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(GANNETT PHOTO NETWORK) VIOLENTPIX: Kitty Genovese was repeatedly stabbed outside her apartment in Queens, New York in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. Thirty-eight people heard her cries for help but no one called for police until after she died. . From the book "On This Site" by Joel Sternfeld (Chronicle $27.50) / Joel Sternfeld

NEW YORK - After the murder of Kitty Genovese 50 years ago Thursday, night began to descend on this and America's other big cities. It did not lift for more than a quarter-century.

Genovese was 28. Returning home from work around 3 a.m., she was attacked by a stranger on a Queens street. He stabbed her, briefly fled the scene, came back, found his wounded victim in the spot to which she'd staggered, stabbed her again and raped her.

Despite her cries, neighbors did nothing to save her; most did not even call the police.

Americans looked at the murder - or what they thought they knew about it - as an indictment of city life itself. If you were in danger in public, no one would lift a finger. They didn't want to get involved.

The case's anniversary coincides with a renewed concern about street crime.

The new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, campaigned against the "stop and frisk'' strategy that police commanders use to try to get guns off the street and stop crime. De Blasio says it detains too many innocent young black and Latino men.

Will a reduction in "stop and frisk" mark a return to the days when the city's homicide rate was more than five times higher than now?

I remember those days. Almost everyone I knew in the city had been a victim. One was robbed at gunpoint in his apartment house lobby; one was slugged in the head with a baseball bat on the street; one was mugged not far away. Another friend's apartment was burglarized four times.

A kid on a bike ripped my wife's purse off her shoulder in front of our apartment building. The next morning, with our son in a baby carrier on my back, I combed the dewy grass on the spot in Central Park where the thief dumped all but my wife's cash, credit cards and keys.

The Genovese case 20 years earlier was remembered not only as a marker of when crime began to explode, but an explanation of why.

That dated to a story in The New York Times a few weeks after the murder. It began: "For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a womanâ?¦''

Subsequent examinations suggest early accounts were exaggerated and oversimplified. No single witness (much less 38) saw the entire attack, which took place over about 30 minutes at two different locations, one out of public sight.

Many neighbors who heard something were asleep, with their windows closed, when Genovese began screaming. By the time they looked out, the first attack was over. And some did act. One yelled out his window at the assailant, scaring him off for a while; at least two others called the police; and one woman went to Genovese and stayed with her until the ambulance arrived.

The real lesson of the Genovese case isn't that New Yorkers won't help each other. They've proved repeatedly they'll risk their skins to do so. The biggest problem that night wasn't that people failed to act on what they knew but that they didn't know enough to act.

Today, the problem again is information.

There's no consensus on why crime has dropped so much since the early 1990s. More police? Better policing techniques? A decline in the number of young men (who commit a disproportionate number of crimes)? A stabilization in the drug markets?

If we don't agree what made crime go away, we can't be sure what will keep it from coming back.

Rick Hampson reports for USA TODAY from its New York bureau.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Voices: On a grim anniversary, new fears over crime

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