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Lessons Learned from a Drug Scourge

New York Newsday By Sheryl McCarthy


When Richard Curtis was living on 119th Street at Fifth Avenue in 1987, life in the East Harlem neighborhood could be described in just a few words.

“It was Crack Central,” he says.

The cheap new form of cocaine that had invaded the neighborhood gave users a powerful rush and created hundreds of instant addicts. “On the side streets, every other basement apartment was a crack spot,” Curtis recalls. “Everybody was smoking it. The thing that was significant about that period was that smoking crack and selling crack was out in public. Everybody saw it and nobody made an attempt to disguise what they were doing.”

The abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the neighborhood supported what came to be known as the crack epidemic, providing havens where crackheads smoked the drug. They would do almost anything to get it: mug and burglarize, steal from their own family members, rip off cars in broad daylight, sell their bodies, even risk going to jail and losing custody of their children. And because crack was so cheap – as little as $3 per vial – it quickly became a young people’s drug, ruining the lives of many who were in their late teens and 20s.

Keith Haring’s mural captured the craziness of those years, but ironically, his “Crack Is Wack” message also described the cultural shift that ultimately brought the epidemic to an end. A concerted crackdown on the drug trade by the police department also helped, as did efforts by the Dinkins administration to seal abandoned buildings and fence off vacant lots.

But more than anything else, it was young people’s revulsion over what crack was doing to their older siblings and parents, the total lack of control that crack addiction embodied, that eventually made the drug taboo among the younger set.

By the late ’80s, crack use started to trail off, and, according to the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, the percentage of drug abusers admitted for treatment in New York City who were using crack fell from 17 percent in 1992 to 9 percent in 2005.

Curtis, an urban ethnographer who chairs the anthropology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, has conducted numerous studies of drug use patterns in New York and other cities. Even the crack dealers caught on that they couldn’t make money if they got addicted, he said, so they ordered their employees to sell it, but not to smoke it.

These days one rarely sees the crack vials that used to pepper the sidewalks in certain lower-income neighborhoods. In East Harlem many of the old buildings near Curtis’ former apartment building have been replaced by new construction, North General Hospital has expanded, new housing for senior citizens and people with moderate incomes has sprouted up, and while crackheads used to line the sidewalk on East 126th Street day and night, last week not a single obvious addict could be seen.

Professor Curtis and staffers at Odyssey House, the large drug treatment facility on East 121st Street, say crack is still around, but that it’s been contained and driven underground. In fact, the only growth area in the crack business in the last five years, Curtis says, has been among senior citizens, particularly men in their 60s and 70s. Curtis thinks these are men who are living on fixed incomes and are bored, and one way for them to seduce young prostitutes who are addicted to crack is to buy the drug and use it with them.

Last week a group of long-time crack addicts ranging from 28 to 65 and currently in treatment at Odyssey House agreed that nowadays crack is primarily used by older drug abusers.

“It you want to go anywhere, if there’s anything you care about, and you use crack, you’re not going anywhere,” says Christopher Johnson, 65, a longtime user of crack, cocaine and heroin.

On a muggy afternoon last week, the only two people in the playground where Haring’s mural still shouts out its message were a young salesman from the Saturn dealership across the street and Michael Kelly, 38, a homeless man who says he stopped smoking crack 10 years ago because it kept him from thinking clearly.

The drug epidemic that once laid this neighborhood low has since subsided. But the mural is a reminder that it ended when people came to their senses about just how destructive crack was, and of how much wiser young people are today than they were 20 years ago.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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