The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge was incredible. I couldn’t put it down. (And that only usually happens when I’m reading fiction, to be completely honest.) I was reading it on the subway, on the walk to the subway, in bed at night, and in the morning when I should have been walking the dog or showering. After finishing it, I recommended it to just about everyone I knew; I became that annoying friend at a party who tries to convince you and everyone around you that this is just the BEST. BOOK. EVER. and who refuses to take “no” for an answer. I wish that I had multiple copies of this book, just so I could hand them all out at the same time!
At this point, unfortunately, it has been a few months since I first read The Savage City, and so many of the details are fuzzy. I put off writing this review for so long because, in all honesty, it’s difficult! English covers so much history, both personalized and urban, so deftly and so well, that even attempting to summarizing it feels a bit sacrilegious. A truncated version of the summary, from Goodreads:
In the early 1960s, uncertainty and menace gripped New York, crystallizing in a poisonous divide between a deeply corrupt, cynical, and racist police force, and an African American community buffeted by economic distress, brutality, and narcotics. On August 28, 1963—the day Martin Luther King Jr. declared “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—two young white women were murdered in their Manhattan apartment. Dubbed the Career Girls Murders case, the crime sent ripples of fear throughout the city, as police scrambled fruitlessly for months to find the killer. But it also marked the start of a ten-year saga of fear, racial violence, and turmoil in the city—an era that took in events from the Harlem Riots of the mid-1960s to the Panther Twenty-One trials and Knapp Commission police corruption hearings of the early 1970s.
English explains and explores these events through the perspective of three different characters: George Whitmore Jr, an innocent black man convicted of the Career Girls Murder, Bill Phillips, a corrupt and racist NYPD officer, and Dhoruba bin Wahad, an intellectual and radical member of the Black Panthers.
I learned so much about the Black Panther movement in New York City. It’s not a part of history that was taught in my high school; any messaging we received about it was that it was subversive and violent, and achieved far less than Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent protest. But many of the programs that the Black Panthers led in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of New York were those that simply tried to help people: free breakfasts provided for children, for example, and literary classes for those trying to learn how to read. They helped many black and African Americans find the words and frameworks to describe the racism and injustices they were facing every day, and to find community and identity in a city that was openly hostile to them. It was extremely powerful. (Equally as powerful as learning about the underhanded and cruel methods the CIA used to completely dismantle the Black Panther Party in NYC.)
I also learned a lot about the New York City of the 1960s and ’70s. It was, in many ways, unrecognizable to me, as someone whose familiarity with the city only began in the late ’90s. Far from the gilded tourist play-place so many neighborhoods have now become, that New York City was dangerous and desperate, suffering from urban decay and populations suffering from a true drug addiction epidemic. It was quite an education.
Now let me once again don my evangelical cap and exhort you to read this book if you have not already. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in the history of NYC, or race relations, or even nonfiction. English is an incredible writer and researcher, and The Savage City is an incredible book.
Bookwanderer Rating: Five out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “If New York City today is a place of prosperity, safety and good times… it is useful to remember that these things have come at a price.”
Other Reviews: The New York Times, The Millions, Chaotic Compendiums