T.J. English, author of such non-fiction bestsellers as Paddy-Whacked, Havana Nocturne, and the modern crime classic The Westies, has a new book that takes a deep look at a controversial murder case and its impacts on race relations in New York City during the 60s and early 70s. The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge weaves a taught and gripping narrative through the stories of George Whitmore, a black youth falsely accused of the horrific Career Girl murders; Bill Phillips, a corrupt cop who eventually testifies about the rampant corruption in the NYPD; and, Dhoruba bin Wahad, a controversial Black Panther member. English’s in-depth research and clear writing really bring the gritty feel of that era in New York City to life, and the changing social undercurrents that pervade the story.
I interviewed T.J. English about The Savage City, his working processes, and feedback on the book.
How did the idea come about?
A fellow writer turned me on to the story of the murders of Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie in August of 1963. Amazingly, I was not aware of the case. And it was a big deal, especially back in the day, but it has become a forgotten chapter of New York City crime history.
So I began to explore the case, which was an incredible story. I originally intended to do a book just on that case. Along the way I started asking what else going on in city in terms of racial conditions at the time, and as the case progressed. And the answer to that was that all hell broke loose in terms of racial strife. So the book expanded outside the scope of just the case to incorporate all the social changes that were happening at the same time.
Was there any hesitation in speaking with you, on the part of people involved in the events in your book?
During the research I came across every conceivable response. I found the most resistance from law enforcement, especially retired cops. Most NYPD officers that were active during that time feel they were misrepresented, largely because of the Knapp commission hearings.
On the other side of the coin, the people I interviewed who were active in the black liberation movement were very anxious to talk because they also felt their history was skewed, and neglected.
What was the most difficult part of your research/the process of writing this book?
The most difficult thing was finding key primary sources, not knowing if they would talk to me or not. Finding Bill Whitmore was a big challenge.
Have you received any flak for the book?
No. Generally speaking, the response has been positive. The book has been accepted in spirit of what it was written. Sure, in this age of the internet, there has been some ranting and venting. When you are dealing with controversial subject matter, you are bound to get responses from across the spectrum.
Do the ripples of the Whitmore case impact the NYPD or race relations in the City today?
The NYPD has come a long way. But there are still remnants of the institutional racism in the criminal justice system. The Whitmore case was not just a case of a kid who was railroaded by some cops, but here was a guy who was put through a long, slow process of torture by the criminal justice system in general. There’s still evidence of that.
Finally, the New York City in your book is a gritty, decaying urban environment. Things have changed dramatically over the ensuing decades.
I think this has a lot to do with gentrification. I don’t know how any working class person can afford to live in Manhattan nowadays!