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As soon as we stepped out of the 1 & 9 train station at 191st street, I could feel the electricity in the air. This was not unusual in the Washington Heights of that era but this was something different. It seemed to be pulsating. Magnetically, that energy seemed to carry us all the way to 163rd street, which was the source of the emanation. For the most part, the streets en route to our destination were quiet but there was a bubbling anger underneath the surface. When we finally arrived at 163rd street, I couldn’t believe my eyes, the street cats were actually going at the cops. Bottles were being thrown, anything and everything was being set on fire and at the very beginning of the melee, the cops were being run off.
As we made our way back to our home turf, the 180’s and 190’s, the entire neighborhood seemed to combust. The flames of the riot were engulfing everything in its path. I actually saw a dude I grew up with, who is now a junkie, chasing on foot, a cop car down the hill on 193rd street and St. Nicolas avenue. It appeared that the entire world had been turned upside down. At the time, I felt the urge to document what was happening, so I pulled out my cheap little camera and took the pictures you see below. I was a teenager in these pictures and could not completely fathom what was taking place all around me but I knew this event would have a profound effect on our neighborhood.
As I look back now on those days, I realized that what had begun, as a visceral response to the killing of Jose “Kiko” Garcia was really the culmination of the utter madness that Crack had wreaked on our neighborhood. Crack changed everything, Washington Heights went from a poor but mostly peaceful place to an outright war zone almost overnight. The lawlessness and outright thuggery had turned Washington Heights into the East Coast’s most active drug market in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The money that flowed into the neighborhood corrupted everything it touched.
This sad state of affairs could not continue, something had to give. By the same token, the police tactics being used against the community at large, not just the drug dealers, were only quasi-legal and were extremely heavy handed. There were many occasions when the cops would stop and frisk my friends and I for no apparent reason. It was a regular occurrence, we already knew the routine. We also knew not to mess with the cops, as you would either end up arrested or if you were lucky with a black eye.
Living in Washington Heights in those days, even if you were just a kid, felt like you were living under siege. That fateful night, 27 years ago, all those factors came into play and the entire neighborhood lost its collective mind.