seen @ IFC Center, New York NY
I don't consider Kew Gardens "my" neighborhood, but it's one of the parts of Queens I like most, and within which I feel comfortable. A big reason why is the presence of the Kew Gardens Cinemas, which I've written about here lots of times, but there are other reasons: places to eat, parks, the nice houses. Yet for over half a century, this neighborhood has had to live with the memory of not only a brutal murder committed there, but a reputation for apathy that may not be entirely earned.
I learned about the murder of Kitty Genovese through pop culture. There's a chapter in the famous graphic novel Watchmen which goes into the origin of the sociopathic antihero Rorschach. One of the reasons he provides for becoming a masked vigilante was shame over her story: as reported in 1964 by the New York Times, Genovese was attacked, raped and killed outside her Kew Gardens apartment late at night. 38 people allegedly saw or heard what was going on, but did nothing to prevent it happening. Within the context of the fictional superhero tale, I didn't recognize this as a piece of real-life history when I first read the book, and I was too young to even know about it.
Over time, I learned it was all too real, but it wasn't until recently that I was able to process it as something that happened in a part of town I knew. In the 2014 book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella, a chapter is devoted to the slaying, which took place as Queens was preparing to put on a World's Fair that would put it in the international spotlight. Queens was put in a spotlight, all right, but not the kind it expected:
...Citizens, clergy, politicians, journalists and psychiatrists offered numerous opinions in an attempt to explain the horrible crime, and the larger issues it invoked. President (Lyndon) Johnson mentioned it on a radio address, as the murder of Genovese quickly became a symbol of all that was wrong with America's cities. The silence of those thirty-eight witnesses would be debated for decades to come; sociologists even gave a name to this new disease that was infecting urban America: Genovese syndrome.Now comes a new documentary, The Witness, which looks at the murder through the prism of the surviving Genovese family members, specifically Kitty's younger brother Bill, who is the film's narrative center. Driven by a need to understand what really happened that night in 1964, when he was a teenager, we follow him as he examines old police records, visits the Kew Gardens street where it happened, as well as Kitty's old apartment, and talks to many people associated with Kitty and her death, including other siblings, police, lawyers, journalists, co-workers, her former roommate, the son of the killer, and most of all, Kitty's former neighbors, who may or may not have been among the infamous 38. We learn that the story of the 38 might have been an exaggeration, certain aspects of the story went unreported, and the story itself went unchallenged at the time.
|Bill Genovese, Kitty's brother|
The Witness showed footage of Kew Gardens from the time of the murder, and I was amazed to not only see the neighborhood as it was over fifty years ago, but to see Kitty Genovese within it. The portrait the film paints of her is of a cute, lively, fun-loving young woman who was a cut-up around her friends and a confidant to her little brother Bill. I can easily imagine her as a friend.