Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture


‘The most striking deficiencies in social responsibility in cities occur in crisis situations, such as the Genovese murder in Queens.'   
                                                                                      S. Milgram, 'The experience of living in cities'

This article interrogates how films around the infamous 1964 Catherine Genovese rape and murder define the case as a problem of bystander non-intervention exacerbated by urban living conditions. I ask how the moving image culture around the Genovese case tells a story about male violence against women in the city through the perspective of urban apartment dwellers as bystander witnesses to both the city and to the social relations of stranger sociability that define urban sociality. Films centred around the case depict Genovese’s killing (or fictional analogues to it) as an outcome of failed witnessing, explicating those failures around changing ideas about social relations in the city from the 1960s to the present. By portraying urban bystanders as, primarily, non-interventionist spectators of the Genovese rape and murder, films locate the conditions of femicide and responsibility for it in the detached modes of stranger sociability in the city. Some of the witnesses appear apathetic. Some live by a code of 'not getting involved' while others fear more specifically that their undocumented status may be revealed and lead to their deportation. In an indictment of police inaction, some films depict witnesses calling the police to report what they saw, only to be ignored. Others dismiss the violence as a 'lover’s quarrel', highlighting the ways in which male violence against women has been excused in the process of relegating it to the private sphere, echoing statements made by neighbours interviewed in 1964 press reports after the murder. If urban witnesses fail to act when they spectate male violence against women on the sidewalk outside of their apartments, many films suggest that their inaction is due in part to the ways the city and its representatives constrain and impede their individual and collective abilities to act against violence.

While films constitute my objects of study, the article is not a study of how films have historically portrayed witnessing in the city. Instead, I analyse how filmmaking helped construct and dramatize the case status of the Genovese rape and murder as evidence for the supposedly universal phenomenon of apathy in urban life. This article is a study of film’s historic role in crafting a story about urban life in different times and places through Catherine Genovese’s femicide. Films serve as forms of historic documentation and imagination, as artifacts of historically and contextually different ways of telling and revising the story of the Genovese murder as one of bystander non-intervention in gender violence in the city. In representing, re-enacting and referencing the murder of Kitty Genovese, the set of films I examine frame the story into a much broader case construction of how to think about, and judge, violence in the city through the particular lens of proximate social relations among strangers. In telling stories about the city, most films erase the realities of race, gender and sexuality that defined the violence at the heart of the Genovese case. Like so much early reporting on the rape and murder, many films obscured Genovese’s lesbianism and obfuscated the sexual and inter-racial nature of the violence. When films address the sexual violence of the Genovese murder, they do so in ways that stage the violence as fear-inspiring spectacle, often supporting but sometimes challenging the dominant New York Times narrative of Genovese’s killing and its cultural resonances over the past 50 years.

The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese is one of the most well-known US crime stories of the twentieth century. Martin Gansberg’s 27 March 1964 front page New York Times story '37 who saw murder didn’t call the police: Apathy at stabbing of Queens woman shocks inspector' set the dominant narrative of the murder as one of failed witnessing, guided by the strong editorial hand of Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s city editor. At 3:20 am on 13 March 1964 in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of Queens, NY, Catherine 'Kitty' Genovese, a 28-year old Italian-American and lesbian woman was assaulted by knife on two separate occasions, raped and then killed by Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old African-American homeowner and family man, who is currently serving out a life sentence at Clinton Correctional facility in New York. The story of the murder is famous as a case in which 37 out of 38 neighbours were said to have witnessed the assault, like spectators at the theatre or TV audiences glued to their TV sets, and did not call the police. One neighbour Karl Ross did call the police after Moseley’s second assault on Genovese. The son Michael of witness Samuel Koffman signed an affidavit in 2003 recounting how his father also called the police just after Moseley’s first assault on Genovese, to which the police reportedly did not respond. If they had responded after that first assault when Koffman phoned, Genovese may have lived.

In setting the dominant narrative of the murder as one of failed witnesses to the killing, Gansberg's New York Times story and others exscripted the sexual violence Moseley committed against Genovese. Charles Mohr’s 28 March 1964 story echoed the framing of Gansberg’s around failed witnesses to the killing by focusing on the expertise of behavioural scientists who speculated on the psychology of the witnesses while Rosenthal’s Sunday magazine essay 'A study of the sickness called public apathy' riffed on the theme of apathy as a specific response to the conditions of mid-1960s urban America, becoming the basis for his 1964 book Thirty-Eight Witnesses. To Rosenthal, 'Very few stories transfer immediately their essential meaning from the victim or participant to the reader; this one did.' In light of Rosenthal’s homophobia and his refusals to cover lesbian and gay issues and lives over his career, it may be no surprise that Gansberg's story suppressed details of her sexuality and her relationship status with Mary Ann Zielonko, her girlfriend. Journalist Charles Kaiser described working under Rosenthal’s editorship as an effort to 'figure out how to cater to his prejudices', including his homophobia.

Unlike news coverage of missing and murdered white identified women today, the account of Genovese’s killing did not depict her life nor did it explain her death as a victim of femicide. As historian Marcia Gallo speculates, 'An accurate depiction of Genovese and the female lover who mourned her likely would have shifted the focus of media attention to her sexuality and torpedoed the Times’ emphasis on urban apathy'. In recent years, more details of her life have become available through her former girlfriend. In 2004, Zielonko made a moving National Public Radio tribute to her memory of Genovese after 40 years of coerced silence and invisibility.
Kitty was the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. I still remember her face. I can see it my mind: very Italian looking, very chiseled features, dark hair, like only about five feet tall. And very likeable person, very vibrant, where I’m very quiet, so we were complementary…Being a gay woman in that society was very hard, so we were in the closet a lot. In fact, her family didn’t know. I mean, they know now, but there was denial there. It was very hard then. (soundportraits.org)

Against press reports and numerous other cultural accounts that overwhelmingly emphasized 'the manner of her dying', Zielonko’s tribute to Genovese finally depicted her as a once-living, once-loved lesbian woman. Her tribute became the subject of New York performance artist Lulu Lolo’s one-woman show 38 Witnessed her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko (Kitty Genovese Story) that was first performed at the 2009 New York City Fringe Festival. Kevin Cook’s 2014 book Kitty Genovese is also based on interviews he conducted with Zielonko about their life together, one of the few books to focus extensively on this significant part of the story. In spite of these efforts to represent Genovese’s life, her name and face still primarily reference an anti-urban psychology of bystander nonintervention that has little to do with who Kitty Genovese was before she was killed. 'Apathy', one reporter declared 25 years later, 'had taken on a human face and that face belonged to Kitty'. To this day, the case bearing Genovese's name is a curricular staple in psychology classrooms across the English-speaking world, and circulates in such popular texts as Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point  and the 1986 graphic novel Watchmen.

Constructing the bystander in the city

In the place of the victim and the perpetrator, the story of the Genovese murder became one of the exterior place of crime and the imagined interior psychology of its white middle-class urban residents. The representation of the Genovese murder as a problem of bystander non-intervention identified a type of person and practice on which the turmoil of social change in the 1960s could be focused: the bystander who witnesses, but does not intervene. 'Social change', as Ian Hacking argues, 'creates new kinds of people', and the bystander emerged in the 1960s as particular target of derision around the Genovese case and public discourse of the Holocaust. The Gansberg story and subsequent accounts of the Genovese murder shifted the focus from the perpetrator and victim of the crime to those seemingly spectral subjects - urban apartment dwellers - who were declared to bear partial responsibility for the crime as the bystanding witnesses to it. So while bystanding defined the problem the Genovese case represented in the press, films dramatized the position of the bystander as someone who witnessed the city from inside his or her apartment.

In the US context of 1964, the Kitty Genovese murder case provided a politically expedient and compelling allegory about social apathy, white crime fear and what social psychologists would come to term the diffusion of responsibility in the midst of growing federal panic about black civil dissidence and urban rebellion. The Genovese murder crystallized a number of social issues and targets of social unrest into one explanatory framework centred on white-identified fearing subjects who paid witness to the city at a proximate distance from the city street and sidewalk. On the 50th anniversary of the murder and its New York Times coverage, Nicolas Lemann noted that the Genovese story:
…was a way of processing anxieties about the anonymity of urban life, about the breakdown of the restrictive but reassuring social conventions of the fifties, and, less directly, about racial unrest, the Kennedy assassination, and even the Holocaust, which was only beginning to be widely discussed, and which seemed to represent on a grand scale the phenomenon that one expert on the Genovese case calls Bad Samaritanism.

In this context, from the perspective of criminology, the Genovese murder represented a signal crime, a story that 'index[es]…the state of society and social order'. The work of representation around the Genovese murder thus assembled an understanding of bystanding as a problem of civic indifference specific to urban spaces, racialized constructions of the US crime problem, moral panics about black male sexual violence against white women on which the history of the US crime war is based, portrayed in covert language about fear of strangers and 'urban overload'. As I have argued elsewhere, 'The neighbourhood where the murder occurred became synechdochic for an image of the whole city, and US urban life more generally speaking, as besieged by racialized street criminals. The ‘crime’ the news covered around the Genovese assault was not murder but the fearing and fearful White urban populace that became apathetic in the face of danger it perceived in the streets'.

In 1964, social psychologists Stanley Milgram and Paul Hollander declared in a Nation article that 'the Kew Gardens incident' had 'become the occasion for a general attack on the city', an attack they argued ought instead to be understood in terms of urban dwellers’ needs to disengage from the rush of urban life and develop a detached view of others in order to thrive better in the context of city living. For Milgram, urban indifference represented a reasonable response to unreasonable urban conditions of over-crowding. Talk of the failed witnesses offered evidence for Jane Jacobs’ visionary 1961 thesis on the street level encounters that socially bind neighbourhood residents to each other based on street-level encounters. It also confirmed one of Jacobs’s exceptions to her thesis on community surveillance: early morning conditions (Genovese was assaulted in the early morning hours of 13 March 1964). Public peace in the city, Jacobs suggested, rested not on the police but on the 'intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves'. 'To keep the city safe', she argued, was 'the fundamental task of a city’s streets and its sidewalks', and the 'lowly, unpurposeful and random … contacts' fostered between strangers there. Jacobs based her thesis on neighbourly surveillance in the daily face-to-face encounters between strangers on sidewalks. A safe street was one in which neighbourhood residents could lay 'eyes on the streetas a routine practice of surveillance, an active relation of street-level witnessing in the city.

Unlike the energetic street life encounters Jacobs’ theorized as key to urban safety, films on the Genovese murder often represented the cityscape as largely de-peopled, poorly lit interfaces between routes of transit, sites of industrial production and lower middle-class urban high-rise apartment living in which people’s encounters with each other on the sidewalk are coded as risky. While the Genovese murder was primarily witnessed from the vantage point of low-rise apartments that would ostensibly enable some of the forms of surveillance Jacobs called for, films and other media portrayals cast the urban spectators of the Genovese sexual assault and murder at a great distance from the street, inside high-rise apartments out of the proximate range for the modes of neighbourly sociability Jacobs documented. Nighttime conditions also meant the streets were largely empty, representing conditions of danger and not safety in films about the Genovese case.

Challenges to the story of the 38 witnesses

The 38 witnesses are something of a spectral subject. In Ian Hacking’s terms, early news coverage of the 38 witnesses were 'made-up' by newsmen, psychological researchers, filmmakers, TV producers and other cultural intermediaries that cast actors into character roles that came to stand in for the 38 witnesses in the city. Because of an editorial decision by the New York Times not to use the names of the neighbourhood witnesses to the Genovese that were interviewed for Gansberg’s 1964 article breaking the story of the witnesses to the murder, all witnesses save for those who testified at Moseley’s trial remain unknown to the public. The number of reported witnesses resulted from a police canvas of 38 residents after the Genovese murder, where the police learned that several neighbours heard or saw parts of the assault. Only nine of the witnesses have been fully identified: the seven who testified at Winston Moseley’s murder trial and another two people from the neighbourhood. Additionally, two residents (Ross and Koffman) did call the police, and one young female neighbour, Sophie Farrar, offered Genovese aid as she lay dying.

The construction of the bystander problem around the Genovese case rests on a powerful fiction of the 38 witnesses to the murder that has been challenged in recent years. Several authors challenge the dominant construction of the murder as a story of 38 failed bystanders, suggesting instead that there were either far fewer than 38 possible witnesses or substantially more, thereby calling into question the exact scale of witnessing on which the case is based. Published on the 50th anniversary of the murder case, Kevin Cook and Catherine Pelonero’s books question the veracity of the story of the 38 witnesses based on interviews they conducted with some witnesses and survivors (including Mary Ann Zielonko, Genovese’s brother Bill and some of her childhood friends). Both Cook's and Pelonero’s books critique the dominant construction of the story about the 38 witnesses to the Genovese murder, building on earlier challenges to the veracity of the story, most directly from Joseph DeMay, a local Kew Gardens neighbourhood booster, maritime lawyer and amateur historian whose research on the Genovese case has inspired others to challenge the dominant story of the witnesses. As a result, there has been a shift in what is taken to be the truth of the story of the witnesses to the Genovese rape and murder, even if there is no agreement on who witnessed it and how. This article is informed by recent challenges to the dominant story of the Genovese murder in order to understand how and why the case still gets narrated as a failure of witnesses to call the police while a neighbour was being sexually assaulted and murdered.

Analyzing the filmic archive on the Genovese case

This article examines a group of films and videos that constitute a moving image archive of the 1964 Kitty Genovese rape and murder and how its narrative of failed witnesses in the city exscript the realities of race, gender and sexuality that define the case and its historical construction. While many filmic representations of the Genovese murder tend not to question the dominant narrative of the 38 witnesses, they pose different explanations for it in ways that make more and less visible the larger racialized and gendered realities of the case and responses to it from the 1960s to the present. Most films focus on the configurations of stranger sociability in the city to interpret the Genovese case, referencing New York as both a particular urban location of stranger social relations as well as one that can stand in as 'the city'. Other cities come to take the place of New York as 'any' city. In the 1980 student film Groping Sydney, Australia also comes to stand in as any city, appearing as a denuded cement spatial interface between city sidewalks, streets, freeways and high rise buildings. In the 2012 French film 38 Témoins, the shipping port of Havre, France stands in as proxy for small-scale cities, where the city street corner comes to occupy the central stage of action and reaction around a woman’s murder.

Between 1964 and 1980, films about the Genovese murder increasingly came to represent the sexual violence that structured the Genovese murder and the ways it is retold. Some films portray men’s sexual violence against women as an event that happens in the street, between strangers and in public view of spectating apartment dwellers, rather than in the more common structures of intimate partner violence that occurs in private residential spaces. In films based on the Genovese case or which reference it, sexual violence appears as if on an urban stage, located on the sidewalks of major urban centres, lit by street lights during the night and made visible from both the apartment window and the virtual windows of the film and televisual screen. 

Across a range of genres that centre on the crime’s location on a city sidewalk just outside of a multistorey apartment building in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of Queens, NY, films gave audio-visual form to the apartment interiors and urban street exteriors of bystander-based witnessing that constitute the gendered meaning, and look, of this historical case, the work of case-making that surrounds it and the imagination of the city as a space of sexual violence enabled by apathetic witnesses that was produced in its wake. In the films analysed here, non-interventionist witnesses to sexual violence are implicated in men’s predation of violence against women. Like other films that dramatize gendered social relations of violence through the ways of seeing the city from apartment interiors (of which Hitchcock's Rear Window is but one), films that target the position of the bystander to Genovese’s rape and murder and fictional cases modelled on it dramatize a mid-century concern with social anomie and apathetic social relations at a time when the social sciences were seen as a potential bulwark against detachments, as a potentially democratizing force for returning the power of reasoned selfhood to the largely anonymous mass subjects of urban living. Films cast the act of bystander spectatorship of male violence against women through a particular judgement upon the apparent apathy and fear that results from high-rise urban living. Filmic depictions of apartment dwellers’ detached and atomized experiences of city living focused on the high-rise apartment as a particular space of urban anxiety and collective apathy dramatized around characters' inaction as bystanders to femicide.

In Jane Jacobs’ vision of the collectively surveilled city street, the upper floor high-rise apartment dweller could not readily participate in the forms of stranger sociability that closer proximity to the street enabled from the windows and front steps of low-rise buildings. 'Looking down from our windows', Stanley Milgram warned, we see people as little more than 'abstracted points in motion'. Such 'verticality', he argued, 'visually segments our experience into noncommunicating strata of urban life'. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s interactionist sociology, anthropologist Edward Hall’s study of proxemics also focused on 'the distance between men in the conduct of daily transactions, the organization of space…and the layout of his towns' to examine the forms of alienation and lack of involvement American city dwellers seemingly communicated in their behaviour to strangers in proximity. These theorists suggested that the problem lay in the scale of urban living and the particularities of vertical proximity and distance from one’s neighbours and the outside world on the streets below one’s apartment windows.

Alongside these social scientific diagnoses of proximate social indifference to others in the city, films portrayed the city as an elusive psychological phenomenon that could be audio-visually witnessed on screen. Filmic portrayals of the 1964 Genovese case and its fictional analogues challenged the idea that the city could be easily interpreted for potential risks by locating a site of unacknowledged danger - complicit neighbours - in urban high-rise apartments. The 1964 TV documentary Death Scream, Alex Proyas and Salik Silverstein’s 1980 student film Groping shot in Sydney, Australia, and Lucas Belvaux’s 2012 French film 38 Témoins (38 Witnesses) remake, re-enact and re-present the Genovese murder by casting not only apartment dwellers but also the cities and urban residences in which they live into key character roles implicated in the forms of social violence the Kitty Genovese case epitomized. If, as Pamela Wojcik argues, 'the apartment functions like a microcosm of the city', films that represent the Genovese murder depict apartment dwellers as subjects who repeatedly fail to act collectively on behalf of their neighbours. In the 1960s and 1970s, New York was less and less represented as the fun, cosmopolitan playground that 1940s and 1950s films on the city depicted. The apartment and city street 'function less as the setting and more as a narrative device' for the crime’s representation and re-enactment in films that represent the Genovese murder. While films place the crime of Genovese’s sexual assault and murder in the city street, they locate apartment-dwelling urban bystanders as accomplices to the perpetrator, portraying the high-rise apartment building as a psychologized space of urban fear and apathy. In this way, 'the apartment not only hosts but motivates action; it entails certain sets of relationships; it involves formal and thematic elements; it conveys ideologies of urbanism'.

For readers following the path of the article as I have written it, the next section examines how I approach film as witness and the role re-enactment plays in filmic witness to the Genovese case, and more broadly in terms of reading gendered social relations of seeing in the city.

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