Greenwich Village Fights the Heroin Epidemic, 1958 – 1963
By Stephen Petrus
New York City is again confronting a surge in heroin use and opioid addiction in general. According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, fatal drug overdoses increased in New York by 66% from 2010 to 2015. In 2015, 556 New Yorkers unintentionally overdosed on heroin. The Bronx and Staten Island were the hardest hit boroughs. Heroin use, once largely associated with African Americans and Latinos, affects white New Yorkers more than any other group. They had the highest death rate from heroin overdoses in New York in 2015.
Opioid addiction of course is no longer just concentrated in cities. The scope is nationwide. The state with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation is West Virginia. Huntington, an Appalachian town of 49,000 on the Ohio River, is reeling in particular. An astonishing 12,000 residents, or nearly one in four, suffer from opioid addiction.
Opioids include the illicit heroin as well as licit prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl. In 2014, 1.9 million Americans over age 12 had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers, and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin. Opioid addiction is fueling the drug overdose epidemic in the country. In 2014, 18,893 overdose deaths involved prescription pain relievers while 10,574 overdose deaths were related to heroin.
As the epidemic ravishes communities in both urban and rural areas, policymakers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials discuss and debate solutions. Responses include cracking down on drug traffickers, increasing the number of treatment centers, and offering medications like buprenorphine to suppress opioid cravings. On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump was short on specifics when asked about the problem at a town hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio. His response was to “cut off the source, build a wall.”
The contemporary crisis invites us to view the problem in historical context. Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s is a particularly illuminating case study. Community leaders Reverend Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church and Village Voice publisher Ed Fancher raised awareness about the suffering of heroin users and addicts. They excoriated the dominant punitive approach in narcotics policy and advocated socio-medical treatment methods instead. The task was enormous. Politicians, journalists, and the public at large overwhelmingly supported laws that incarcerated heroin users. Moody and Fancher mobilized citizens to demand change and formed a grassroots coalition. They worked as reformers at the local, city, state, and federal levels, maintaining that it was government’s responsibility to assist the disadvantaged of society. Their efforts provide insight into changes in narcotics policy and, in a larger sense, the expansion of liberalism during the Kennedy era. Despite a measure of progress, the problem was overwhelming and confounded urban America, leading to a return to the punitive approach and ultimately the Rockefeller law of 1973.
The traffic in heroin increased in New York after World War II. Cultivated in Turkey and processed by pharmaceutical manufacturers in Italy or in chemical laboratories in Marseille, France, the narcotic was smuggled into New York by the American-Sicilian Mafia. Heroin became widely available in the city and by the late 1950s had devastated communities in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
In Greenwich Village, narcotics dependence affected the mostly Italian South Village in particular. The years 1953 to 1955 witnessed a sharp rise in the rate of juvenile male addiction. Drug dealers peddled their goods at Sheridan Square and at the intersection of Carmine and Bedford Streets. But by the end of the decade, due to changing distribution patterns, heroin became more difficult to purchase in the Village. Community leaders speculated that organized crime figures decided to cease trafficking heroin in Italian neighborhoods. Still, addicts easily “copped” several blocks away in the Lower East Side or uptown, in East Harlem or Harlem.
Except for some ministers and social workers, who came into close contact with addicts, local leaders either ignored the problem or advocated punitive sanctions. For instance, Assemblyman William Passannante, a South Village native himself, proposed legislation in Albany several times in the mid-1950s that would have made addiction a criminal offense. Attorney Louis Solomon, President of the Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce, championed stronger legal enforcement.
Encouraged by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and an alarmed public, Congress adopted punitive measures in the 1950s. Exploiting American fears of international conspiracies, Commissioner Harry Anslinger of the FBN warned federal legislators about sinister plots of Communist China and the Mafia to supply vulnerable youngsters with heroin. In 1956, Congress passed the Narcotics Control Act, sponsored by Senator Price Daniel of Texas. The legislation made the sale of heroin to minors punishable by death. It established harsh penalties for those convicted of heroin possession. First, second, and third offenders received sentences of two, five, and ten years.
The medical response to addiction was woefully inadequate. New York City in 1958 had some 20,000 narcotics addicts, approximately one third of the estimated national figure. No city hospital admitted an adult addict solely for addiction treatment. No city or state prison provided reduction treatment for an addict to minimize the pain during the hellish withdrawal process. Municipal authorities expected addicts to go “cold turkey” in the Tombs or Riker’s Island Penitentiary. Not surprisingly, the rate of recidivism approached ninety percent. Many New York adult addicts, after a wait of four weeks, entered a federal public health hospital in Lexington, Kentucky for withdrawal, counseling, and vocational training. New York juvenile addicts, under the age of 21, could be committed with a parent’s consent to the city’s Riverside Hospital on North Brother’s Island in the Bronx. Established in 1952, Riverside had only 140 beds for detoxifying patients, which meant that adolescents had to wait several months before admission. During that interval, young male addicts, in need of income for a daily fix, often resorted to burglary, larceny, and robbery, causing crime rates to soar in the city, while addicted teenage girls frequently turned to prostitution to sustain their habit.
After years of neglecting narcotics addiction in Greenwich Village, community leaders became proactive in 1958. Reverend Mario Albanesi, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii, organized the first meeting on the issue, at his church’s parish hall. More than 500 people attended. The main speaker Samuel Levine, of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, recommended mandatory prison sentences for both heroin dealers and addicts. But some Villagers, such as Village Voice publisher Ed Fancher, also a psychologist, questioned penal methods and advocated both psychological and medical treatment for addicts.
The issue also attracted the attention of Reverend Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church. Moody, appointed senior pastor at the church in 1956, considered civic participation a moral responsibility and applied Christian ethics to social problems in the Village. His firsthand experience with addicted adolescents at the church’s community center afforded him insight into juvenile delinquency and narcotics dependence. Moody often spent entire days at Riverside Hospital visiting “our kids.”
Following the Pompeii Church meeting, the Greenwich Village Association, a civic organization, established a Narcotics Committee to examine and combat the problem. The committee held a seminar on drug addiction to provide community leaders with the latest information to enable them to take action. The series of discussions featured experts from the fields of psychology, medicine, law, and religion. The presenters espoused reforms to humanize the care of addicts, including the establishment of detoxification facilities for adult addicts in city hospitals.
The GVA Committee’s recommendations reached fruition in part with the establishment of the New York Council on Narcotics Addiction in 1958. Chaired by Ed Fancher, the council was founded by twenty leaders of local organizations to coordinate their activities and further their objectives. The group presented its agenda to William Peer, executive secretary to Mayor Robert F. Wagner. Above all, the New York Council advocated the abolition of the “cold turkey” system in prisons and the creation of detoxification facilities to allow addicts to withdraw under medical supervision.
Just as local reformers joined forces to stem heroin use, articles appeared in national publications about the alternative beatnik lifestyle in the neighborhood, documenting the connection between Greenwich Village and the expanding drug culture in the United States. In November 1959, Life, the mass culture periodical with a weekly circulation of 6,500,000, explored beatnik values, habits, and disillusionment in a lengthy feature entitled “The Only Rebellion Around.” Using paid models and props, the magazine displayed twenty-two items considered essential in a “well-equipped [beatnik] pad.” Among the bongo drums, bare mattress, and ill-tended plant was “marijuana for smoking.” For the article, staff writer Paul O’Neill interviewed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who proclaimed that marijuana was “better for you than whisky.” Ginsberg called for the legalization of narcotics and denounced the treatment of addicts in America. That same month five detectives in the city’s narcotics squad arrested thirteen beatniks in a raid in the Village for possessing or selling marijuana. Posing as beatniks themselves, the detectives had integrated into the Village Beat subculture over the course of five months, even reading their “poetry” at neighborhood coffeehouses. The story, accompanied by photos, made the front page of the New York Times.
Amid the commotion about the growing drug culture in Greenwich Village, sociologist Ned Polsky did an ethnography of the local Beat scene, substantiating media reports. In the Village in the summer of 1960, Polsky interviewed some 300 beats to gain insight into their practices and beliefs. Publishing his findings in Dissent in 1961, he concluded, “The illegal use of drugs is one of the handful of things that characterize all male beats with very rare exceptions, and a good majority of the females.” Marijuana was the preferred drug, typically smoked in groups. Among addicting opiates and synthetics, heroin was the “drug of choice.” Polsky estimated that just less than ten percent of Village Beats were heroin users.
In the public mind during the Eisenhower era, marijuana and heroin were similar, and the former led to the latter. In comic books, news reports, educational pamphlets, sensational exposés, and public hearings about adolescent narcotics use, Americans received the message again and again that smoking marijuana facilitated heroin use and then a life of crime and ultimately death. Though problematic, the narrative created the dominant perception in the nation.
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Undeterred, in June 1960, Howard Moody and Ed Fancher established the Village Aid and Service Center (VASC), a community rehabilitation center for narcotics addicts. In an era without governmental funding for local drug treatment facilities, VASC was a pioneering institution that did casework for addicts. Among other social services, VASC provided counseling to addicts and their families, psychotherapy, recreational activities, art therapy, visitation in homes, hospitals, and prisons, and referral to other agencies for withdrawal, vocational training, job placement, and pastoral counseling. Staffed by head clinician Dr. Gerald Sabath, a psychotherapist at the Brooklyn House of Detention, and his assistant Charles Eaton, formerly a director of a neighborhood rehabilitation project in Philadelphia, VASC was open fifteen hours a week. Judson Memorial Church operated the facility on a non-sectarian bases through an administrative council headed by Moody. VASC, initially located at 148 West 4th Street, included two offices and a lounge and ran on a shoestring budget of roughly $10,000 a year.
Moody and Fancher considered VASC a makeshift project that would function until they and other reformers secured sustaining governmental funding for larger operations. Moody in fact referred to the center as an “experimental facility” and described it as a “band aid on a cancer.” They harbored no illusions about solving the monumental problem of heroin addiction but were nevertheless optimistic that VASC would serve as a prototype for bolder publicly financed programs.
With some momentum, Moody and Fancher intensified their fight in the city for community aftercare by lobbying the Wagner administration through the New York Council on Narcotics Addiction. At the urging of the council and other community groups, the mayor appointed Dr. Theo Rosenthal the Narcotics Coordinator of the city’s Department of Health in 1961. The council worked with Rosenthal in compiling data on the activities of VASC and four other local centers. In addition to the facility in Greenwich Village, there were community agencies in East Harlem and the Lower East Side, and both the Quaker Committee on Social Rehabilitation and the Salvation Army provided aftercare for narcotics addicts.
As the New York Council affected change in the city, it also prodded state lawmakers to enact liberal legislation, most significantly, the Metcalf-Volker Act of 1962. Sponsored by State Senator George Metcalf and Assemblyman Julius Volker, the act was hitherto the most progressive measure on narcotics rehabilitation in state history. Metcalf-Volker permitted addicts who were arrested on minor charges of use or possession of drugs to choose treatment at a state hospital in lieu of a prison sentence. Addicts who elected hospitalization were further required to complete an aftercare program. If the treatment was successful, then the criminal charges were dropped. The legislation in addition created a narcotics office in the State Mental Hygiene Department to direct the state’s expanding programs in drug research, treatment, and aftercare. Metcalf-Volker also established a state Council on Drug Addiction to advise in formulating narcotics policies. The act became effective on January 1, 1963.
While Howard Moody and Ed Fancher led reform movements at the local, city, and state levels, Gerald Sabath and Charles Eaton provided addicts aftercare on an outpatient, voluntary basis at the Village Aid and Service Center. Sabath knew from five years of experience at the city’s Department of Corrections that upon release from prison addicts generally returned to marginal places in society with their psychiatric disorders unresolved and without a rehabilitation support system in their communities. In need of vocational skills, they had few employment opportunities. Most often, they reverted to the drug subculture and relapsed into addiction.
Sabath stressed individual psychotherapy above all. The center charged a nominal fee for analysis but refused no one because of an inability to pay. In a relaxed environment, Sabath interviewed addicts about their personal histories, asking them about their families and friends. To create an informal and unthreatening atmosphere, he avoided close questions and allowed patients to structure the sessions in large part. The first twelve months of consultations left him guardedly optimistic about his methods. Demonstrating an impressive commitment to rehabilitation, patients occasionally remunerated for services and kept 90 percent of their appointments, a startling figure relative to rates at other institutions. The most significant VASC caseload data indicated no new addiction in the neighborhood.
Largely as a consequence of years of grassroots pressure, Mayor Wagner took a liberal stance on narcotics rehabilitation by 1962. In September, he spoke at the White House Conference on Narcotics and Drug Abuse that the Kennedy administration organized at the urging of New York reformers. Some 400 professionals, including Moody and Sabath, attended the two-day assembly to evaluate the extent of the problem, consider the role of law enforcement, and establish a more effective set of guidelines for treating addicts. In his speech, Wagner reiterated the longtime concerns and recommendations of Greenwich Village activists and leaders of other community organizations that comprised the New York Council. After describing the enormity of the epidemic in New York City, he reviewed municipal and local initiatives to stem addiction. Eager to win funding for the city, the mayor called on the federal government to assume a greater role in treatment programs and to coordinate a unified effort with state and local officials. The presentation won plaudits from even his sharpest critics at the New York Council.
Other developments during the Kennedy era gave reformers hope for the future. As administration officials became supportive of compassionate programs for mentally impaired individuals, they increasingly viewed drug dependence less as a criminal matter than as a psychological problem. In 1962, Commissioner Henry Anslinger retired from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an agency that vilified addicts and advocated draconian laws. Narcotics policymaking shifted from the bureau to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a division of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The Supreme Court similarly modified its stance in 1962, ruling that narcotics addiction was a disease, not a crime. Police departments in Chicago and Washington D.C. provided reports that indicated a decline in heroin use. To be sure, reformers were realistic about the immense problem of heroin, but they were encouraged by some progress.
Due in part to the efforts of New York reformers, the federal government changed its narcotics policy. In 1963, the Kennedy administration broadened its involvement in rehabilitation, a development that benefited Greenwich Village. Federal legislators increased expenditures to bolster treatment programs of state and local agencies. New York University Graduate School of Social Work and Greenwich House jointly received a grant from NIMH for the establishment of a narcotics clinic. Staffed by a director, an assistant director, a psychologist, a psychiatric consultant, and a social caseworker, and with an annual budget of $50,000, five times that of VASC, the Greenwich House Counseling Center initially emphasized individual counseling and then supplemented those sessions with group therapy. The center’s services also included hospital referrals, home visits, and group and individual counseling of addicts’ family members.
Greenwich House’s opening in May 1963 triggered the closing of the Village Aid and Service Center and thus the conclusion of a local temporary expedient. Most VASC patients hence sought and received treatment at Greenwich House. Tragically, at least six overdosed on narcotics. Many likely served time in prison for crimes related to their addiction. Some spoke of their friends who “used to be addicts and hang with us, but kicked, got married or moved, or got a job, and have made it.” Howard Moody recalled some who stopped using as a result of joining the army.
But the optimism during the Kennedy era was ephemeral. Heroin use rapidly increased not only in New York but also in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and other cities. The heroin wave of the 1960s devastated poor neighborhoods in particular, causing crime rates to skyrocket. Distressed areas were largely African American and Latino in population. Crimes linked to heroin included larceny, burglary, robbery, and muggings. The trends deepened racial divisions in cities. To compound the problems, narcotics treatment programs proved mostly ineffective. The Metcalf-Volker Act, for example, was poorly implemented and of little benefit to heroin users. Liberal policies hardly addressed the core of the problem. The failure to integrate African Americans and Latinos effectively into the political economy was the root cause of the urban heroin epidemic. Facing public criticism for high crime rates, politicians returned to punitive measures. In 1965, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation that stiffened penalties for narcotics sales. This was the beginning of several harsh measures that led to the draconian “Rockefeller law” of 1973 and the national War on Drugs.
Stephen Petrus, a historian at La Guardia and Wagner Archives, is co-author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015). His next book will be a political and cultural history of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 60s.
 Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Heroin Fuels Surge in New York City Overdoses,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9, 2016.
 Wayne Drash and Max Blau, “In America’s drug death capital: How heroin is scarring the next generation,” CNN, Sept. 16, 2016.
 American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures,” http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf.
 Josh Sanburn, “6 Ways to Fight America’s Heroin Epidemic,” Time, Sept. 16, 2016.
 David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 148.
 Village Aid and Service Center Preliminary Study of Caseload of Village Residents, 1 May 1963, Fales Library and Special Collections, The Judson Memorial Church Archive, New York University Libraries (hereafter Judson Church Archive); Daniel Wolf, “Delinquency in the Village,” VV, 27 Nov. 1957, p. 1; “Crowd Overflows Pompeii Hall to Hear Narcotics Official, Others,” VV, 15 Jan. 1958, p. 1; “Village Tops City in Youth Addict Increase, GVA Hears,” 12 Feb. 1958, p. 1; Isidor Chein, Donald L. Gerard, Robert S. Lee, and Eva Rosenfeld, The Road to H: Narcotics, Delinquency, and Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 45; Moody 2004 interview; Greenwich Village Association Narcotics Committee, Minutes of Meeting, 17 Apr. 1958, The Greenwich House Records; Box 93, Tamiment Library Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University Libraries, (hereafter Greenwich House Records); “Village Plans City’s First Community Addicts’ Center,” VV, 8 Apr. 1959, p. 7.
 “Crowd,” VV, 15 Jan. 1958, p. 3; Louis Solomon, “The Chamber Comments,” Villager, 4 Aug. 1955, p. 3; “Cooperation Urged,” Villager, 9 Aug. 1956, p. 16; Moody 2004 interview.
 Schneider, Smack, 66-74.
 “Addicts Can Be Helped, But Facilities Meager, GVA Told,” VV, 5 Feb. 1958, p. 3; “Doctors, Not Federal Bureau, Should Police ‘Med’ Profession,” VV, 12 Mar. 1958, p. 3; John Wicklein, “Parish is Seeking Care for Addicts,” NYT, 23 Feb. 1959, p. 25.
 “Narcotics Crusade Launched,” Villager, 9 Jan. 1958, p. 1, 11; “Crowd,” VV, 15 Jan. 1958, p. 1, 3; Fancher interview.
 Minutes of the Greenwich Village Neighborhood Meeting on Problems and Local Resources for Teenagers, 15 May 1957, Greenwich House Records, Box 93; Minutes of the Greenwich Village Committee on Youth, 18 June 1957, Greenwich House Records, Box 93; Moody interview 2004; Fancher interview; Sabath interview.
 GVA Narcotics Committee Minutes of Meetings, 5 Feb. 1958, 6 Feb. 1958, 27 Feb. 1958, 6 Mar. 1958, 13 Mar. 1958, Greenwich House Records, Box 93; “Addicts,” VV, 5 Feb. p. 3, 8; “Village,” VV, 12 Feb. p. 1, 3; “Sometimes Only the Pusher Takes the Kids Seriously,” VV, 19 Feb. p. 3; “Levine Urges Forced
Treatment For Drug Addicts,” VV, 5 Mar. p. 3; “Doctors,” VV, 12 Mar. p. 3; “It Costs $100,000 To ‘Cure’ One Addict,” VV, 19 Mar. p. 3.
 “Citywide Council Formed to Combat Drug Addiction,” VV, 23 July 1958, p. 13; “Humane Treatment for Drug Addicts Asked by City Group,” VV, 17 Dec. 1958, p. 1; Wicklein, “Parish,” NYT, 23 Feb. 1959, p. 25, 40; “City Plan Asked To Help Addicts,” NYT, 16 Mar. 1959, p. 33; “Leaders Protest on Narcotic Care,” NYT, 28 Mar. 1959, p. 36.
 Stephen Petrus, “Rumblings of Discontent: American Popular Culture and Its Response to the Beat Generation, 1957-1960,” Studies in Popular Culture 20 (October 1997): 8-9, 13; Paul O’Neil, “The Only Rebellion Around,” Life, 30 Nov. 1959: 114-130; Robert Alden, “Police Pose as Beatniks in Narcotics Raid,” NYT, 9 Nov. 1959, p. 1, 62.
 Ned Polsky, “The Village Beat Scene: Summer 1960,” Dissent, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Summer, 1961): 339-59.
 For a keen analysis of the panic over adolescent heroin use in the 1950s, see Schneider, Smack, 51-64.
 VILLAGE AID AND SERVICE CENTER, Judson Church Archive; “Local,” VV, 4 Aug. 1960, p. 3.
 Letter from Howard Moody to Fred Antonelli, Greenwich House, 17 Aug. 1960, Judson Church Archive; Moody interview 2004.
 The New York Council on Narcotics Addiction, Fact Sheet on Fight for Adequate Community Aftercare and Referral, January 1961 to June 1962, Judson Church Archive.
 “Addiction Law Looms in State,” VV, 28 Dec. 1961, p. 1; Warren Weaver, Jr. “Enlarged S.C.A.D. Backed in Albany,” NYT, 23 Jan. 1962, p. 22; “The Sick Addict,” NYT, 23 Jan. 1962, p. 32; “Assembly Approves Bill to Aid Addicts,” NYT, 27 Feb. 1962, p. 22; “Narcotics Bill Backed by Council,” VV, 8 Mar. 1962, p. 3; “Wage-Floor Bill Gains in Albany,” NYT, 13 Mar. 1962, p. 26; “Governor Signs Addicts Aid Bill,” NYT, 23 Mar. 1962, p. 35; “Fighting Drug Addiction,” NYT, 28 Mar. 1962, p. 38; New York Council on Narcotics Addiction, Statement of Aims for 1963, Judson Church Archive.
 Sabath interview.
 Ibid; Application for Funds for Village Aid and Service Center, May 1, 1962, Judson Church Archive.
 Mayor Wagner Address White House Conference on Narcotics, Congressional Record, Wagner Papers, Subject Files, Narcotics 1962, Box 213, NYCMA; Letter from Norman C. Eddy to Mayor Robert F. Wagner, 29 Nov. 1962, Wagner Papers, Subject Files, Narcotics 1962, Box 213, NYCMA; Moody 2004 interview; Sabath interview; Warren Weaver, Jr., “U.S. Bids 400 Map Help for Addicts,” NYT, 28 Sept. 1962, p. 19.
 Michael Massing, The Fix (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 86; Schneider, Smack, 98.
 Greenwich House Counseling Center, May 1963, Greenwich House Records, Box 94; Greenwich House Counseling Center, Proposal Submitted to the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, 1965, Greenwich House Records, Box 94; First Draft of a Four Year Renewal Proposal for the New York University-Greenwich House Addiction Study, Greenwich House Counseling Center, Greenwich House Records, Box 94; “Congress to Get Wide Narcotics Bill,” NYT, 29 Sept. 1962, p. 48; Robert C. Toth, “Narcotics Panel Requests Lighter Penalty for Addicts,” NYT, 5 Apr. 1963, p. 1, 24.
 Moody 2004 interview; VASC Preliminary Study, May 1, 1963, Judson Church Archive; “Addiction Council Names Moody; New Center for Village,” 2 May 1963, p. 15.
 Schneider, Smack, 97-101, 116-118, 131-132.