pany, a venture that never got off the ground because the cars he bought wouldn’t run and he didn’t have enough money to repair them. He acquired a franchise in an adhesive glue business in New Jersey, but it was obvious to those around him that he found it unsa­tisfying employment. “This is a cat who used to make $35,000 a year, lived like he was making $85,000, lived in a brownstone, had all the finest women, a boat, fur coats. He was a star. He couldn’t work like that,” says one of Gross’s acquaintances.

Mostly, he spent his time trying to make fast-buck deals here and there. His operative theory was that if he could start several small businesses, he could make a tidy profit. And, in dope, he could make an even bigger one.

Gross’s re-emergence into the street culture had not been met with overwhelming acceptance. He still had numerous friends and acquaintances, but inside the nar­cotics underworld to which he aspired he was anathema. His cre­dentials were, in the street sense, flawed, his tenure in the Lindsay administration having marked him as a different animal alto­gether. His crime — “the white man’s crime,” says one acquaint­ance — was not the stuff of which street legends are made.

Also not in Gross’s favor was the embarrassing fact that he had no money. He came out of prison owing thousands in back taxes on his house in addition to owing on a tidy mortgage. There were also thousands of dollars in long-over­due parking fines and hefty credit­-card bills.

To get money Ted began borrowing from friends and selling nonexistent shares of the glue business, in an attempt to scrape together enough to buy his way into narcotics. Money or no, another man tells me, Ted had no chance of cracking the big-time drug mar­ket. He was intemperate, impetu­ous, kaleidoscopically wild. His instincts for the business were wrong. One man who says his association with Gross was fre­quent, though not intimate, tells me of one occasion on which sev­eral young Harlem dealers were discussing the cutting and distri­buting of a good portion of heroin. At one point, the man says, Gross interjected a suggestion about some facet of the distribution that betrayed his ignorance. Suddenly, everything went silent — it was clear to those who were there that Ted was a rank amateur. He was embarrassed.

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Unable to dent the inner circle, Ted fell back on dealing with the marginal characters, satellites or­biting on the periphery of the drug traffic. Even there, it was possible to turn a fast dollar. It takes only a small initial investment. One can, for example, parlay a purchase of $3000 worth of dope into a profit of close to $15,000. Reinvesting $10,000 of that can reap you a windfall of $50,000. One man tells me that Ted Gross was just begin­ning to master this pyramiding formula when he was killed.

Ted Gross had, indeed, been a manchild who mistakenly thought he had found his idyllic promised land in the ghetto subculture of hustlers and pushers, fast money and fast women. But the fact is that Ted had come to the street life late, ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of living on the treadmill of a fantasy. By the time he had graduated from Shaw, Ted had spent 15 of his 22 years away from the street. In a way, Ted Gross was actually just living his Harlem childhood for the first time.

Gross was of that Harlem gener­ation which painfully gave birth to Malcolm X and a whole movement of black pride and social and polit­ical activism. Many who had grown up in the streets went through a metamorphosis, trading partying for politicking, numbers for nationalism. Ted missed that, too. Instead, he came back to a Harlem again benumbed by ne­glect and overrun with dope.

No one who knew him could fail, in some way, to be affected by Gross’s vitality. He was highly articulate and impassioned, drawing people into the center of himself. The immediacy, the impatience, the tumult of his emotions — all were staggering. He was driven, it seems, by a need for constant attention and a gluttonous hunger for approval. He was in fanatical pursuit of affection. And the street, to a certain extent, provided that. But Ted Gross was also a naive man, flirting with self-destruction. And the street provided that, too.


The Knapp Connection

The Knapp Connection
March 1, 1973

On December 29, 1972, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the City’s Anti-Corruption Procedures, popularly known as the Knapp Commission, presented its final report to the Mayor and the people of the City of New York. It is a remarkable document, 264 pages of neat, colorless lawyers’ prose, calmly setting forth the most lurid tales of crime, corruption, and bloody murder, the last days of Sodom described by an accountant.

Scarcely a page goes by without its small shock, its little jab of horror: a police officer, for $2000, covering up two mobsters’ connection with a murder; another, for $5000, revealing to organized crime the identity of a narcotics informant, who was then taken upstate and murdered; organized crime paying an elite squad of Harlem policemen three times what the Department paid them; policemen, including high officers, financing heroin transactions, selling official information, and protecting narcotics dealers, all of which were described by the Commission as “typical” activities; as well as “numerous” instances of police introducing customers to pushers, kidnapping critical witnesses to keep them from testifying against pushers, providing armed protection (“riding shotgun”) for dealers, or offering to obtain “hit men” to kill potential witnesses.

Bit by brutal bit, the Commission lays a mosaic of corruption that is “an extensive, Department-wide phenomenon, indulged in to some degree by a sizable majority of those on the force and protected by a code of silence on the part of those who remained honest.” When the report was first released, this statement brought howls of outrage from the PBA (and some politicians who hope for its support in forthcoming elections). But since the revelation of the “French Connection” heroin disappearance — which meant that the Department has been perhaps the single greatest source of heroin in New York for several years — the last protesters have been silent. There is no more talk of a few rotten apples in the barrel. It is the barrel that is rotten. The only trouble is that we are all still inside it, and the Commission has not told us how to get out.

The Commission has told us what we need to know about the fact of police corruption. But it has failed — refused is a better word — to tell the city who is responsible for the corruption, for the extent to which it developed and the terrible damage it was allowed to do. It is as if the Nuremberg trials covered Rotterdam without Goering, or Lidice without Himmler; as at My Lai, there will be accusations and trials, but up to the level of captain only.

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This is not because the Commission lacked the knowledge or the facts about the responsibility for corruption. Buried in its back pages is a devastating indictment of the police and political leadership of the city over the last five years and more.

A prime example is in the Department’s refusal to act on 69 reports from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) which alleged that specific policemen were “extortionists, murderers, and heroin entrepreneurs.” Some of these reports were two years old, and still unacted upon in any way, when Commission staffers happened upon the file in late 1970. At the same time these reports were being filed and ignored, the BNDD was asking for Department cooperation with an operation “which might have led to the exposure of certain police officers believed to be involved in the sale of narcotics.” This request too was unacted upon, but was filed with an attached notation in the hand of Assistant Chief Inspector John McGovern, “IDC” (First Deputy Commissioner John Walsh) “doesn’t want to help the feds lock up local police. Let them arrest federal people.”

It is true that the BNDD did not enjoy a high reputation at that time in New York; 47 of the 50 agents in its New York office had recently been transferred, fired, or indicted for narcotics dealing. But that was not the excuse given to the Commission by McGovern: he said of his notation that he did not recall it, or the Walsh statement it described. The Commission, apparently, went no further, nor does its report.

But what do these incredible episodes tell us? Why were specific allegations of terrible crimes, made by a federal law-enforcement agency, left idle? Why were “murderers, extortionists, and drug dealers” left uninvestigated and unmolested in the Department? The Commission does not tell us, nor does it bother to assess the responsibility. It is content to tell us about the episodes — on page 210 of its report, where few if any of the daily reporters were likely to read them. (Sandy Garelik’s acceptance of businessmen’s “gratuities” got most of the news play.)

A similar example is the tender treatment reserved for Howard Leary, Police Commissioner from 1965 to 1970, who resigned shortly after the Knapp Commission was appointed. It is generally agreed among law enforcement authorities that Leary presided over the Department’s slide into the worst corruption in its history; the phrase “benign neglect” might have been invented to describe his tenure, much of which he apparently spent at his Philadelphia home while Jay Kriegel ran the Department. Once, at an early stage of the inquiry, Chairman Knapp suggested that Leary “has a lot to answer for.” But the Commission Report goes out of its way to avoid mentioning his name in any but the most casual fashion. Not only does it never suggest that Leary has any responsibility for the corrupt state of the Department he headed, it never mentions specific command actions taken under his tenure which enormously increased the possibilities, indeed the certainty, of corruption: for example, the placing of an officer widely regarded as corrupt into command of the narcotics division in 1968. (Bookmaker Hugh Mulligan was convicted of contempt in 1972 for refusing to answer questions about bribes of up to $5000 paid to transfer certain detectives into the narcotics division.)

The Commission does declare that one of the greatest barriers to anti-corruption activities was that “between 1967 and the beginning of the Murphy administration, ISB” (the Inspectional Services Bureau, comprising all the internal investigation divisions) “manpower was kept at a level that virtually made it impossible to do its job effectively. The manpower of its various units actually shrank.…” Notice how delicately the Commission avoids mentioning Leary’s name, which indeed does not once appear in the entire chapter dealing with the mockery of the Department’s efforts to police itself. Nor is there an inquiry why the inspectional manpower was reduced.

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And on it goes. The gambling operations of organized crime are protected at “precinct, division, and borough levels,” says the Commission. Does this mean that virtually the entire command structure of the Department is rotten? And who the corrupt or negligent commanders are, and whether they are still in the Department, we are not told.

Similarly, it was widely known in the Department that the plainclothes divisions had been substantially corrupted by their work in gambling and vice. But these men were transferred wholesale into narcotics enforcement in 1964, with predictable results.

But if the report shies away from assessing command responsibility within the Department, it resolutely turns its back on the issue of responsibility beyond it. The Commission tells us of a detective who provided armed physical protection for the deliveries of a multi-kilo heroin operation in which he was a partner. He was indicted in Queens County for conspiracy to sell heroin, for which the penalty was then up to four years in prison. He was allowed to plead guilty to one count of official misconduct and was sentenced to a year on probation. The report does not even suggest that there might be anything to criticize in the performance of District Attorney Thomas Mackell, or his son-in-law assistant handling the case, or the sentencing judge. But if a policeman, as the Commission tells us, can make individual “scores” on individual heroin deals of $80,000 or more, and receive no more than a year on probation in the unlikely event he is caught, how will anyone but a sucker stay honest?

The report states as a “fact” that “corruption in narcotics law enforcement goes beyond the Police Department and involves prosecutors, attorneys, bondsmen, and allegedly even certain judges.” This, it says, serves to “illustrate the demoralizing environment in which police are expected to enforce the narcotics laws.” But it has no further comment on this “fact,” and it can say no more of this finding than that it is “frustrating”: “…only 43 per cent of those arrested (in New York City) for possession of one pound or more of heroin or cocaine from January 1, 1969, through October 31, 1971, were convicted. Thirty-four per cent of those convicted (15 per cent of those arrested) received prison sentences of more than one year. Twenty-six per cent were sentenced to local jails for one year or less. The remaining 40 per cent received non-prison sentences such as fines, conditional discharges, and probation. The disposition of these cases appears disproportionately lenient in view of the fact that possession of one pound or more of these drugs became punishable by life impris­onment” (September 1, 1969).

The Commission does not say, although it is also a fact, that pos­session of a pound of heroin or cocaine is a Class A felony, carrying a minimum sentence of at least 15 years in a state prison, and that the legislature has specifically forbidden fine or conditional discharge of those con­victed of any narcotics felony. Thus a significant proportion of sentences in these major drug cases were not just “disproportionately lenient,” they were illegal.

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The Commission recognizes that “under these circumstances, some officers see little wrong with accepting money to write up a weak arrest affidavit or to change testimony at trial, feeling that the offender is going to get off lightly anyway. These practices, in turn, contribute to high rates of dismissals and ac­quittals.” Indeed they do, particu­larly for organized crime figures who, the Joint Legislative Com­mittee on Crime found in 1972, were four times more likely to have their cases dismissed, and three times more likely to be acquitted, than the general criminal population. But do the courts have responsibility for these “circumstances”? The report is silent.

The Commission states its mandate was limited to police corruption. But how can it, or we, propose to end police corruption, for another example, without dealing with the Bar, since the report tells us that it “learned that it was not uncommon for defense attorney in narcotics cases to pay policemen for such favors as lying under oath and procuring confidential police and judicial records concerning their clients’ cases.” Almost all the Commissioners are esteemed and honored lawyers: Chairman Knapp is now a Federal Judge, Cyrus Vance is a former high fed­eral official and a leader of the Bar, John Sprizzo a law professor, Franklin Thomas a former Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs and now head of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Yet no one, so far as I am aware, has suggested to the Bar Association that it might try to clean its own house of the “not uncommon” defense attorneys who pay policemen to lie under oath.

All questions of responsibility, of course, come in the end to political leadership. The firm fixing of responsibility for the actions of government is the entire meaning of democratic government, the whole panoply and hoofaraw of elections: since only men, not policies, are on the ballot, we can only affect the actions of government by insisting that those who are in office, who must come to us for their votes, seek and accept the ultimate responsibility for what the agencies of government do and fail to do.

It is this responsibility above all that the Commission refuses to assess. The corruption, according to the Commission, has existed for years. To its enormous credit, the Commission, with a staff that varied from two to 12 inves­tigators, established in a year not only the general fact of the cor­ruption, but dozens of serious, specific criminal cases. But of the five District Attorneys, with their hundreds of lawyers and investigators, about what they did and failed to do, the Commission says nothing; the State Attorney General, with his 400 lawyers and dozens of investigators, is not even mentioned; the Governor, who might have saved how many lives and how much pain by ap­pointing Maurice Nadjari 10, or five, or even three years ago, is mentioned favorably for ap­pointing him in 1972.

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But all these omissions pale beside the report’s treatment of Mayor John V. Lindsay, and the record of his administration in dealing with law, order, and corruption. A glance back at that record is essential to understanding the Commission and its report.

It is over a decade since Dick Gregory asked, “If every nine-year-old in Harlem knows who’s selling dope, why don’t the cops know?” The answer, that they knew all too well, was not only an inference clear to anyone who took the time to think, it was the subject of specific and detailed information made available to the Mayor’s assistant Jay Kriegel by Sergeant David Durk as early as 1966. The pattern of corruption among plainclothesmen was brought to Kriegel by Patrolman Frank Serpico and Durk in 1967, and to Investigations Commissioner Arnold Guy Fraiman in the same year. Yet, as the Commission states, “although Walsh, Kriegel, and Fraiman all acknowledged the extreme seriousness of the (Serpico) charges and the unique opportunity provided by the fact that a police officer was making them, none of them took any action… No serious investigation was undertaken…”

Kriegel, in executive session, testified that he had informed the Mayor of the Serpico charges. In his public testimony, he said that he never told the Mayor that Durk and Serpico were charging the Department, in effect, with a cover-up; but he did tell the Mayor about their basic charge of corruption in the Department. What all this shows, beyond the fact that Jay Kriegel is one of the most loyal staffers in American politics, is that what Kriegel may or may not have told the Mayor about how the charges were being handled is far less significant than what he did tell him, which was the fact of the corruption itself. Yet the Mayor, who as vice-chairman of the President’s Riot Commission signed a report in 1968 which stated that police corruption is one of the most important causes of frustration and lawlessness in the ghetto, took no action whatever to inquire or investigate into the possible corruption of his own Department: not in 1967, when Kriegel told him of the Serpico-Durk allegations, not in 1968, when he worked on the Riot Commission, and not in 1969, when the full effects of the narcotics plague were first becoming apparent to the entire city. “No general evaluation of the problems of corruption in the Department was taken until the New York Times publicized the charges” (in 1979).… About the Mayor, no more is said.

This is, perhaps, the code of the gentleman. No one, from this report, is responsible. No one, that is, but the “meat-eaters” and “grass-eaters” in the Department itself, and the construction in­dustry to the extent that it pays bribes for its cranes to block the sidewalks. Probably not too many policemen will read the full report. But they did read the headlines saying that “a sizable majority” of them were corrupt, and they didn’t hear much about the lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and politicians who they know shared the corruption and its rewards before, and continue to do so today. So it is hard to believe that they will take it very seriously; like the corrupt policeman who missed a date to sell heroin to a Knapp undercover team because he had to attend an anti-corruption meeting, the real rogues are likely to regard it at worst as a temporary inconvenience.

And here is the real bottom line of the Knapp Commission Report, and the police corruption it was chartered to reveal. At stake is not whether construction companies or hotels or tow truckers pay a little extra for service, or whether cops make money off prostitutes, or take a free meal now and then. The issue is not even a general interest in honest government. The issue, the unspoken story of the report, is the slow destruction of a generation in the ghettos of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx, their minds and bodies ravaged by heroin, everything that makes a life thrown back at them from a perverted funhouse mirror. Junkies for fathers, whores for mothers, a daily fix the only routine of their days, and how many thousands cut down in the indescribable shooting galleries of the ghetto. The Mayor and the Governor, the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General, the District Attorneys and the judges, pursued their routines, their ambitions, and their ca­reers, made speeches and accepted human-relations awards. Under their blind benevolent gaze, the children died, and they continue to die today.

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All this the Commission does not mention. Nor does it draw the final conclusion: we have, in fact, no laws against the selling of heroin. We have a system whereby, for the appropriate license fees to the proper authorities, certain people obtain a protected monopoly franchise to sell heroin, at least to certain classes of people. Not for nothing did the police refer to Harlem, so poor in everything else, as the “Gold Coast” where the real money was to be made.

In time, of course, the plague spread. The drugs found their way into other neighborhoods, into the white enclaves of Italian Brooklyn and Irish Queens, and into the finest Jewish suburbs. And the children of the ghetto, sweating to pay the peddler, began to tax the rest of the city, until today the number of burgla­ries and muggings, the sheer quantity of robbery and death, is (though none of the system’s participants will admit it) in sheer volume quite beyond the capacity of the criminal justice system to contain.

The real story of the Knapp Commission Report, as it is the real question about the society that is our home, is when or whether we will have the courage and the sensibility to abandon the desperate fantasy that the poison which wastes the children of Harlem will not, sooner or later, come round to haunt our own. And the prospects, at least from our leadership, are not good. A few months ago, long after the facts of this report were known, John Lindsay intoned that the murder of Professor Wolfgang Friedmann was “the worst outrage” to afflict the city in all his term as Mayor. Not a word for the cab drivers, the little shopkeepers, the 85-year-old grandmothers killed for the price of a fix. Nothing for the seven-year-old girl raped and thrown off a Bronx rooftop. Not a word of all the years his police force sold heroin to the children of the city, while we slipped into our daily hell, our triple-locked doors and empty night streets, our death-in-life. Our question is whether we can transcend such “leadership,” and accept for ourselves, as we insist for our public officials, on the final principle of a democracy, which is not the code of the gentleman, but the harsh and solemn test of responsibility.

Datebook Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To


Just because Pride Month is long over doesn’t mean touting our gay history has to stop. Museum of the City of New York keeps the good vibes going with Gay Rights in the 1960s and Today, a panel discussion linking the Stonewall Riots with the inequalities felt by gays under Mayor John V. Lindsay. One of the stars of the panel is Dick Leitsch, president of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society at the time of its famous “sip-in”—the protest that changed the law against gays drinking together in bars. Also on the panel is famed historian David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the book that inspired the new documentary, Stonewall Uprising.

Tue., Aug. 3, 6:30 p.m., 2010



  • Rudy Guliani assumes office as Mayor, the first Republican Mayor since John Lindsay in 1973.
  • Nat Hentoff wins the National Press Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • The Village Voice acquires the LA Weekly, a west-coast newsweekly which was started in 1978 by a group of investors which included actor Michael Douglas.
  • STOMP wins a special citation at the Obie Awards.
  • Hole’s Live Through This was named best album and Beck’s “Loser” was named best single in the Pazz & Jop Music Critic’s poll.
  • Jonathan Z. Larsen resigns from The Village Voice. Karen Durbin is appointed to replace Larsen as Editor in Chief.
  • Newsstand price increased to $1.25.
  • The Village Voice mourns the passing of Robert Massa, a writer and editor from 1982 to 1994.
  • The Village Voice mourns the passing of former theater critic Roderick Mason Faber.
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  • John Lindsay, a liberal Republican, assumes the office as Mayor of New York. A controversial figure, Lindsay is credited with helping the city survive the 1960s without a major riot, but his policies were responsible for its fiscal crisis of the late 1970s. He serves for two terms.
  • Dustin Hoffman wins the Obie Award for best actor for his role in The Exhaustion of Our Son’s Love.
  • “Bulletin Board” begins charging a specific Personals rate of $2.50 per line.
  • Newsstand price for the newspaper is increased to 15 cents.
  • The Voice publishes its first rock criticism column, Richard Goldstein’s “Pop Eye.”
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  • The Voice‘s circulation rises to 138,000.
  • The word gay appears for the first time in personal ads in the Voice.
  • Robert Christgau joins the Voice as music critic.
  • Mayoral incumbent John Lindsay loses the Republican primary to State Senator John Marchi. Despite not having the Republican nomination, Lindsay runs under the Liberal Party and ekes out a win to begin his second term. (The Voice endorsed Lindsay.) He later calls being mayor of New York “the second toughest job in America.”
  • Riots break out at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, after plainclothes police officers raid the bar—arresting 13 people—on suspicion of illegal liquor sale. Raids on gay businesses were not uncommon during this time, but the violent struggle was. The Stonewall Riots are commonly viewed as the event that marked the start of the nation-wide movement for gay and lesbian rights.
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    Thunder on the Right

    Tom Ognibene spent a decade on the City Council representing voters in Middle Village, a Queens neighborhood light-years from Mike Bloomberg’s Upper East Side. Ognibene’s constituency is conservative and middle-class, only a generation removed from Archie Bunker. His supporters celebrated Rudy Giuliani’s anti-crime achievements and welfare cuts, never worrying about the excesses or civil liberties losses that came with the package.

    They are voters Bloomberg would expect to carry easily, absent a conservative like Ognibene on the ballot.

    But the dimensions of the Ognibene threat are a matter of debate. It wouldn’t be the first time a stalwart conservative upset an incumbent liberal Republican mayor, à la John Marchi’s primary defeat of John Lindsay in 1969. But that race occurred in the midst of a city roiled by the Vietnam War and civil rights protests. Lindsay had staked out positions on the left on both those issues, angering rock-ribbed Republicans.

    And while Bloomberg has some of that vulnerability—Republicans at the Rockaways rally attended by Ognibene railed at Bloomberg’s dis of President Bush by ignoring the inauguration—the mayor has been purposely opaque in his other views.

    Whatever the mayor’s private beliefs, he has refused to criticize the White House concerning the war in Iraq. He even kept his silence when Bush refused to share information with the 9-11 Commission, which was charged with helping to solve the largest mass murder in his city’s history.

    And, as the Post‘s Eric Fettmann pointed out in a column last week dismissing Ognibene’s chances, he couldn’t possibly be a match against Bloomberg’s deep pockets and name recognition. Fettman invoked the hapless candidacy of Ron Lauder in 1989, when he challenged Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primary and then tried to siphon votes away in the general election on the Conservative party line, something Ognibene hopes to do as well. The one salient fact omitted from the column was that Giuliani lost in 1989. The loss might not have been due to Lauder’s vote-getting prowess, but it had a lot to do with the pummeling that Giuliani received in that primary. That’s a threat Bloomberg’s handlers understand all too well.


    Footnote Fiction

    After each of the 17 stories in Emma Donoghue’s The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, a brief note explains the real-life figure or historical anecdote that inspired the tale. As with Donoghue’s last novel, Slammerkin, it’s the history books—as well as obscure biographies, medieval ballads, and medical treatises—that provide the outlines for her sensually detailed portraits of misfits, eccentrics, and sideshow freaks. Both the famous and the forgotten populate these pieces, which are set in Scotland, Ireland, and England, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Episodes from the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Ruskin mingle with tales of the smallest woman on record; an apothecary tricks an English captain into marrying his spinster niece; and the title character, an Irish peasant, tries to scam the public by pretending she spawned 18 of the little cottontails.

    Reading the book, one finds oneself anticipating each explanatory note with surprising intensity. That’s because a moral of sorts creeps into most of the fictions. Either Donoghue tells us more than she needs to, or she insists on an ill-fitting larger meaning, or it’s simply too clear where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Only factual footnotes can redeem the mild sentimentality of the stories: There’s some relief in knowing that the plucky blind girl in “Night Visions,” who has been kicked out of school and dismissed as “stunted” by her minister, is not just a maudlin figment of Donoghue’s imagination, but the writer, Frances Brown, who became known as the “Blind Poetess of Donegal.”

    But if the lessons fall flat, remarkably vivid, inventive scenes give life to each story, and make the collection absorbing in spite of its heavy-handed moments: The blind girl lies awake in a hot room crowded with her 11 siblings, where “the air smells of cheese” and she “can hear the room filling up with sleep; the little snores, the sights, the shiftings from side to side. My sisters and brothers hardly know how to move or talk in the dark—once the candle is snuffed out, the greasy air seems to extinguish them too.”

    Another story, about Dido Bell, the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an African slave woman raised by Lindsay’s high-born great-uncle, begins in an opulent, artificially heated greenhouse where Dido picks plums and grapes. A disillusioned, amorous 17th-century cavalryman who’s deserted the army spends the evening eating and drinking on a riverbank beside two women, thinking wistfully that he “could sit here forever . . . the three of them fixed and firelit like some new constellation in the black night.” Like the cavalryman, we too may wish that we had been allowed simply to linger with the details.


    The Man Who Stood Up to Bobby Kennedy

    If there is one thing that sets much of this generation apart from earlier activist ones, it is the insistence on personal worth—the refusal to subordinate humanity to dogma. The demand to replace corporate bureaucracy with community participation; the values of a single human spirit.
    —John Lindsay, speaking to Columbia University students in December 1968

    In all the obituaries following the death of John Lindsay last December 19, there was scarcely any mention of his eight terms in the House of Representatives—before he became mayor of New York. One notable exception was Adam Bernstein’s recollection in the December 21 Washington Post that, while in congress, Lindsay “became a forceful proponent on matters affecting constitutional rights and civil liberties.”

    I began reporting on Lindsay while he was in the House and continued through his years as mayor. From my articles in the Voice and The New Yorker, I later wrote a book, A Political Life: The Education of John V. Lindsay (Knopf).

    Often alone on the House floor, Lindsay wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies, one of the most powerful of whom was then attorney general Robert Kennedy.

    Bobby Kennedy “used his office as if he were the Godfather getting even with the enemies of the Family.”

    Later, Kennedy did evolve into a paladin of the poor and civil rights. But while in charge of the nation’s rule of law, he—as Sidney Zion noted in the December 27 New York Post—“used his office as if he were the Godfather getting even with the enemies of the Family.”

    Zion, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey under Kennedy, says, “There never was and hopefully never will be an attorney general who more violated the Bill of Rights than Bobby Kennedy.”

    Well, Kennedy doesn’t quite merit the Torquemada Prize. That should go to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who in 1920 took sweeping advantage of the “Red Scare” that was engulfing the country. He cast a dragnet over 33 cities in 23 states, harvesting more than 4000 alleged radicals with purported ties to the Bolsheviks, who had executed the czar. It was Palmer who gave J. Edgar Hoover his start as a Red hunter. Both dedicated themselves to eradicating what Palmer called the “disease of evil thinking.”

    But Bobby Kennedy was as contemptuous of the Bill of Rights as George W. Bush during his years as governor of Texas. In his zeal to imprison the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa, Kennedy stretched the Fourth Amendment wholly out of shape. As Zion put it, Kennedy “took this country into eavesdropping, into every violation of privacy ever feared by the Founders.”

    John Lindsay fought Kennedy on that betrayal of the Constitution, but was unsuccessful because the president, John F. Kennedy, was also, at best, indifferent to the Bill of Rights. Also, the Democrats in Congress put party loyalty above the Constitution—just as later Democrats, except for a few dissenters like Paul Wellstone, Russell Feingold, and Pat Leahy, did for the eight years of Clinton’s abuses of civil liberties.

    John Lindsay stood up to Bobby Kennedy again when, in 1963, the out-of-control attorney general decided to expand the 1918 Sedition Act, which, under President Woodrow Wilson, had terminated the First Amendment during the First World War.

    That 1918 law, worthy of the Bolshevik regime, prohibited anyone, under pain of punishment, to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, abusive language about the form of government of the United States, of the Constitution of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States, or any language intended to . . . encourage resistance to the United States or to promote the cause of its enemies.”

    That 1918 act was a throwback to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to those dictatorial measures greatly helped him to become the third president of the United States.

    Bobby Kennedy, hardly a student of American constitutional history, wanted to expand the 1918 Sedition Act to cover Americans anywhere in the world.

    On the floor of the House, Lindsay said of Bobby Kennedy’s bid to become the next A. Mitchell Palmer: “The abuses to free speech in this bill are so great that even a congressman possibly could be cited and prosecuted for verbal attacks on United States policies and action.” Let alone any American protesting our burgeoning involvement in the Vietnam War in 1963.

    Lindsay and the First Amendment lost. The House dutifully passed the Kennedy measure broadening the 1918 Sedition Act. Young Bill Clinton, who was at Oxford University a few years later, actively opposed the Vietnam War, attacking the American government that was waging it. He could have been busted under Bobby Kennedy’s superpatriotic law.

    Another enemy of the Bill of Rights confronted by Lindsay was the formidable Francis Walter, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His Industrial Security Bill would have denied workers suspected of being security risks any access to classified material involved in certain government contracts.

    Those suspected workers would be fired. The bill covered some 5 million people employed in private industry and in universities and working on defense contracts or corollary research.

    The accused would not have been able to confront and cross-examine those who submitted information against them. There was no provision for appeals to the courts.

    Walter tried to get the bill passed by putting it on the “consent calendar,” by which the House would adopt it automatically if no member objected. Lindsay was the only congressman to object. Later, Walter brought the bill up again under suspension of the rules, which required only that two-thirds of the members actually present on the floor at the time vote yes. But by then, Lindsay had rounded up allies.

    The Industrial Security Bill passed the House 247-132—six votes short of a two-thirds majority. It was the first time, John Lindsay told me with satisfaction, that the Un-American Activities Committee had ever been defeated in a floor fight.

    In his Yale University thesis on the life of Oliver Cromwell, Lindsay quoted a Puritan preacher telling Parliament about “two fundamental demands common to all Puritan sects: liberty of conscience, and reform—of the universities, the countries, the cities.”

    John Lindsay went from Congress to reform this city.


    In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below

    In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below
    December 24–30, 1980

    John Lindsay hated graffiti. He vowed to wipe it off the face of the IRT, and allocated $10 million to its obliteration. But the application of vast resources is no match for disciplined determination, as we should have learned in Vietnam. Graf­fiti survived Lindsay’s defoliation plan, and it has thrived on every subsequent attempt to curb its spread.

    In 1973, there may have been a few hundred ghetto kids writing in a few definable styles. Now thousands call themselves “writers.” They come from ev­ery social stratum and range in age from nine to 25. Their signatures — called “tags” — have transformed the subway into what the Times calls “some godawful forest.” And now that the perpetrators have moved above ground, trucks and elevators, monuments and vacant walls look as if they have suddenly sprouted vines.

    It is, says Claes Oldenburg, “a big bouquet from Latin America.” It is, says Rich­ard Ravitch of the MTA, “a symbol that we have lost control.”



    The great debate over graffiti, and what ought to be done about it rests on the assumption that its intention is to defile. “It’s the feeling that an antisocial element has been in the system and had its way,” says an MTA spokesman, defending his department’s annual $6.5 million an­ti-graffiti budget — money, after all, that might otherwise be used for repairs. The Times has rounded up the usual assort­ment of social workers and shrinks to bolster its contention that graffiti is “an effort to deal with deep feelings of fear by seeking out an experience that involves facing that fear.” Psychologists who treat these incipient felons “believe their pa­tients, virtually all of whom have less­-than-perfect relationships with their fathers, are intent on defacing his car, the car of authority.”

    The casual rider might conclude that perp and victim share an inability to con­trol the danger in their lives. Says the indefatigable Ali, who, like many graffiti writers, has a ready capacity to articulate the ideas behind his work: “Graffiti takes away the placenta, and reminds people of how violent the subway is. The real van­dalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”

    The debate over graffiti has been con­ducted by people who are unwilling to decipher the message it conveys. Once you learn to interpret the medium, it becomes clear that no single intention is involved. Some kids do write to deface — to “bomb” a car, as they say; but the wholesale ob­struction of windows and maps is a sure way to perpetuate your status as a novice, what serious writers call “a toy.”

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    Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are repre­sented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any star­tling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate. This communicative func­tion, says Ali, puts graffiti in “the griot tradition” of African storytelling — whether or not you grew up close to your dad.

    But tagging is only the most elemen­tary form of graffiti, and the insides of cars are a practice zone in which aspiring writers fashion the techniques they will need to do “a piece” — i.e., masterpiece. The idea is to impose yourself on an entire car, to move from “a throw-up” to the carefully delineated blend of tints and lines graffiti writers call “a fade.” This riotous effect can be achieved on the car while the paint is wet, or in midair, when a writer sprays two cans at once to see the fade as it forms in the mist.

    From the time a surface is sighted — ­usually a train laid up on the center track — it can take 12 hours to complete a piece. Often working from sketches prepared in advance, a writer and his “crew” may spend a weekend in tunnel light, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio. Most writers return with cameras to document their work, since the TA’s buffing ma­chines can reduce the most ambitious ef­fort to a swampy blur. In graffiti, the dimensions of space and time are beyond control. All things must pass, usually within a month.

    There are two ways to look at this stuff. From the platform, mammoth letters roll by like frames in a stereopticon. Seen a block from the el, bands of color undulate like the tail of a kite: At that speed and distance, one becomes aware of how im­portant motion is to the spirit of graffiti. A willful transformation occurs as the rav­ished train is forced to boogie. The harder trick is to throw something up that looks good standing still.

    Among writers, Lee is regarded as a master of freehand rendering, perhaps the first to execute a top-to-bottom, full-car design. But on the Lower East Side, where some graffiti aficionados are too young to frequent the subways, Lee is regarded as a prophet. He works anonymously, in the dead of night, covering handball courts with apocalyptic messages and monu­mental imagery. If you want to glimpse the future of this form, run right down to the playground on Madison Street, off Clinton. A bilious dragon awaits you, hov­ering over a skyline on the verge of erup­tion. Talk about Gulley Jimson: This vision was executed by a teenager with a ladder and a little paint.

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    Iconography has figured in graffiti since the early ’70s, when Stay High pilfered the stick figure logo from The Saint and appended it to his tag. But a growing segment of this movement would like to see graffiti abandon representation for an open assault of color, a fauvism-on-wheels. Futura 2000, who took his name from a Ford, serves up a fade that resembles cosmic soup. Within this Day-Glo cauldron, triangles glide by — the edges carefully defined with the aid of masking tape — and clusters of circles that clearly suggest Kandinsky, perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes.

    Graffiti draws from every form of pictorial information that has entered the ghetto over the past 20 years: billboards, supergraphics, wall murals, underground comics, and custom car design. Sci-fi il­lustration — especially the lurid roman­ticism of Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode — was an early source of inspiration, but now that the most ambitious writers are taking classes in drafting and going to museums, there is a deliberate attempt to work in references to artists who command respect. Lost to the buffers now is Blade’s rendition of Edvard Munch’s scream, and Fred’s assemblage of Campbell’s soup cans. It is possible to imagine a car decked out to resemble something Jackson Pollack dreamt (although, to accomplish that, a writer would have to overcome the traditional graffiti disdain for drips). Or figures out of Klee riding shotgun on the IRT. These artists share with graffiti an interest in what Kandinsky called “the effect of inner harmony” in a childish line.

    A writer appropriates an image made famous by an artist the way he in­corporates another writer’s line. It’s all out there, like cans of paint waiting to be “racked.” But image-theft is not the only reason writers raid the museums. A subway Munch raises the heady possibility that art can happen anywhere. Like conceptual art and Pop, graffiti questions the context in which art is appreciated. It renews the dream of work for its own sake, the idea of creation as a democratic process — in short, radical humanism. Ali speaks of “taking responsibility for your environ­ment” by creating a surface on a subway train. “The production of art,” wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1947, “can only be conceived as individual, personal, and done by all.”

    There’s a lot of positive mythology floating around what some writers call “the graffiti community.” Aspiration runs high when you’re living in a project on Columbus Avenue, 10 blocks north of the gentry line. You walk into Fiorucci and mutter, I can draw like that. At the same time, there’s a feeling that graffiti is some sort of revolutionary act. A writer hauls out a book of Soviet art to show me photos of what he calls “a propaganda train.” These cars rumbled across the coun­tryside, decked out in heroic iconography designed by artists who were committed to the revolution. The graffiti writer is clear­ly impressed by one tableau, featuring a rising sun. “Look at that fade,” he sighs.


    Graffiti is a setting from which art may emerge, as was rock ‘n’ roll back when ev­eryone on my block sang doo wop with an absurd intensity, and some of us got respect for it. Mourning John Lennon, it is hard to remember that rock musicians were once commonly regarded as delin­quents, or if you were liberal, rebels without a cause. The music didn’t cover up subway maps, but there was aggression to burn among its staunchest fans. Alan Freed was arrested after a riot at one of his shows, and charged with incitement to anarchy. Ten years later, the music inspired a more visionary insurrection.

    SE3, a/k/a Haze looks a bit like Buddy Holly, black hair spilling over his brow — ­but neatly. The son of a West Side analyst, he took to the Bronx at an im­pressionable age, commuting to hang out. But to get over, he had to earn respect in the subway yards, swimming upstream with all the other toys. One night, SE3 was busted in the South Bronx. “We have your son on a graffiti charge,” said the cop at 4 a.m. The ride home from the station house was silent — like an iceberg — but the fric­tion it produced sent SE3 into exile at a school in Massachusetts. He was forced to pass up acceptances from the high schools of Art and Design, Music and Art, and Brooklyn Tech. In New England, he repressed his interest in graffiti, studied architecture, worked in oils; but once back on the pavement, SE3 returned to hanging out. He renewed the old connections — ­with Dondi, Crash, Zephyr, Futura, Ali­ — and began incorporating his fine-arts training into graffiti. This was like Buddy Holly playing the Apollo. SE3 had become what Zephyr calls “a pioneering white boy.”

    The big lie is that graffiti is confined to “antisocial elements.” Increasingly, it is the best and brightest who write on sub­way walls, tenement halls. They travel in bands with names like Crazy Inside Art­ists (CIA), Children Invading the Yards (CITY), Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), Out to Bomb (OTB). Unlike the news­paper that has called for their demise, these bands are racially integrated, which gives writers access to the same cross-­cultural energy that animates rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the graffiti sensibility has a musi­cal equivalent in “rap records” — another rigid, indecipherable form that can sus­tain great complexity. I’m sure Ali would agree that rap records are also part of the griot tradition.

    For me, the real mystery about graffiti is why this generation has chosen to ex­press its ambitions in pictorial terms. The answer may lie in the changing nature of prestige in New York. This has become a visual city, with photography, video, and graphic design emerging as hip cultural forms, and with Soho replacing Greenwich Village as the paradigmatic neighborhood. Thousands of visual artists migrated to New York in the ’70s, many settling in high-graffiti neighborhoods. There is an unvoiced connection between these groups, as there was in the ’60s between bohemians and rock musicians. With little formal training or access to galleries, how does one get in on the art action? One shows on the subway.


    “I sold a piece tonight. For $200.”

    Futura is dressed in downtown formals — a white Lacoste over baggy black slacks and clean white sneakers. He’s accom­panied by his father, his cousin, and his girlfriend Rennie. They’re standing before a monumental fresco in a spray paint, bearing the unimpeachable Futura logo. The crowd is in a pre-Christmas, buying mood.

    Sígame,” says 16-year-old Lady Pink, one of the few female writers to have earned respect. She leads her father, who is holding an Instamatic, by the hand. She wants him to take a picture of her piece­ — fluorescent orchids — which hangs next to one in which Ali has borrowed Stay High’s stick figure and placed it on a Dali cross. These canvases suggest the sentimentality graffiti is prone to when it tries to go imagistic, but also the extraordinary use of color, and that “effect of inner harmony” — is it in the paint, the way it’s applied? The secret is safe with Ali, who roams through the gallery in the baggiest of slacks, the floppiest of jackets, a chino rainhat, and wrap-around silver-slitted specs, cruising girls who could be Debbie Harry.

    Clearly, this is not a typical opening at the New Museum, the visual extension of the New School annex, where you might expect to find an enigma in aluminum and sand but not an original Lee. Through January 8, however, the New Museum is throwing open its doors to Fashion Moda, an international art conspiracy located in the South Bronx. The resulting show is unlikely to strike Hilton Kramer as having anything to do with art. But New Wave is about cross-cultural referencing, if it is about anything. With its ghetto rep and its eclectic eye, graffiti is an authentic element in New Wave aesthetics. Says one artist, “It’s our reggae.”

    The point of departure for “graffiti as an alternative to standard art” was pro­vided by a New Wave musician named Jean-Michel Basquiat, who joined forces with two friends a few years ago to tag Soho and the Village with phrases like the one above. Samo, as this crew called itself, combined rants against consumerism with assertions about textual ambiguity — all of it copyrighted. It’s unclear whether con­ceptual artists began picking up on Samo’s strategy, or whether Samo bor­rowed its m.o. from conceptual art. At any rate, a number of young artists are under­taking phantom installations that can only be called graffiti. Keith Haring began by drawing crawling people and dogs in black marker; lately, he has taken to em­bellishing Johnny Walker ads with flying saucers. Last summer, when Ronald Rea­gan spoke in the South Bronx, he pointed to a wall that said BROKEN PROMISES, and expounded at length on what could have driven the residents to write such a thing. The actual perpetrator was John Fekner, a conceptual artist who transfers phrases onto abandoned autos and tene­ment walls.

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    When asked to comment on graffiti, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers were unavailable, but Andy Warhol con­fided, “I like it.” Curatorial types were also queried. “I have no feelings about it, one way or another,” said Thomas Hoving. “I really don’t know enough to make a statement,” added Alicia Legg at the Museum of Modern Art. When a photo from the series that accompanies this piece was submitted by MOMA’s publications department for use as a Christmas card, Kathleen Westin, co-chairman of the museum’s Junior Council, put her foot down. “I thought it was the most revolting idea that ever came up,” she volunteered. “The people who do graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.”

    But a number of galleries — the Razor, the O.K. Harris, the 112 Workshop — have shown work by writers, and the movement may soon make its debut in Paris and on 57th Street, under the aegis of the Pierre Cardin galleries. There are at least three graffiti documentaries making the rounds of distributors, and New Wave filmmaker Charles Ahearn is now working on a film with Fred. Fred and Lee are stalwarts of the Fabulous Five, a group that writes on the number five line of the Lexington Avenue IRT. When I caught up with Fred, this 24-year-old veteran expressionist was en route to Milan, for a show at the Paolo Seno gallery. This is his second Italian exhibition; the first was warmly received by Unita, the Communist Party paper, which suggested that the Fabulous Five be hired to paint the Victor Emmanuel mon­ument (built by Mussolini and contemptuously known as “the wedding cake”).

    “My art is like an artifact,” Fred says. “Like, the paintings I do, I want people to look at them as an art based on graffiti.” He has started reading Artforum. He has developed a fondness for Dada. He has cut a rap record. “With a little time and paint,” Fred says, “anything is possible.”


    The Soul Artists, an amalgam of 21 writers, including many of the best to have surfaced underground, want the MTA to give them carte blanche on the outsides of cars. In exchange, they propose to regulate what goes on inside and to impose a ban on writing over windows and maps. Pas­sengers might welcome such a compromise — assuming it could be enforced, since graffiti inspires a lot of very independent toys. Imagine a contest in which the best artists select the most original designs submitted by graffiti writers, creating a new emblem for New York, attracting tourists from all over the world, and freeing millions of dollars now used to buff the stuff.

    With or without the MTA’s coopera­tion, we may soon be inundated with graf­fiti, as the Soul Artists attempt to trans­pose the form onto fabric, video, posters. Writers are beginning to regard graffiti as something you can do on paper, or in a book. A lot of these kids carry “piece books,” the kind you used to whip out in high school for autographs at the end of the year. At special events like the New Museum opening, they stand around tag­ging each other — but not the walls. The best writers copyright their major pieces. Many carry portfolios; a few have even begun to buy their paint.

    Though some writers would agree with Fred that “graffiti dies when it’s legal­ized,” the possibility of a career in fashion, graphic design, or even art is making in­roads into traditional assumptions about what graffiti is. Or might be. Graffiti may enter the commercial mainstream and bestow itself on haberdashery, like punk. Or its simultaneous discovery by artists and kids at large could change the way we think of public space. Imagine workshops dotting the ghettos, and in the quiche districts, thousands of otherwise benumbed adults taking to the streaks.

    You can collect graffiti, wear graffiti, make graffiti. It’s not a form, but an attitude toward form. “Thunderism,” Fred calls it. Imagine! ■

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    Where To See Graffiti

    Given the MTA’s churlishness (a John Lennon memorial car, executed last week, has already been buffed), the best way to evaluate the potential of graffiti is to seek it out on walls. “Monumental graffiti works” by Lee are viewable on handball courts scat­tered across the Lower East Side: on Madison Street between Clinton and Montgomery, Cherry between Clinton and Montgomery, and Cherry between Pike and Market streets. The Bronx Graffiti Disco, on 204th Street and Jerome Avenue, features a facade by Crash, Medi, Mitch, and Noc. Con­nie’s Supermarket, at 148th Street and Brook Avenue (near Fashion Moda), has been embellished by Crash. Closer to quiche, Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway near Bleecker has a piece by Lee. And a half-dozen graffiti can­vases are at the New Museum, Fifth Avenue corner La Catorce. (If you’re driving home to — or past — Ohio stop at the Canton Art Institute, for an audio-visual graffiti spectacular, fea­turing photos by Henry Chalfant and a rap-tape by Fred.) R.G.