West Side Story: The Murder That Shocked New York Fifty years ago Monday, Puerto Rican and black gang members in New York City fatally stabbed Michael Farmer, a white teenager. Farmer's killing highlighted the rising problem of gang violence, as well as the city's changing racial demographics.

West Side Story: The Murder That Shocked New York

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The musical "West Side Story" opened on Broadway in the fall of 1957, a story of romance and rivalry between white and Puerto Rican gangs in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Originally, the musical was to be called "East Side Story," and the conflict was between Catholics and Jews. The story was changed to reflect new ethnic tensions brewing in New York's neighborhoods. And the new storyline was prophetic.

A month before the musical opened, New Yorkers were stunned by the brutal murder of a white teenager from Washington Heights. Michael Farmer's death, 50 years ago today, marked a turning point for the city. Producer Joe Richmond of "Radio Diaries" brings us this audio history.

(Soundbite of song "Jet Song")

Mr. RUSS TAMBLYN (Actor): (As Riff) (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dyin' day...

Dr. LEWIS YABLONSKY (Department of Sociology, San Fernando Valley State College): "West Side Story" was, to me and people who are really working with gangs, kind of a joke. It had nothing to do with the gangs that I saw. First of all, these kids couldn't dance.

(Soundbite of song "Jet song")

Dr. YABLONSKY: My name is Dr. Lewis Yablonsky. In the 1950s, I was working with gangs in New York when the Michael Farmer murder occurred.

Mr. RAYMOND FARMER (Brother of Michael Farmer): My name is Raymond Farmer and I'm the younger brother of Michael Farmer. When Michael was killed, he was 15 and I was 13. Even though it's 50 years later, memories come back that you think you'd put behind you and forgot about.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man #1: Commissioner Kennedy, do you believe that juvenile crime is worsening here in the city of New York?

Mr. STEPHEN KENNEDY (New York City Police Commissioner): Well, in addition to the statistics, it's my personal opinion that the viciousness of the crimes, as you put it, is worsening.

Dr. YABLONSKY: In the summer of 1957, we had 11 murders carried out by around a dozen gangs in the area on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and we could see that a crime of epic proportions was building.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. EDWARD MURROW (Journalist; Host, "See It Now"): This is Ed Murrow. Boys, troubled and adrift in a community, formed the gang that killed Michael Farmer. They exist in most of our large cities...

Dr. YABLONSKY: Edward R. Murrow became interested in the crime because it was representative of a lot of gang murders that were taking place around the United States and he contacted me.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. MURROW: Dr. Yablonsky taped recorded some of his conversations with these boys. The conversation you're about to hear is ominous in view of what was to happen later. This gang member feared he would commit a murder.

Dr. YABLONSKY: Were you thinking to shoot somebody?

Unidentified Man #2: Shoot him, stab him, or strangle him.

Dr. YABLONSKY: I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and they loved to come to my office, some of them, and put all kinds of stuff on tape and they enjoyed hearing their voices played back so the tape recorder was always sitting there.

Unidentified Man #2: So you want me to see that psychiatrist, or whatever it is?

Dr. YABLONSKY: I'd like you to.

Unidentified Man #2: Make an appointment for me Monday.

Dr. YABLONSKY: All right.

But we were attempting to get the city more involved in the positive programs that we were developing and, obviously, we failed.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. MURROW: Michael Farmer died on the night of July 30, 1957. More is involved here than one act of violence committed on one summer night. The roots of this crime go back a long way.

Professor ROB SNYDER (Journalism, Rutgers-Newark; Historian): In retrospect, people think of the '50s as a peaceful time, but in New York City during the 1950s, the city was in absolute transformation.

My name is Rob Snyder. I'm a historian and a journalism professor at Rutgers, Newark.

Where Michael Farmer lived was a neighborhood that had once been defined by an Irish and Jewish presence, but with more and more black and Hispanic people moving in into the southern part of Washington Heights. There were suddenly in neighborhoods large groups of people that nobody had shared a neighborhood with before.

MR. NICKY CRUZ (Warlord, "The Mammals"): My name is Nicky Cruz and I was a warlord of a gang called The Mammals. My neighborhood was black and Puerto Ricans and everything was divided by turf. You feel comfortable when you're with your own people, but when you cross the neighborhood, your life was in danger. Many times it was necessary that you join a gang for protection and that became very dangerous because you're dealing with a lot of kids my age that is like a pack of wolf.

Dr. YABLONSKY: We weren't geared to have problems with color, but things were changing and you were uncomfortable unless you're in your own neighborhood.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. MURROW: By the summer of 1957, the gang was feuding with the Jesters, predominantly an Irish gang in Michael Farmer's neighborhood. Several Egyptian Kings and Dragons claimed they often saw him with a Jester and assumed he was a member. The Jesters say neither Farmer nor McShane belonged to their gang.

Mr. FARMER: We weren't members of the gang but they were all friends of ours and they took care of us. I was basically too young. Michael was in that age, you know, 15 going on 16 with - probably he would have been a member except he wasn't perfect. He had polio and he couldn't run. So he spent a lot of time in the water. The pool would close, and we'd jump the fence and swim in the pool at night.

Prof. SNYDER: Highbridge Pool was a big beautiful, municipal pool on the eastern side of Washington Heights, mostly a white neighborhood. And kids from Harlem, kids from southern Washington Heights wanted to use that pool. Sometimes they could get in, but often they were harassed on the streets leading up to the pool.

The Dragons and Egyptian Kings felt that they had to retaliate for the insults they'd experienced trying to use Highbridge Pool.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. MURROW: On a steaming summer evening in New York City, the Egyptian Kings and Dragons gangs began to assemble. They met outside the neighborhood hangout, a candy store at the 152nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan's upper west side.

They called each other by their nicknames - Magician, Big Man, Little King, Bopple(ph). They walked up town toward the neighborhood of the rival gang, the Jester. They came prepared for a fight.

Dr. YABLONSKY: The night of the Egyptian King gang killing McShane and Farmer, it was a hot night, and they went to the pool to do some swimming.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. ROGER McSHANE: It was 10:30 when we entered the park. We looked up and there was two of the gang members on top of the stairs and they had garrison belts wrapped around their hands. I saw the main body of the gang slowly walk out of the bushes on my right. I turned around fast to see what Michael was going to do. And this kid came running at me with a belt. Then I ran myself. And I told Michael to run.

Dr. YABLOSNKY: Roger McShane was kicked around, and they had chains and knives. And one of the guys had a machete and they were going to really whack him. And McShane later told me that he heard one of the guys say, ah, we screwed him up enough, leave him alone. So he survived. Michael Farmer had numerous stab wounds. And I remember one kid saying I couldn't get near him so finally I got to kick him. That was the least I could do was kick him. It was contagious.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: Everybody was kicking, stomping, punching, stabbing. And he tried to get back up, and I knocked him down again.

Unidentified Man #3: A patrolman rushed to the park where they found the Farmer boy just before 11:00 p.m. He was lying on the ground off the footpath and moaning in pain. The Farmer boy told him the Egyptian Kings got me.

Mr. FARMER: And we got a phone call. I believe my mother picked up the phone and they said your son has been assaulted. You got to get here right away. And they left right away and went to the hospital. And he was dead by the time they got there.

Prof. SNYDER: After the assaults, the Dragons and Kings fled back south to the neighborhoods they'd come from, went to bed and wondered what was coming next. A lot of them woke up to knocks on the door from the police first thing in the morning.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: All of the young men arrested made full admissions to the police officers...

Dr. YABLONSKY: Ultimately, there were 18 defendants, 11 of them were juveniles. They were under 16.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: Many of their parents came to the scene. They expressed shock and disbelief over the fact that their boys might have had a part in this hideous crime.

Mr. CRUZ: You have to be stupid if you didn't pay no attention. Michael Farmer's story hit like a bomb that stirred up a lot of questions in the city of New York.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Woman: Does New York City need a curfew?

Unidentified Man #4: Has your street club program proven effective?

Unidentified Man #5: Is more police the answer to the cure for the juvenile delinquency?

Unidentified Man #6: We must remember that 96 or 97 percent of families and kids are perfectly all right in the city. The glamour is given to the dramatic tragedies that happen, and everybody forgets about all of good things that are going on...

Prof. SNYDER: In the trial that followed the Farmer killing - at the beginning, there was a real chance that these young people could go to the electric chair. The New York Times called it the largest first-degree murder trial in the history of New York.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man #7: We found Louis Alvarez and Charles Horton guilty of murder in the second-degree. We also found...

Dr. YABLONSKY: Quite a few of them were juveniles and they did short stretches of maybe two to three years in a reformatory. The seven older guys - 16 and older - they were up to 22 or 23, received 10 years to 20 years.

Mr. CRUZ: It was a wake-up call to all of us that we must do something to prevent worse thing for the future. The city of New York, they tried. I have to be honest on that.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: So our technique has been rather than repressing these gangs to establish contact with them and gradually convert their anti-social activities into socially acceptable activities.

Mr. CRUZ: They opened clubs so they can take the gangs away from the street and then give you a social worker. And he used to take us to many places to try to educate us about the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the zoo. I began to understand how bad I was, how screwed up I was. Education have a lot to do in changing your way of life.

Prof. SNYDER: I think New Yorkers in 1957 were poised between denial and waking up to a problem. The columnist who I think provided the best analysis of the case - Murray Kempton - expressed the fear that New Yorkers had not learned very much from the death of Michael Farmer.

ACTOR READING MURRAY KEMPTON COLUMN: What Michael Farmer deserved was not vengeance, but the risen conscience. When will we ever be tired of such things happening to children and ourselves unchanged by their happening? Highbridge Pool was not just last July 30th, it is tomorrow. It is, I'm very much afraid, as long as we live. We will be back there very soon, unchanged. A column by Murray Kempton in the New York Post.

Dr. YABLONSKY: I don't know exactly what happened to the 18 guys who were involved in that, but I got into contact with someone just recently who was there at that time - pretty heavily involved in the murder.

Unidentified Man #8: I do not want to be interviewed or have my name used. But I have agreed to have someone read my words. At the time of the attack, I was 13 years old. It took me 35 years from the day of the incident to realize what a loss like that means. My biological son is 17 now. When he turned 15, I remember Michael Farmer. And I cry for days. Twenty-four years ago, I began a new life. The journey was slow and painful. I hurt so many people, including myself. Today, I make amends anonymously and I feel God has given me this chance. And I don't want to throw it away.

Dr. YABLONSKY: I've tried to figure that out for 50 years. Still I've never been able to figure out why. Kids killing kids shouldn't happen. Fifty years ago, today, should never happen.

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