Kharey Wise, the oldest of the Central Park Five, is arraigned in court
Kharey Wise, the oldest of the Central Park Five, is arraigned in court (Photo by NY Daily News via Getty Images)

When I dig for memories of New York City’s mood at the hinge of the 1980s and ’90s, I come up with those “No Radio” signs then visible behind every other car windshield. For those too young to remember, these mostly handmade signs were supposed to let thieves know in advance that the drivers had temporarily extracted the car radios they were seeking—or that, as was often the case, they were already too late. I never saw these signs before, and I haven’t seen them since. Dashboards aren’t what they used to be. But neither is the level of anxiety pervading the city in the wake of the 1987 economic crash that, for a time, crimped New York’s Reagan-era swagger and reawakened fears of widespread physical squalor, emotional imbalance and fiscal decay.

Both The Central Park Five and Koch, two recent documentaries released in theaters within months of each other, evoke what many New Yorkers were afraid of losing—or retaining—a quarter-century ago. It may be only coincidence that they’re arriving as the economy is shaking off another case of the bends—or, more precisely, just shaking. This time, New Yorkers have talked themselves into believing that we all get along with each other better than we did four mayors ago—even though the disparities between the city’s classes have not been so deep or so wide since the Gilded Age. These films, contrasting in some ways, congruent in others, allow us to peek nervously over our shoulders at those disquieting times, while making us wonder whether we shouldn’t be so sanguine about the present day.

In Koch, scenes of graffiti-smothered subway cars, burning tenements, vandalism and crime flash by in what has become a customary visual shorthand for New York’s economically blighted condition in the 1970s. In Central Park Five, there’s another montage of images where there’s much more energy on the streets, reflecting the succeeding decade’s financial turnaround. With this energy comes a spike in street crime, a crack cocaine epidemic, and a surge of racial tension also redolent of the go-go 1980s. All these manifestations of hubris and anxiety provide a rough portrait of the city’s state of mind leading up to the night of April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old investment banker was severely beaten and sexually assaulted in Central Park, where she’d been jogging.

As recounted in Central Park Five, a stirring j’accuse produced and directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, confessions were secured over the course of two days from five minority teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam—who later recanted, but were convicted in 1990 and ‘91 and spent as many as thirteen years incarcerated before Matias Reyes, who was already doing time for murder and other rapes, declared that he was the only one who’d beaten and raped the woman. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed his guilt, which led the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to vacate the original convictions.

One would have thought, upon reading most of the reviews of the Burns family’s film late last year, that this reversal had only now been publicly disclosed, even though Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau declared their innocence of the crime ten years earlier.

If anyone during the original trials (other than the defendants’ families or their supporters) had even vaguely suggested that this could have been the ultimate outcome, they would have likely been greeted with, at best, an angry glare. In the newsroom of New York Newsday, where I started working while the trials were taking place in the spring of 1990, I especially remember the seething fury of a white woman colleague when I tentatively expressed doubt about the prosecution’s case. I resolved never to bring it up again (and didn’t). Yet, as just about everybody who’s seen the film is now willing to acknowledge (along with many more who will likely see it this month on PBS), there was at the time a more than adequate foundation for reasonable doubt, not the least of which was the lack of physical evidence corroborating the boys’ confessions and the discrepancies between those confessions and the scenarios put forth by the prosecution.

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Tabloid Culture's Casualties

A few journalists—and, as the movie reminds us, at least one juror—raised such queries to little or no avail. A year after the trials ended, Joan Didion published in The New York Review of Books a meticulous, trenchant and, in retrospect, prescient dissection of the prosecution’s case. Almost alone among commentators at the time, Didion expanded her specific grievances with the case to take in its accompanying, near-hysterical hype. She contended that almost everyone in New York—even those claiming that the kids were being railroaded by a white power structure—was far more interested in seeking “narrative resolution” than anything remotely resembling truth.

Such is the clammy crux of Tabloid Culture: where making people feel good (the objective of entertainment) trumps enabling them to know better (the essence of democracy). The city’s psychic media landscape, from the ’70s to the present day, represented the ultimate triumph of what Tom Wolfe, of all people, once characterized as the “great colonial animal”: the mid- to late-twentieth-century American press, a “Genteel Beast” that “seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone, should be established and should prevail.” Under this beast’s autonomy, there is little room for such wet-blanket considerations as, let’s say, doubt.

Doubt, after all, second-guesses, retreats, stalls momentum. Doubt is what happens, for instance, when you think too much about the underlying social conditions and ingrained cultural divisions before taking action on anything. Liberals, as far as the guardians of Tabloid Culture were concerned, wasted too much time thinking about underlying social conditions and other mitigating factors—in other words, anything having to do with race and class. To have any doubt whatsoever about the collective guilt of McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam would have taken the city to a more liberal state of mind. And that was a state that few white New Yorkers felt like visiting again: Isn’t it bad enough that we have to remove our car radios for the night? Every. Single. Night. Uh-uh. No doubt. No second-guessing. These kids are guilty, OK? Let’s not go back to the bad old days. And don’t you dare bring up those lynching analogies! Stop the whining! This isn’t the 1910s—we’re better than that now!

Close your eyes and you can imagine Ed Koch, the city’s 105th mayor, saying something like this in either a Park Avenue salon or at a gathering of middle-class white residents. And if he’s not saying it, he’s agreeing with somebody who is. Koch, who died at 88 on the same February Friday that Neil Barsky’s eponymous documentary opened in New York theaters, served as a willing outlet for those in the city so terribly, keenly anxious for a counternarrative to uncertainty. Once the embodiment of mid-twentieth-century progressive values (though, as many have since pointed out, not quite as immune to base pragmatism as was believed in his Age of Aquarius years), Koch stormed to Gracie Mansion by adjusting his public image from earnest bleeding heart to bellicose tough guy, selling himself as the only mayoral candidate who wasn’t going to take crap from thugs, no matter what neighborhoods they came from, or from a federal government that had so famously told the city to drop dead. Koch had an acute sense of the middle-class disquiet with liberal orthodoxy and obligingly dished out the blunt-edged rhetorical razzle-dazzle associated with the pugilistic New York of the heartland’s kitschiest fantasies.

Both Koch the movie and Koch the man inspired mostly affectionate reminiscences in the days following his death, though Barsky’s film, as with many obituaries and retrospectives, chides Koch for his bombastic actions when it came to race relations. While making the 1980 shutdown of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital the locus of Koch’s failed relationship with the African-American community, the movie neglects the mayor’s scorched-earth assault on Jesse Jackson during the latter’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign in New York, where Koch’s accusations concerning Jackson’s alleged anti-Israel sentiments were intense enough to seal his rift with black residents, even as they alarmed his own primary choice, Al Gore, who eschewed Koch’s venomous rhetoric. (Jackson lost anyway to the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis.)

Despite such omissions, Barsky’s film, to its credit, seems not at all nostalgic about the high-pitched racial rancor that got everyone—even Koch’s enemies—into shouting matches that went nowhere. Interviewed on camera for both Central Park Five and Koch, where he generally comes across as a tired old lion who still has fangs but can no longer find the motivation to roar, Koch seems somewhat contrite over the racial polarization whipped to ecstatic peaks during his three terms. And well he might be, for even in the wake of attacks on African-Americans—including the shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins by a white youth in Bensonhurst five months after the Central Park rape—Koch led the chorus of voices calling for the decisive conviction of McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam.

The Burnses’ film includes footage of a jubilant press conference following the convictions of three of the teenage defendants, with Morgenthau radiating avuncular pride. He and everybody else facing the reporters seem positively giddy over their victory—everybody, that is, except Elizabeth Lederer, the chief prosecutor, whose face is an impassive, impenetrable mask. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought her side had lost. You wait for somebody—especially, I don’t know, a reporter perhaps—to shout out to her, “What’s wrong?” No one does.

Now, more than twenty years later, Central Park Five finally raises some of the right questions, while offering, by necessity, unsatisfying answers: Where were the grown-ups who could tell these children that they had rights? Or those who could tell the parents that they, too, had rights? What was it about where these boys and their parents lived, or came from, that inhibited their understanding of their rights and privileges as Americans? Or, for that matter, what accounts for the way the boys seemed ready to acknowledge each other’s complicity in the crime, even if you allow for whatever degree of pressure was applied by the authorities? And why were so many people, regardless of race or ideology, so willing to bypass our presumption of innocence or standards of reasonable doubt so quickly?

I would also like to ask why the reversal of an unjust verdict doesn’t seem to bring out the same level of jubilation or relief that occurred when the original verdict, however illicit or ill-informed, was made. Even the level of shame, eleven years after the convictions were vacated, doesn’t seem quite as broad or as deep as it should be, as the five press their lawsuit against New York City for their long and improper detainment.

The story plods on, as does so much else. The language of polarization may have cooled somewhat during the Age of Bloomberg, trumped to some extent by the incumbent mayor’s disinclination to provoke racial conflict—or discourse. But the stratification between rich and poor has only widened with that aforementioned economy staggering its way back from the brink. Meanwhile, minorities bear the brunt of stop-and-frisk policing, the population of children in the city’s homeless shelters has never been higher, and the number of New Yorkers living in poverty has increased, even while the top 1 percent is richer than it has been in decades.

On the other hand, I’m no longer worried about my car stereo.

Samuel Zip reviewed two books on Koch-era New York City in 2010 for The NationRead all of the articles in The Nation's special issue on New York City.