A Drug Ran Its Course, Then Hid With Its Users

A Drug Ran Its Course, Then Hid With Its Users
Posted by FoM on September 19, 1999 at 11:27:34 PT
By Timothy Egan
Source: New York Times
On a day when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani went to Brooklyn to tout the renewal of the Bushwick neighborhood, once considered one of the most notorious drug bazaars in the country, Pipo Rios opened a 40-ounce malt liquor and contemplated his business not far from where the Mayor spoke. 
Rios used to sell crack in the neighborhood, but street-level drug dealers are hard-pressed to make a living these days, he said. So now he deals in Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs. "I can make more money selling these," he said, pointing to a stack of the jackets inside his cramped kitchen, "especially on Friday nights." Rios, 36, said he no longer used crack, either. But it was not the many times he was arrested, nor the year he spent in prison, that changed his attitude. He simply grew tired of the drug, he said. Still, the plum-colored marks on his arms are the trademark of another drug that he does use -- heroin. That, plus tobacco and alcohol. "I've got to quit these cigarettes," he said, shaking his head in a cloud of smoke. It is unlikely that Rios will ever get invited to City Hall. But the change in his life is the story of the decline of crack in New York -- done in by age, boredom and new opportunities. Today, in communities that used to have more open-air crack markets than grocery stores, where children grew up dodging crack vials and gunfire, the change from a decade ago is startling. On the surface, crack has all but disappeared from much of New York, taking with it the ragged and violent vignettes that were a routine part of street life. For example, a little triangle of land near Bushwick, where crack dealers used to stage midnight fights with their pit bulls, is now a community garden. It was a great year for tomatoes. Over the last 10 years, the New York police made nearly 900,000 drug arrests -- more than any other city in the world. Almost a third were for using and selling crack. But a broader look at the arc of the crack years suggests that it was not the incarceration of a generation, or the sixfold increase in the number of police officers assigned to narcotics, that turned the tide in New York, which the police called the crack capital of the world. Nearly every major American city plagued by the drug has matched New York's rise and decline in crack use, regardless of how law enforcement responded. Drug-use surveys, arrest statistics and the personal narratives of scores of users, dealers and street-level narcotics officers point to the same pattern: The crack epidemic behaved much like a fever. It came on strong, appearing to rise without hesitation, and then broke, just as the most dire warnings were being sounded. In New York, the use of crack stopped growing as its addicts became known as the biggest losers on the street. At the same time, the violent drug markets settled down, as dealers and users fell into retail routines. Perhaps most telling, there was a generational revulsion against the drug. "If you were raised in a house where somebody was a crack addict, you wanted to get as far away from that drug as you could," said Selena Jones, a Harlem resident whose mother was a chronic crack user. "People look down on them so much that even crackheads don't want to be crackheads anymore." The police consider the transformation of parts of Harlem, Washington Heights and Brooklyn something of a miracle, emblematic of New York's determination to beat back the drug tide that many people thought would overwhelm it. "I'm not ready to say we won," Police Commissioner Howard Safir said recently. "But we're no longer the crack capital of the world." He attributed the change to a policy of zero tolerance for anyone using or selling drugs in the open. "You can spray them once, but they come back," Safir said, comparing drug dealers to cockroaches. "You have to keep going after them. We had to take this city back block by block." In Washington, however, the drug arrest rates actually declined in some of the peak crack years -- and the city still recorded a steeper drop than New York in the percentage of its young residents using cocaine from 1990 to the present. "This happened over a period of time when Washington had fewer officers on the street, the police made fewer arrests for drugs, and the mayor himself was indicted for smoking crack," said Bruce Johnson, a New York social scientist who has conducted extensive surveys of crack use across the country for the National Institute for Justice. "Something clearly happened to change the attitude among youths," Johnson said. "They deserve a lot of the credit." The drug that was held up as the scourge of New York is still around, of course, and so are its consequences -- broken families, battle-scarred neighborhoods, crimes both petty and large. The cheap, smokable form of cocaine gives its users a quick high and often leaves them wanting more. But a clear trend has developed that few public officials predicted: Crack has become a drug used primarily by older people. Embraced by one generation, crack was spurned by the next. The level of crack use has remained steady for more than a decade. According to an annual survey of drug use among people who are arrested, 35.7 percent of all males over 36 years old who were arrested in New York last year had used crack recently, but barely 4 percent of those 15 to 20 years old had used it. National surveys of the general population show the same falling off in crack use among the young. And among all age and race groups, the most startling decline has been among young blacks, the very stereotype of the urban drug user. A new drug cycle, this time following new ways to ingest familiar drugs like alcohol, marijuana and even heroin, which is cheaper and more plentiful than ever, has taken hold. Among many young people in New York, the rage is a "40 and a blunt" -- a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor and a hollowed-out cigar packed with marijuana. "You don't find much crack use among the young," said Jean L. Scott, who has worked with drug abusers for 30 years at Phoenix House in New York, the nation's leading treatment center. "These people saw a whole generation go bad on crack. They stick with their 40 and a blunt." Crack, she said, the drug that so scared America that it prompted major changes in the judicial system, in prisons and in police tactics, is barely spoken of among the young in New York -- except with disdain. The Change: Ripple Effect of Aging Users A tentative peace has come to many of the old haunts of crack. Scouring the New York neighborhoods that once had up to 12,000 open-air drug markets finds only a spectral presence of the great drug epidemic. The streets are no longer congested with armed boys selling cheap highs by the fistful. A walk down Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, where three generations of gangsters from Sicily, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic flourished over three different drug cycles, is a tour through the changed cityscape. In the block where crack dealers shot Maria Hernandez to death in her apartment 10 years ago for trying to unify the neighborhood against them, three new businesses have come to life. In the park where gunfire could be heard nearly every night, the loudest sound at dusk comes from two boys arguing over who is baseball's best power hitter, Sammy Sosa or Manny Ramirez. "They're still here, these crack dealers," said Carlos Hernandez, Maria's widower. "But you can't find them unless you know where to look." A few blocks away, on Wilson Avenue, a handful of gaunt-faced older men follow a furtive routine to buy $3 vials of crack from an established dealer not far from the police precinct house. Once, dealers sold crack from the sidewalks. Now they must be summoned by beeper and code and are wary of selling to strangers. "They no longer own the street," Hernandez said. The police used to call a stretch of Knickerbocker Avenue the Well -- an endless fount of drugs and violence, sometimes with 25 crack dealers to a block and three killings a week. "This place has changed dramatically," said Stanley Bauman, 41, a lifelong resident of Bushwick. For years, he sat on a street corner with a dog named Wacko and sold crack to hundreds of customers. "Did it right out in broad daylight," Bauman said. "All the cops knew me. And I knew most of them." He was arrested many times, he said, and did a stint in prison. When asked what happened to his regular customers, he said: "Some of them died. Some of them went to jail. The others are still using crack, but they're getting old." The aging of the habitual crack user has had a ripple effect on all the negative social indicators connected to drug abuse. At the height of the crack years, foster care agencies were swamped with children left in squalor by parents who pursued the crack high; last year the number of children brought into the New York foster care system fell to fewer than 40,000, down from nearly 50,000 a decade ago, and child welfare officials attribute the drop in large part to the decline in crack use by women. Ten years ago, many experts feared that crack would be passed on from mothers to children. But the children did not follow the pattern. "I remember being 10 years old, and having to take control of my own life," said Ms. Jones, 25, the Harlem resident. "We were eating cornmeal pancakes without syrup for dinner -- crack vials all over the floor. I was like, 'Hello! Don't you know you have a daughter?' " Ms. Jones lives near Jackie Robinson Park. Crowded with crack users 10 years ago, it now looks like any other slice of green in New York on a warm day -- mothers pushing strollers, children playing, clusters of people swapping stories. Violent crime in New York hit a 30-year low last year, a drop that Giuliani says is largely attributable to the city's record number of arrests of drug users and dealers. "One of the main reasons crime is down so dramatically in New York is that we no longer let the drug dealers control the city," Giuliani said. But nationwide, the murder rate also reached the lowest level since 1969, according to the F.B.I., even in cities where drug arrests fell or remained the same. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta cited diminished warfare between gangs that deal in crack as a major reason for the sharp drop in violent crime nationwide. The crack marketplace had become organized. In Bushwick, the police cordoned off the Well in the early 90's and special teams of officers made thousands of arrests. So many people were sent to jail that Rikers Island became known as a Bushwick block party, said Dr. Rick Curtis, a cultural anthropologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, who has interviewed more than a thousand crack users and dealers in Brooklyn over the last decade. "Even the drug dealers were happy to see a certain level of sanity return," Dr. Curtis said. "The question is, would this have happened anyway? Drug markets were in contraction well before the stepped-up police action." Arrest statistics show that crack use among the young started to decline nearly 10 years ago, in the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins. In Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington and other cities where the drug took hold about the same time as in New York, in the mid-80's, crack fell out of favor at the same time. "You used to see crowds of people waiting to buy their crack kept in line by some jerk with a baseball bat," said Robert Baumert, a retired deputy chief who was in charge of narcotics enforcement in north Brooklyn at the peak of the crack years. "They were not afraid of the police." Longtime crack users agree with the police on at least that point: They did not fear the law. But the large police actions, the sweeps that had names like Operation Striker, did not ultimately deter use, they say. In a 1997 survey that asked crack users why they had given up the drug, only 5 percent cited arrests or jail. Nearly 19 percent said they "grew tired of the drug life." "I don't think anything the police did changed my behavior," said Thomas Covington, who was arrested 31 times, mostly for crack possession, and served two prison terms before voluntarily entering drug treatment. "Sometimes it was a little more challenging to buy. But once that compulsion is there, it doesn't matter what the penalty or the threat is." Covington is a big, sharp-witted Brooklyn native who has used crack on and off for 15 years. He made it through the explosive violence that came with crack's introduction. He was homeless, and sick, and twice felt the steel tip of a handgun pressed to his temple by hot-tempered dealers. He dodged the police offensives of three mayors. But starting in the early 90's, Covington said, he noticed a shift in the attitudes of young drug dealers. "They didn't use crack," he said. "And they didn't respect people who did. To me, being a 34- or 35-year-old guy, standing on line and handing my money to a 15-year-old, that was humiliating." The Bad Times: Getting Better Amid Despair At the lowest point of New York's long night of despair over crack, the city was nearly broken by the drug. Or so it appeared. During one rush hour 10 years ago, 149 subway trains came to a sudden halt, held up by an electrical short. It was one of the more unusual casualties of crack, transit officials later concluded. Pawn shops paid $1 a pound for copper, and drug users found that few things brought in money like the two-inch-thick copper wires that help guide subways around New York. "We used to rip the cable out and then burn off the insulation," Covington said. It was just this sort of scavaging, transit officials said, that led to the subway short. In the crack years, the city had an aura of menace. In 1989 a police officer, Edward Byrne, was killed while guarding the home of a witness in a drug case in Queens. In 1990, a record 2,262 people were slain, and the police linked two-thirds of the deaths to the drug trade. Other drug addicts were afraid of the hard-core crack users. Doris Randolph, a former drug user in Harlem who now helps young people stay off drugs, said, "The people who used heroin, we'd be sitting there in the shooting galleries, nodding, talking politics, talking about music, the paper under our arms, and then all of sudden these twitchy crackheads showed up, and they looked dangerous." But as early as 1989, four years after crack's appearance, at a time when New York looked to be at its lowest ebb, the fever had broken and the epidemic was beginning its slow decline. It continued to fall before and after the major police crackdowns, until it hit a plateau in the mid-90's where it has been ever since. Mandatory prison terms and hundreds of thousands of arrests "appeared to have no major deterrent effect," according to a study of crack's decline by the National Institute of Justice. Dr. Lynn Zimmer, a professor of sociology at Queens College, who studied the effects of police sweeps on drug use in New York in the late 80's, said: "Crack would never be as popular as it was made out to be, and people who really understood drug cycles predicted that. There is a natural cycle to these kinds of drug trends. Crack followed that." Growing up with a crack-addicted mother, Ms. Jones said, she could tell the drug would never be popular with the children her age. "You'd see things that were just crazy," she said. "My mother used to like going to jail. She'd get her rest there. She said all her friends were there." The Campaign: Driving Dealers Underground A stroll down West 139th Street in Manhattan, in the heart of a square mile that the New York police once called the cocaine capital of the world, found 71-year-old Casimiro Lopez relaxing on the stoop at dusk. "I'm telling you: the drugs never finish," said Lopez, who has lived here for 31 years. "But it's much better now, because you don't see them anymore." Much of West 139th Street was taken over by the New York police in the mid-90's in what the officers call a model-block campaign to reclaim neighborhoods from drug dealers. They put barricades at both ends of the street and stopped people who could not prove that they lived in the neighborhood. From 139th north, through Washington Heights, the police carried on similar campaigns: taking over entire blocks, arresting people for minor offenses, then hanging N.Y.P.D. banners, planting a row of trees and moving on. Signs posted on the outside of apartment buildings read: "No Hanging Out. No Eating. No Pets. No Loud Radio." Many residents welcome the police attention. Others compare it with martial law. "The idea is to blanket the city and give drug dealers no place to hide," Giuliani said in explaining the city's policy. "It's working." But scores of interviews in these hard-hit neighborhoods found many people who felt that the change had been largely cosmetic. "I compare it to Niagara Falls," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, director of the West Side Heights Citizen League. "You take 10 buckets out one year, 100 buckets out the next. That's a 500 percent improvement, but the falls are still in place." Drug dealers are indeed hard to find on West 139th Street. But a few blocks further north, men in their late 30's and early 40's make deals in the shadows around Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church and the two-story, wood-frame house built in 1802 by Alexander Hamilton, a framer of the Constitution. "What the police did was move the drug traffic north," said the Rev. Thomas Fenlon, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, a church with bars over the stained-glass windows. "Now, instead of being on 139th Street, they are in front of the church and school." But over all, he said, there are fewer dealers, and his comments were echoed throughout old crack alleys. Crack users told of going inside to buy, using beepers and code, and pretty much going on as usual within a block or two of the street where the N.Y.P.D. banners flew. "Everything went underground," said Rolando Lopez, an antique furniture restorer from Brooklyn who has had a crack habit for much of the 90's, but has never been arrested. "It became more of a thrill. You'd walk by the cops, carrying the crack vial in your mouth." Covington in Brooklyn also changed his buying routine, but not his habits. "Instead of buying in the street, we started buying from some of the bodegas," he said. "You'd go in and order a hero sandwich in the back, and they'd put the crack in a bag with some chips." The police say they have tried to do something considerably more difficult than showing an iron fist 24 hours a day. "We're not just coming in and locking up dealers like an invading army," said Capt. Garry F. McCarthy, who until recently was in charge of the 33d Precinct, which includes most of Washington Heights. "We're coming in and trying to create a livable community." But others says more credit should be given to the people of the neighborhoods. No matter how many trees they plant, banners they fly or arrests they make, the police cannot create a livable community, they say. It takes human resiliency. The Rebirth: Neighborhoods Heal Themselves It has been a prosperous decade. Disney and the Gap are now coming to Harlem. Bushwick and Washington Heights are alive with new bodegas, farmicias, fruit markets, discount clothing stores, chains like McDonald's and Rite Aid. Bauman, the former crack dealer in Bushwick, now works on construction crews, putting up plasterboard. "I got all the work I can use," he said. One of his fellow dealers has become a security guard. Another is a school bus driver, said Dr. Curtis, the anthropologist. In Bushwick, Dr. Curtis concluded, the neighborhood healed itself. Many people had expected the arrests to continue without end, until Bushwick was a place nearly devoid of young men. But social pressure and neighborhood initiatives brought a change. "Rather than fulfilling the prophecy of becoming addicted and remorseless superpredators," Dr. Curtis wrote in his study, the young men of Bushwick "opted for the relative safety of family, home, church and other sheltering institutions, which persevered during the most difficult years." Hernandez of Bushwick gives the police plenty of credit for the change in his neighborhood. But he says it was more than arrests that made crack's imprint diminish in his small piece of New York. The crack epidemic looked like it would never end only to those who could not see to the other side, he said. "The community came together, and it created a snowball effect," said Hernandez, walking down Knickerbocker Avenue in bright sunshine. "The churches, the merchants, the parents -- we showed young people there was something to live for here in Bushwick." His family is the best proof of his point. Hernandez's eldest daughter, Evelis, having completed college, has decided to return to Bushwick. She will soon be teaching school in the neighborhood where her mother was shot to death. "Why should we ever leave?" Hernandez said. September 19, 1999Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company Don't Get Carried Away by Ethan A. Nadelmann - 9/19/99
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Comment #1 posted by FoM on September 20, 1999 at 08:13:21 PT:
Commentary from Peter McWilliams
September 19, 1999One of the Drug War's justifications for existence is the reduced use of crack. "See? The Drug War is working! Give us ten more years, a trillion more dollars, and let us destroy the lives of 10 million more Americans!"As Timothy Egan illustrated in his previous front-page New York Times articles, the "crack epidemic" was pretty much invented by the Drug Warriors--there never was an epidemic.Now, in a new front-page NYT story (Sunday, September 19, 1999), Egan shows that any reduction in crack use was due to users making a choice, not due to police action. Indeed, police intervention only made things worse.These two facts--there never was a crack epidemic and most people who stopped did so of their own choosing, not police power--is important because the press in the late 1980s climbed onboard the Drug War propaganda train because powder cocaine use had infiltrated white-upper-middle-class enclaves (read: reporters) and the specter that a Caucasian crack epidemic was just around the corner was what William Bennett used to scare the press owners to treat the Drug War like World War II--anyone opposing the War on Drugs was,in print, a traitor and their comments were not printed.This wartime reporting has held sway in the press for the past 12 years. We can only depend on the courts and the pres to bring peace on drugs and restore the constitutional rights to those who choose to use drugs. The legislative and administrative branches are currently hopeless.As the press begins to realize "We was duped," balanced reporting on the Drug War should return.Enjoy,Peter
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