Ruin For Profit: The Rise of Kitchenette Apartments in Chicago’s Black Belt, 1940-1960

By Geneva Morris

Figure 1: “In the ‘Kitchenette’ area on South parkway, a formerly well-to-do avenue.” Chicago, Illinois. April 1941. Edwin Rosskam. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit…”

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

A small room at the end of the hall with room for a bed, perhaps a dresser, and a chair; this is the typical living space allotted to each “guest” at a boarding house in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In later iterations, the single-room occupancy unit would add a sink, then a full bathroom, and finally a kitchen to become the version of small space living seen today, the micro-apartment. However, in-between the boarding house and the micro-apartment is an often-overlooked housing typology: the kitchenette apartment. The kitchenette, which on the surface appears very similar to the micro-apartment, boomed in Chicago’s Black Belt where over 80,000 of these units were created between 1940-1960.1 More than a simple living space, the kitchenette embodied the continued oppression of a marginalized group seeking new opportunities.

Resembling other small space living typologies like the lodging and boarding house, the kitchenette apartment was a hybrid typology. The “kitchenette” unit initially described a newly constructed small apartment in Chicago, first appearing around 1916, at a time when apartment construction in the city increased dramatically. The designed kitchenette apartment often featured “Pullman kitchens” and a “murphy in-a-door bed” to conserve space. This concept was later co-opted and corrupted as a way for developers and landlords to capitalize on the spatial and economic restrictions imposed by government-sanctioned policies of segregation on black families.

Stark contrasts existed between the “designed” kitchenettes first seen in 1916 and the haphazardly retrofitted kitchenette units found in ghettos that I focus on here. Presented at the President’s Conference on Home Building and Ownership in 1932, the “Report on Negro Housing” discussed the design differences in kitchenette apartments for white and black residents. Notably, the report states that in kitchenette apartments for white residents each unit had a toilet and running water and were designed “so as to allow natural light and air, and privacy.” Kitchenettes with primarily black residents, on the other hand, had few windows, one bathroom per floor, and often a kitchen with a small gas stove and ice box converted from a clothes closet. The building form varied in size and style, though most were generally multi-unit apartment buildings as seen in Figure 2. These kitchenette units provided 100 square feet or less of living space to residents. In this space entire families — and even extended families — would live in a space better suited for a single person. Severe overcrowding and inadequate access to basic amenities underscore the disparity in the design and the conditions within that led to serious health and safety concerns.

“Kitchenette apartments on South Parkway, Chicago, Illinois. These are rented to Negroes.” April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.
Figure 2: “Kitchenette apartments on South Parkway, Chicago, Illinois. These are rented to Negroes.” April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

The Evolution of the Kitchenette Apartment

Between 1940 and 1960, Chicago’s black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000. This established the foundation of Chicago’s African American industrial working class and substantially increased the need for housing in the city. Government officials could no longer overlook the housing shortage, yet the newly constructed public housing could not even begin to house the growing black population in the city, many of whom were constrained in their choices by restrictive covenants and segregation. With waiting lists for public-housing units full, newly arriving migrants to the city had to turn to the private market to secure housing.

Once converted to kitchenette apartments, there was little incentive for landlords/owners to maintain the units.2  Overcrowding, little to no building maintenance, and issues of garbage collection compounded to create a serious rat problem in kitchenette apartments. Other concerns included the threat of fire, as the kitchenette apartment’s partitions were often flammable and made it difficult for residents to escape. One Chicago alderman went so far as to call the Black Belt area a “gigantic fire trap.” Between November 1946 and November 1947 there were at least 751 fires that occurred in the area. Survivors of apartment fires were again confronted with the same housing shortages, and some would return to their previous units. As the Council noted, “they moved their smoke-weighted and water-soaked possessions back into rooms with charred walls, without roofs, and without plumbing.”

(Top) Original floor plan for 600 square floor unit at 6211 N Vernon Ave. (Bottom) Same unit converted to kitchenette units. Once divided, each unit had approximately 100 square feet with a small stove and ice box in each. One shared bathroom per floor.
Figure 3: Designed by author.

Even if charges were brought for conditions and code violations in the building, it was more cost-effective for the owner to go to court and pay the fine imposed by the City than to perform basic repairs. Additionally, building owners would evade the building’s taxes, because they knew the amount of the accumulated taxes would eventually exceed the actual value of the buildings. The owners would acquire as much profit as possible from the converted buildings, then allow the City to assume control of the dilapidated property under the Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation Law, and condemn the building. This further diminished the available housing stock in the area.

Richard Wright’s depiction of kitchenette apartments in 12 Million Black Voices is a violent rendering of a home that requires inhabitants to consider, is it worth it? As Wright states, “sometimes five or six of us live in a one-room kitchenette… [in this place] a war sets up in our emotions: one part of our feelings tells us that is good to be in the city…another part of our feelings tells us that, the cost of living in kitchenettes is too high, that the city heaps too much responsibility upon us and gives too little security in return.” With this passage, Wright captures the desolation and psychological ruin of the kitchenette apartment paired with images of women, children, and single men crammed into these dismal living spaces. Following this passage, Wright speaks of the physical conditions and health dangers of living in this space, stating that “[t]he kitchenette, with its filth and foul air, with its one toilet for thirty or more tenants, kills our black babies so fast that in many cities twice as many of them die as white babies.” He couples this sentiment with an image of a seat-less toilet, where shards of wood splinters and plaster scraps litter the floor next to the removed seat.

Most disturbing, as Elizabeth Schlabach has pointed out, this passage appears above a photograph of three small children sharing a bed. The mattress is sheet-less, pillow-less, and in a room with a concrete floor and battered walls. Emphasizing the impact of this restricted lifestyle, Wright evokes a sense of hopelessness in the next verse, “…we black folks who dwell in northern cities would die out entirely over the course of a few years…” Paired with this text, the photograph identifies the victims (the inhabitants) of the crimes of a kitchenette apartment.

Figure 4: “Chicago, Illinois” Russell Lee. April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.
Figure 5: “Toilet in the basement of an apartment house rented to Negroes. Chicago, Illinois” Russell Lee. April 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

Looking Forward

Chicago’s kitchenette apartments were brutal environments that bounded opportunities and contributed to adverse health outcomes and mortality among black families. They were a grim symbol of the social inequalities that American capitalism and racial discrimination wrought. Yet, the history of the kitchenette apartments and the constricting of its black residents can also be traced forward through waves of housing development seen nationwide. For example, the former kitchenette building at 6211 S. Vernon Ave (see Figure 6) was built originally in 1913. Built near South Parkway (now called King Drive), this kitchenette apartment was one of many like it in Chicago’s Black Belt area. The apartment building was the site of a major fire that was accelerated by the fact that the apartment building had no water. Today, it is vacant, but at last time of occupancy in 2007, it had 18 units, substantially less than it had when it was kitchenette apartments (likely closer to 90). According to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, in 2007 the building was converted to condominium units. As the foreclosure crisis hit in 2008, many owners defaulted on their mortgages and their units were lost to foreclosure – leading to the vacant status seen today.

This story is not unique to this building, but is part of a housing and affordability crisis that has resulted from rising rent rates that increasingly exceed the cost of home ownership, stagnating household income, and a shortage of affordable housing units. As Chicago’s Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found, over 60,000 rental units in Chicago were affected by foreclosure from 2008-2011- resulting in significant displacement and its associated human cost to affected families– persistent housing shortages, increased rental price and disruption of school attendance. As was seen with the former kitchenette building near South Parkway, foreclosures lead to vacant and boarded-up buildings, thus diminishing the desirability (and value) of neighboring properties and triggering additional foreclosures and bank-owned properties. Chicago’s Woodstock institute found that 64 percent of Chicago’s bank-owned (REO) properties are in African-American communities. These buildings take 25 percent longer to return to productive use than properties in predominantly white communities. The disproportionate impact of foreclosure in low-income community areas rapidly transformed the concept of home-ownership while forever impacting residents’ ability to reside in the communities they grew up in – forcing many to move outside of the city.

Figure 6: “18 Saved as Fire Razes Old Kitchenette Building.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Dec 06, 1941. (Right) Google image of 6211 Vernon Ave. in 2007.

Wright’s own conclusion emphasizes the consciousness and memory engrained in the history of the kitchenette apartments and reminds readers that,

We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent what we endure is what America is. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollection of our black parents, and through the tales of slavery told by our black grandparents, to the time when none of us black or white.

By asking participants to learn how to see the living past living in the present, Wright illuminates the too-often overlooked social issues impacting black Americans and his photobook continues to prompt viewers to remember the realities faced by the people who had no choice but to live in the kitchenette apartments. When families are crowded into the barest minimum space required for sleeping, cooking, and eating, it is a failure that relegates the black family into a placeless existence that becomes, as Wright stated, a “death sentence.”

The architectural design and implementation of the kitchenette apartment maximized profit for white landlords and neglected the human needs of Chicago’s black community. Its spatially-lived realities existed at the apex of larger social movements, including urbanization and racial segregation, and exposed capitalist forces at work in housing. The kitchenette apartment emphasizes inadequacies in building management and maintenance, but also in its design principle to provide the smallest space possible for a person, a family, and a community. Thus, the domestic spaces of the kitchenette apartment from 1940-1960 in Chicago’s Black Belt were less modern and efficient, and were instead rightly-perceived by their largely black residents as the material embodiment of segregation’s oppressive power in the mid-twentieth century American city.


1. [Population influx to this part of Chicago was fueled by the Great Migration of Southern blacks at the end of World War II. Chicago’s Black Belt was originally a narrow corridor extending from 22nd to 31st Streets along State Street. Chicago’s South Side African American community expanded over the century until it stretched from 39th to 95th streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan as racial housing restrictions abated after the civil rights era. Source: Edith Abbott. From The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935, 1936.]

2. [This makeshift process of conversion to kitchenette apartment was not well documented. The important distinguishing factor of the kitchenette apartment is inherent in its name – the presence of a kitchen – or the ability for a family to cook independently of the other residents. Alternatives like boarding houses and residential hotels were legally defined by the “absence of a private kitchen [as separating] it from hotels and apartments.” Another departure from the boarding house was the lack of an on-site landlord, or landlady as was common with boarding houses. This lack of on-site management contributed to buildings’ overall state of disrepair.]


Gries John, M, et al. “Report of the Committee on Negro Housing.” Presented at the Presidents’ Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership 1932. p. 260-271.

Groth, Paul Earling. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkley: University of California, 1994.

Hirsch, Arnold. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, “Three Year Impact Assessment: Apartment Building Foreclosures and the Depletion of Rental Housing in Chicago,”  June 2012. Available at:

Left Behind: Troubled Foreclosed Properties and Servicer Accountability in Chicago, Woodstock Institute, January 2011. Available at: research/

Plotkin, Wendy. “Hemmed in: The Struggle against Racial Restrictive Covenants and Deed restrictions in post WWII Chicago.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 94:1, 2001, pp. 39-69.

Schlabach, Elizabeth. Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Wright, Richard. “Death on the City Pavement,” in 12 Million Black Voices. New York, 1941.

One Year Later: Mike Brown, Ferguson, and Anti-Black Racism

By Philip McHarris and Pedro Regalado

One year ago today, 18-year-old Michael Brown lay dead on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri for over four hours before being moved after being murdered by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Soon, the nation would take notice.

On the anniversary of Brown’s death, we take a critical look into the world in which he lived and died. From racist housing policies that haunt Ferguson in the form of redlining from past decades, to municipal court practices that impose “hidden taxes” on Ferguson’s black residents in the present, Brown’s murder symbolizes the insidious nature of compounded structural racism in black and brown communities across the United States.

Recent census data reveals that 22 percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line; the rate is even higher for African-Americans at 29.7 percent.1 New research has also suggested that once poverty rates in neighborhoods reach 20 percent, the consequences of concentrated poverty begin to emerge and have discernable effects on a variety of life outcomes and overall well-being.2 Still, while researchers have begun to explore how “neighborhood effects” impact individuals and communities in urban areas, there has been little research into how concentrated poverty takes shape in U.S. suburbs.3 This is despite a dramatic growth in suburban areas that have experienced concentrated poverty over the past two decades.4

Brown’s untimely death thus prompts us to focus on contemporary black suburbs in order to reimagine how race might intersect with space and inequality in areas like Ferguson that, similar to many suburbs that have sizable black populations, were once predominantly white. Doing so pushes beyond common narratives of suburban growth as a whites-only escape from the social ills of city life. For the reality that Brown faced in Ferguson parallels the conditions one might typically associate with black and brown life in urban centers. And the racial and economic inequality that he and other African Americans face in places like Chicago or St. Louis City has followed them to what, a half-century ago, was an unlikely place: the suburb.


Mass white flight ravaged St. Louis during the 1950’s as whites migrated to the city’s surrounding suburbs, reaching the edges of the Missouri River north and west of the St. Louis.5 Most of this out-migration was made exclusive to white residents as a result of state-enabled forces in the form of realtor’s agreements, restrictive covenants, and HOLC ratings that sought to maintain the “racial harmony” in these newly populated areas.6 Meanwhile, public housing construction in St. Louis skyrocketed and was mainly intended to address the increasing number of African Americans moving to the city as well as those already living in substandard conditions.7

As the 1970’s and 1980’s rolled through, white flight occurred once more. Not from the city, however, but from the same suburbs that whites had made their sanctuary. In 1970, Ferguson was 99 percent white.8 A decade later that figure dropped to 85 percent with whites migrating further out into metropolitan area to places like Oakville and Ballwin. The geo-racial line continued to shift, and by 2010, Ferguson’s population was 67 percent black and 29 percent white.9 As a result of the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S., and the intertwined nature of wealth and disadvantage, this meant less resources and a lower tax base for poorer, black residents moving into suburbia.

For black urbanites accustomed to strife in St. Louis during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the real possibility of moving to a suburb held enormous potential. And if the lives of those who occupied their suburbs before them were any indication of how their own lives might go, i.e. large green lawns, white-picket fences, and good schools, these migrants indeed had cause to be hopeful. But as evident with Brown’s murder almost a half-century later, forces similar to those that threaten black bodies in St. Louis have undermined the value of that aspiration. This includes police violence, but also the actions of state bodies less associated with producing physical violence.

According to the St. Louis non-profit Better Together, the vast majority of black municipalities in St. Louis County derive at least 20 percent of their general budget from fines and court fees.10 Ferguson itself saw its municipal court revenue jump from $1.4 million in 2011 to $2.5 million in 2013, accounting for 20 percent of its own revenue.11

St. Louis County municipal courts also profit from exploitative policies, bringing in an average of over three times more than they cost to operate.12 The gravity of this statistic is heavily underscored by the uneven percentage of black drivers that are pulled over by police in St. Louis County. In 2013, the state’s Attorney General found that to be 66 percent.13 But police violence only enforces municipal predatory revenue practices. If Brown was arrested on that early August afternoon in Ferguson without fatality, we could assume that he would still have had to pay exorbitant court fees and face imprisonment if he was unable to do so.

As a result of the dedicated work spearheaded by the family of Michael Brown and activists from Ferguson and St. Louis, a national Movement for Black Lives has emerged to challenge the various forms of systematic violence that targets Black bodies. Earlier this year, lawyers from Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, and the Saint Louis University School of Law filed lawsuits against Ferguson challenging municipal ticketing operations.14 And this past July, governor Jay Nixon signed a municipal court reform bill that caps court revenues and creates new regulations in an attempt to curb municipal predatory practices statewide.15

On the national scale, at least 40 state measures have been passed attempt to address police violence and extractive criminal justice policies.16 Still, these reforms, which have garnered widespread support throughout the country, only begin to scratch the surface of a deeply engrained problem that goes beyond police practices and includes the day-to-day operations of seemingly benign municipal institutions. Furthermore, some of the reforms, such as the use of body cameras, have the ability to exacerbate civil rights violations by increasing surveillance capacity without complete community control and oversight over local law enforcement.17

Darren Wilson pulled the trigger of the gun that murdered Michael Brown, but white supremacy as a system rooted in the devaluation of black lives, part of America’s foundation, is equally responsible.18 The legacy of white supremacy, in the form of police brutality, municipal violence, and concentrated black poverty, continues to leave far too many black and brown communities criminalized in cities and suburbs alike.

At present, the federal government provides state and local police departments with $4.3 billion in military gear transferred through the 1033 Program alone.19 Yet increased policing is not the solution for the problems of impoverished communities. Decarceration and community control of police by those most directly affected by police violence and extractive local governments should take precedent. Initiatives which advocate disinvesting in the criminal justice system and reinvesting in communities with race-based, class inflected policies will begin to dismantle the society which murdered Michael Brown and countless other black bodies.

In the discourse surrounding race and inequality, much work remains as we grapple with how suburbs, as well as rural areas across the United States, continue to shape the evolving landscape of race in America. For the clean, peaceful, working-class image of suburbs that dominated America’s imagination in the Post War period, has never been available to Black Americans even as they increasingly and paradoxically call the suburb home. Anti-blackness transcends spatial boundaries. For many working class blacks, life in the suburbs was, and is, not all that different from life in the city. One year later, Michael Brown’s murder poignantly reminds us of this.

1. [At least 2 census blocks in Ferguson have a poverty rate above 40%. Additionally, 40.8 percent of children living in Ferguson live under the poverty line (American Community Survey 2013).

2. [Geoge C. Galster, Jackie M. Cutsinger, and Ron Malega. 2008. “The Costs of Concentrated Poverty: Neighborhood Property Markets and the Dynamics of Decline.” In Nicolas P. Retsinas and Eric S. Belsky, eds., Revisiting Rental Housing: Policies, Programs, and Priorities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 116–9.]

3. [Sharkey, Patrick, and Jacob W. Faber. “Where, when, why, and for whom do residential contexts matter? Moving away from the dichotomous understanding of neighborhood effects.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (2014): 559-579.]

4. [Elizabeth Kneebone, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012,” The Brookings Institution, July 31, 2014. From -poverty/.]

5. [Colin Gordon. “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City,” The University of Iowa Libraries. From

6. [Ibid.]

7. [Ibid. Among the most famous among these housing projects was Pruitt-Igoe, completed in the 1950’s and demolished in the mid-1970’s.]

8. [U.S. Census Bureau. “Race, 1970.” Social Explorer. Web. Aug 5, 2015.]

9. [“Ferguson (City), Missouri.” U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts, 2015. From ]

10. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report,” Better Together, Public Safety Studies, October 2014. From

11. [Mike Maciag, “Skyrocketing Court Fines Are Major Revenue Generator for Ferguson,” Governing, August 22, 2014. From

12. [“Executive Summary: Municipal Courts Report.”]

13. [Missouri Vehicle Stops: Annual Report,” Missouri Attorney General, 2013. From

14. [ “Ferguson Sued for Municipal Fines & Jailing Those Who Can’t Pay,” Reuters, February 9, 2015. From

15. [Robert Patrick, “Almost a Year After Ferguson, Missouri Passes Court Reforms,” Tribune News Service, July 13, 2015. From

16. [LIEB, DAVID. 2015. ‘Ferguson Spurs 40 New State Measures; Activists Want More’. The Seattle Times. Retrieved August 5, 2015 (]

17. [As has been revealed by instances of police violence caught on tape, simply having footage does not necessary lead to any form of justice. See here for the ways in which video footage is contested: Stuart, Forrest. 2011. “Constructing Police Abuse after Rodney King: How Skid Row Residents and the LAPD Contest Video Evidence.” Law and Social Inquiry 36 (2): 327-353.]

18. [See here for more on using white supremacy as a frame for understanding the contemporary racial order: Strmic-Pawl, Hephzibah V. “More Than a Knapsack The White Supremacy Flower as a New Model for Teaching Racism.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1.1 (2015): 192-197.]

19. [Department of Defense, Law Enforcement Support Office. 2014. “LESO property transferred to participating agencies.” Retrieved December 10, 2014, from

In Baltimore, What Comes Next? Lessons from the Washington Heights Riots of 1992

By Pedro A. Regalado

WashingtonHeightsRiotsKiko (1)
Tribute to Kiko Garcia in Washington Heights. By Ricky Flores, 1992. From:

On the evening of July 3rd, 1992, a man of color died at the hands of white police. That night, plainclothes officer Michael O’Keefe and two other officers patrolled the lower section of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, located just above Harlem beginning at 155th street. O’Keefe claimed to notice 23-year-old Jose “Kiko” Garcia carrying a weapon.1 After an attempt to surround Garcia failed, O’Keefe pursued him.2 Soon, the other officers received radio cries from their distressed fellow officer. When they arrived at 505 West 162nd street, they found O’Keefe standing over a lifeless body.

This story has become a familiar one. Less than a day after Garcia’s death, Washington Heights erupted. Similar to the events that unfolded in Baltimore in recent weeks, outraged residents looted, desecrated storefronts, and set cars and buildings ablaze. They also marched and protested the police abuse that had too frequently affected residents both young and old. Like West Baltimore, Washington Heights symbolized the grim circumstances that urban communities of color faced then and now. Widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, deteriorating housing, underfunded schools, lack of social services, and high crime rates prevailed. For Washington Heights’ Dominican residents, police brutality, which often involved intimidation and personal invasion practices like frisking, only worsened matters. “You would come outside your apartment and they would frisk you[…]You would be dehumanized on a regular basis,” remembered one resident.3 In recent months, Baltimore’s African American residents have expressed similar sentiments.

As we witness Baltimore’s uprising develop, as rioters and protesters alike struggle to communicate their own disgust, part of our focus should attend not only to the underlying origins of the unrest — gracefully articulated by social critics the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates — but to the larger structural effects of the upheaval locally and nationally. We should focus on the long-term political outcomes of the unrest equally as much as we attend to the immediate outcomes of the riots for Charm City’s African American residents. For among Washington Heights’ many lessons, the dual legacies of urban riots help us to see the possible future of urban policing in Baltimore.

Certainly, these two events and communities contain differences that make their respective uprisings unique. New York in 1992 is far different than Baltimore in 2015. However, a look back at the Washington Heights riots can help to reveal how uprisings function as social and political crossroads. It also elucidates the dangers of allowing right-wing political backlash to overtake the increased visibility of racialized urban poverty and violence.

Not long after the dust settled in Washington Heights, the neighborhood began to experience some of the changes that its residents sought when they rebelled on those warm summer days. In the years following the riots, Washington Heights became home to several new schools, increased representation in city government, new social services, and, perhaps most important, city-wide awareness of a working-class community that had previously been painted and treated as criminal by media and politicians alike. Community leader and councilman Guillermo Linares remembered, “We have gained tremendously from the experience of the disturbances…You can never say that something like this can never happen again…But this community is no longer what it was prior to the disturbances.”4

He continued, “The reason this neighborhood did not go down in flames is because the community was able to respond quickly.”5 Indeed, Dominican unity became the shining legacy of the Washington Heights riots for its community members whose common goal focused on the area’s peace as well as respect for its immigrant residents. However, their achievements, while significant, were limited as the visibility that the uprising created was soon manipulated for political ends entangled in New York City’s mayoral politics.

In September of 1992, two months after fires and rage adorned the hills of upper Manhattan, thousands of off-duty police officers had an uprising of their own. Beginning as a rally at City Hall Park organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, off-duty police officers chanted “Dinkin’s must go!” and “No justice, No Police!” The officers lambasted then-Mayor David Dinkins for his treatment of police during the riots, including his visit to Garcia’s family days after the shooting, and also for his attempt to create an All Civilian Review Board that would investigate instances of police abuse and misconduct. Not unlike in recent months, city police felt threatened and their backlash was difficult to avoid.

Mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani addressing officers at police rally. By John Sotomayor, 1992. From:

In attendance was Republican mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, who had lost the mayorship in a close race with Dinkins in 1989 and would run again in 1993. Giuliani stood high above the crowd during the rally and shouted, “The reason the morale of the New York Police Department is so low is one reason and one reason alone, David Dinkins!”6 In a New York Times op-ed published just a month earlier, Giuliani had criticized Dinkins for his handling of not only the Washington Heights riots but also the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn a year prior. He asserted that Dinkins ceded “to the forces of lawlessness,” he called the rioters “urban terrorists.”7

Much of Giuliani’s campaign relied on chastising Dinkins and appealing to the white ethnic working classes of the city. The NYPD, mostly white, served as an ideal group for the former prosecutor to appeal to. And among others standing on stage with him in the midst of an increasingly fervent rally was police hero and Garcia’s slayer, Michael O’Keefe. 8 As the rally’s intensity grew, thousands of off-duty officers swarmed past barricades at City Hall, trampling cars and blocking traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge. 300 on-duty police officers did little to stop them.9 “The 2 ½-hour PBA demonstration was punctuated with chants of ‘Rudy! Rudy!’” noted one news report.

On November 3rd, 1993 — partly riding on the fear that he fostered among the city’s white residents concerning both the Washington Heights and Crown Heights riots — Rudy Giuliani became the mayor of New York City and would serve as such into the 21st century. Despite losing Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, Giuliani swept white ethnic strongholds in Staten Island and Queens, winning the mayorship by less than two percent. Addressing his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel just moments after his 1993 victory, Giuliani stated, “You know, nobody, no ethnic, religious or racial group will escape my care, my concern, and my attention.” Through policing, the new mayor would make this certain.

Soon after taking office, the Giuliani appointed William Bratton as the city’s 38th Police Commissioner. With the mayor’s backing, Bratton introduced Broken Windows policing in New York City. He also pioneered the use of CompStat, a police management tool rooted in statistics that sought to reduce the city’s severe crime rate. In tandem with Broken Windows, CompStat made police officers more accountable to statistical objectives that served political agendas than to the poor communities that they were intended to serve. Together, they also placed considerable pressure on police officers to make arrests, which helped to increase cases of police abuse, summons, and stop and frisks throughout the city. While crime in New York dropped steadily and rents continued to increase in the years following Washington Heights’ uprising, New York’s poor residents benefited little from reduced crime. Instead, they faced displacement to more impoverished and dangerous areas of the city.

As the 1990’s continued, both Broken Windows and CompStat’s negative implementations circulated throughout other major cities in the U.S. with similar socio-political landscapes and similar politicians facing high crime rates. Baltimore was no exception. In 1999, the city adopted CitiStat, modeled closely after Compstat. And in 2007, current Maryland governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, who instituted CitiStat as mayor, re-branded it as Maryland StateStat, widening the program’s scale.

As we reflect on Baltimore’s current tense situation, we must be reminded that while the uprising presents new possibilities for organizing and solidarity that may lead to local success, it also provides the opportunity for police and political backlash that threaten to take advantage of increased awareness of African American plight in Baltimore. Recent headlines include “Baltimore Proves the Need for ‘Broken Windows’ policing” in the New York Post and “The Underpolicing of Black America” in the The Wall Street Journal. The dual legacy of the Washington Heights riots of 1992, should remind us of the larger stakes of urban governance for Baltimore and, indeed, the nation. We are at a new crossroads; the future is unclear. And as the dust settles in the streets of West Baltimore, we must turn away from the type of policing and politics that leave underprivileged residents further estranged and our cities in ruins.

From: A member of the Nation of Islam attempting to keep peace between protesters and riot police raises his hands amid clouds of smoke and gas used by riot police to disperse crowds. Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015. Reuters/Adrees Latif
Protester surrounded by smoke and gas in Baltimore. By Adrees Latif, 2015. From:

1. [Dennis Hevesi, “Upper Manhattan Block Erupts After a Man is Killed in Struggle with a Policeman,” The New York Times, July 5th, 2014.]

2. [Ibid.]

3. [Interview with Led Black, New York, NY, March 2014.]

4. [Miguel Garcilazo, “A Positive Legacy: Dominican Unity”, The Daily News, Sunday July 4, 1993]

5. [Ibid.]

6. [Ibid.]

7. [Rudolph W. Giuliani, Rumor and Justice in Washington Heights,” The New York Times, August 7, 1992.]

8. [Ibid.]

9. [ James C. McKinley Jr, “Officer’s Rally and Dinkins is Their Target,” The New York Times, September 17, 1992.]