Pubdate: Sun, 19 Sep 1999
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 1999 The Seattle Times Company
Author:  Timothy Egan, The New York Times


NEW YORK - On a day when Mayor Rudolph 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 uses 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 a drug that he does use
- - heroin. That, plus tobacco and alcohol.

"I've got to quit these cigarettes," he said.

It is unlikely that Rios will ever be 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 once had 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.

During the past 10 years, 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.

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 personal narratives 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.

Biggest Losers On The Street

In New York, crack use 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."

Police consider the transformation of parts of Harlem, Washington Heights
and Brooklyn a miracle.

"I'm not ready to say we won," Police Commissioner Howard Safir said. "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.

In Washington, D.C., however, drug arrest rates actually declined in some
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

"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. "Something clearly happened to change the attitude among youths.
They deserve a lot of the credit."

The drug is still around, and so are its consequences - broken families,
battle-scarred neighborhoods, crimes petty and large. The cheap, smokable
form of cocaine gives users a quick high and often leaves them wanting
more. But a clear trend has developed: Crack has become a drug used
primarily by older people.

According to an annual survey of drug use among people who are arrested,
35.7 percent of all males over 36 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. 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
such as 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 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, barely is spoken of among the young in New York - except
with disdain.

Ripple Effect Of Aging Users

A tentative peace has come to many old haunts of crack. The streets no
longer are congested with armed boys selling cheap highs.

A walk down Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, where three generations of
gangsters from Sicily, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic flourished
over three 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.

"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."

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. 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.

Police used to call a stretch of Knickerbocker Avenue the Well - an endless
fount of drugs and violence, sometimes with 25 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.

Crackheads 'Getting Old'

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."

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 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?' "

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.

In Bushwick, police cordoned off the Well in the early '90s and special
teams of officers made thousands of arrests. Rikers Island became known as
a Bushwick block party, said Rick Curtis, a cultural anthropologist at John
Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

"Even the drug dealers were happy to see a certain level of sanity return,"
Curtis said. "The question is, would this have happened anyway? Drug
markets were in contraction well before the stepped-up police action."

Longtime crack users agree with police on at least one point: They did not
fear the law. But the large police actions, the sweeps that had names such
as Operation Striker, ultimately did not deter use, they say. In a 1997
survey that asked crack users why they gave up the drug, 5 percent cited
arrests or jail. Nearly 19 percent said they "grew tired of the drug life."

31 Arrests, 2 Prison Terms

"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.

Covington 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 a handgun pressed to his temple by hot-tempered
dealers. He dodged the police offensives of three mayors.

But starting in the early '90s, 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."

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 concluded. Pawn shops paid $1 a pound for
copper, and drug users found that few things brought in money like the
2-inch-thick copper wires that help guide New York subways.

In the crack years, the city had an aura of menace. A police officer,
Edward Byrne, was killed in 1989 while guarding the home of a witness in a
drug case in Queens. A record 2,262 people were slain in 1990, and 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-'90s
where it has been ever since.

Much of West 139th Street was taken over by the New York police in the
mid-'90s 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.

Go West, Old Man

Drug dealers are indeed hard to find on West 139th Street. But a few blocks
farther north, men in their late 30s and early 40s 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

"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 overall, 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 NYPD banners flew.

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 McCarthy, who until recently was in charge of the 33rd
Precinct, which includes most of Washington Heights. "We're coming in and
trying to create a livable community."

But others say more credit should be given to the residents. No matter how
many trees they plant, banners they fly or arrests they make, police cannot
create a livable community, they say. It takes human resiliency.

In Bushwick, Curtis concluded, the neighborhood healed itself. Many people
had expected 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," Curtis wrote in his study, the young men of Bushwick
"opted for the relative safety of family, home, church and other sheltering
institutions . . ."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake