Crack fizzles in New York, spurned by youths

Only 4% of those arrested in the 15-to-20 age group in 1998 had used drug

September 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- On a day when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani went to Brooklyn to tout the renewal of the Bushwick neighborhood, once considered one of the most notorious drug bazaars in the country, Pipo Rios opened a 40-ounce malt liquor and contemplated his business not far from where the mayor spoke.

Rios once sold crack in the neighborhood, but street-level drug dealers are hard-pressed to make a living these days, he said. So now he deals in Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs. "I can make more money selling these," he said, pointing to a stack of the jackets inside his cramped kitchen, "especially on Friday nights."

Rios, 36, said he no longer uses crack, either. But it was not the many times he was arrested, nor the year he spent in prison, that changed his attitude. He simply grew tired of the drug, he said.

Still, the plum-colored marks on his arms are the trademark of another drug that he does use -- heroin. That, plus tobacco and alcohol.

"I've got to quit these cigarettes," he said, shaking his head in a cloud of smoke.

It is unlikely that Rios will ever get invited to City Hall. But the change in his life is the story of the decline of crack in New York -- done in by age, boredom and new opportunities.

Today, in communities that used to have more open-air crack markets than grocery stores, where children grew up dodging crack vials and gunfire, the change from a decade ago is startling.

National surveys of the general population show the same falling-off in crack use among the young. And among all age and race groups, the most startling decline has been among black youths -- the stereotype for urban drug user.

On the surface, crack has all but disappeared from much of New York, taking with it the ragged and violent vignettes that were a routine part of street life.

For example, a little triangle of land near Bushwick, where crack dealers used to stage midnight fights with their pit bulls, is now a community garden. It was a great year for tomatoes.

Over the past 10 years, the New York police made nearly 900,000 drug arrests -- more than any other city in the world.

Almost a third of the arrests were for using and selling crack. But a broader look at the arc of the crack years suggests that it was not the incarceration of a generation, or the sixfold increase in the number of police officers assigned to narcotics, that turned the tide in New York, once dubbed the crack capital of the world.

Nearly every major American city troubled by the drug has matched New York's rise and decline in crack use -- regardless of how law enforcement responded.

Drug-use surveys, arrest statistics and the personal narratives of scores of users, dealers and street-level narcotics officers point to the same pattern: The crack epidemic behaved much like a fever. It came on strong, appearing to rise without hesitation, and then broke, just as the most dire warnings were being sounded.

In New York, the use of crack stopped growing as its addicts became known as the biggest losers on the street. At the same time, the violent drug markets settled down, as dealers and users fell into retail routines. Perhaps most telling, a generational revulsion against the drug developed.

"If you were raised in a house where somebody was a crack addict, you wanted to get as far away from that drug as you could," said Selena Jones, a Harlem resident whose mother was a chronic user. "People look down on them so much that even crack heads don't want to be crack heads anymore."

The police consider the transformation of parts of Harlem, Washington Heights and Brooklyn something of a miracle, emblematic of New York's determination to beat back the drug tide that many people thought would overwhelm it.

"I'm not ready to say we won," Police Commissioner Howard Safir said recently. "But we're no longer the crack capital of the world." He attributed the change to a policy of zero tolerance for the open sale or use of drugs.

"You can spray them once, but they come back," Safir said, comparing drug dealers to cockroaches. "You have to keep going after them. We had to take this city back block by block."

In Washington, however, drug arrest rates declined in some of the peak crack years -- and the city still recorded a steeper drop than New York in the percentage of its young residents using cocaine from 1990 to the present.

"This happened over a period of time when Washington had fewer officers on the street, the police made fewer arrests for drugs, and the mayor himself was indicted for smoking crack," said Bruce Johnson, a New York social scientist who has conducted extensive nationwide surveys of crack use for the National Institute for Justice.

"Something clearly happened to change the attitude among youths," Johnson said. "They deserve a lot of the credit."

The drug that was held up as the scourge of New York is still around, of course, and so are its consequences -- broken families, scarred neighborhoods and crime.

The cheap, smokable form of cocaine gives its users a quick high and often leaves them wanting more. But a clear trend has developed that few public officials predicted: Crack has become a drug used primarily by older people.

Embraced by one generation, crack was spurned by the next. The level of crack use has remained steady for more than a decade.

According to an annual survey of drug use among people who are arrested, 35.7 percent of all males older than 36 who were arrested in New York last year had used crack recently, but barely 4 percent of those ages 15 to 20 had used it.

In a new drug cycle, alcohol, marijuana and even heroin, which is cheaper and more plentiful than ever, have taken hold.

Among many young people in New York, the rage is a "40 and a blunt" -- a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor and a hollowed-out cigar packed with marijuana.

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