Friday, June 10, 2016

The Witness

The Witness
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
I either hang out or pass through Kew Gardens a fair amount, mainly because of the movie theater. The neighborhood has become quite familiar to me. In my mind, it's difficult, bordering on impossible, to imagine something like this, an event the whole world knows about by now, taking place on a street I've walked up and down countless times. If you go to Austin Street now, there's no indication of what occurred that night, not that any should be expected. Other than the Long Island Railroad trains passing through every so often, it's a quiet community - not as diverse as Jackson Heights or as gentrified as Long Island City, but it's okay.

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.

Winston Moseley, Kitty's killer

There's a scene late in the movie where we see an actress, on Austin Street late at night, re-create Kitty's last moments, with Bill watching. When asked why he arranged to have that done, he cited his experience in Vietnam as an impetus. His fellow soldiers were there to save him when he got his legs blown off, but no one was there for his sister when she died. The reenactment was a kind of catharsis, to let Kitty's spirit know he is there for her. I suppose we all have our own ways of dealing with grief.


  1. A tragic story historically, but it also raises so many questions about what we can and should accept in the way of journalism. Troubling.

  2. Yeah, the messed up part is that because the Times was, y'know, THE NEW YORK TIMES, no one was willing to challenge the story's veracity at the time. That didn't happen until much later.

  3. The New York Times once illustrated an article about Jack Kirby with Rob Liefeld art, so I lost confidence in their accuracy a long time ago.

  4. That's just insulting. If ever any two artists were more different...


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