Today it is hard to imagine that less than fifty years ago, New York City was once considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. Rising crime, poverty, budgetary mismanagement and police corruption combined to turn the Big Apple into a city that took more than it gave. The New York City Police Department was tasked with maintaining order in the concrete jungle in the face of budget cuts and incredibly layoffs in the late 1970s. The officers who survived those dark years carry with them endless memories about their time on the streets of New York City. Tom Walker, who retired in 2004, spent several years of his career at the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx, nicknamed by the officers as “Fort Apache”. The name sounds heroic but as we learn in the book, it was for darker and more tragic reasons that the station was referred to as a fort. Outside the walls of the precinct existed a world that bordered on the surreal and gave a glimpse into what hell must really be like.
The story begins as Walker is a newly appointed Lieutenant assigned to the 41st Precinct or simply, “The Four One”. On his very first day, he quickly learns that his new home is anything but welcoming. He is instantly introduced to the infamous Fox Street and its surrounding walkways that prove to be nothing short of deadly. Readers who are natives of New York and remember the era in which this book was written, will recall the sense of disparity and anger that consumed many of New York City’s poorest residents. Walker addresses this in the book and clearly shows the link between poverty and crime. And the scenes that he describes throughout the book reinforce that lack of hope that often consumes the ghetto. While many of the officers finish their shifts and go home to the suburbs, the residents of the Four One could not leave, reliving a nightmare every day of their lives. As a former resident of East New York, Brooklyn, I can relate to Walker and the people of the South Bronx for my own neighborhood resembled the Four One except that for us it was the Seven-Five.
After finishing the book, I asked myself how Walker was able to do that job with a wife and five children at home? The constant threat of death on every shift and the traumatic experiences placed upon the officers could have doomed his marriage or taken his life. Yet he perseveres through the book and even talks briefly about the struggle that some cops face in maintaining a health marriage. What is evidently clear is that to be a New York City Police Officer during that time was literally gambling with your life. Today the streets of New York City are much safer although the threat of death still exists albeit on a much lower scale of risk. The City has a stable budget and the department has consistently filled its rank adding more officers to patrol the streets. In hindsight it seems nearly criminal that the Four One was understaffed, under-supplied and even neglected by higher-ups in the chain of NYPD command. Sadly, there are several instances in the book where there are no cars available to respond to police dispatches.
Many years have passed since the book was published in 1976 and the South Bronx has undergone a dramatic transformation. Fox Street and Southern Boulevard have been improved and no longer look as if they’ve been hit by an explosive device. The gangs such as the Savage Nomads are lone gone and only live in the memories of others. Some of the residents are undoubtedly still there advanced in their years but others have moved on in life leaving the Bronx behind. And other officers, like Walker, have since retired and moved on with their lives. But they all share a bond from the time they spent in and around Fort Apache. Walker’s story is an interesting step back into time and an invaluable account of the darker times in New York City history.