Smack: Heroin and the American City

Smack: Heroin and the American City

Smack: Heroin and the American City

Smack: Heroin and the American City


Why do the vast majority of heroin users live in cities? In his provocative history of heroin in the United States, Eric C. Schneider explains what is distinctively urban about this undisputed king of underworld drugs.

During the twentieth century, New York City was the nation's heroin capital--over half of all known addicts lived there, and underworld bosses like Vito Genovese, Nicky Barnes, and Frank Lucas used their international networks to import and distribute the drug to cities throughout the country, generating vast sums of capital in return. Schneider uncovers how New York, as the principal distribution hub, organized the global trade in heroin and sustained the subcultures that supported its use.

Through interviews with former junkies and clinic workers and in-depth archival research, Schneider also chronicles the dramatically shifting demographic profile of heroin users. Originally popular among working-class whites in the 1920s, heroin became associated with jazz musicians and Beat writers in the 1940s. Musician Red Rodney called heroin the trademark of the bebop generation. "It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club," he proclaimed. Smack takes readers through the typical haunts of heroin users--52nd Street jazz clubs, Times Square cafeterias, Chicago's South Side street corners--to explain how young people were initiated into the drug culture.

Smack recounts the explosion of heroin use among middle-class young people in the 1960s and 1970s. It became the drug of choice among a wide swath of youth, from hippies in Haight-Ashbury and soldiers in Vietnam to punks on the Lower East Side. Panics over the drug led to the passage of increasingly severe legislation that entrapped heroin users in the criminal justice system without addressing the issues that led to its use in the first place. The book ends with a meditation on the evolution of the war on drugs and addresses why efforts to solve the drug problem must go beyond eliminating supply.


Heroin was a city-killing drug, and in the early 1970s the American city appeared to be on its way to the morgue. Abandoned and burned-out buildings, which addicts had converted into places to sell and shoot heroin, scarred some urban neighborhoods. Urban residents worried about burglaries and muggings as crime rates soared. In New York City, addicts stole an estimated $1.5 billion each year, and street crime threatened to make life there untenable. Stewart Alsop, a Newsweek columnist and long-time New York journalist, believed he felt the dying pulse of a once-great city, arguing that New York was becoming a place inhabited only by the desperate and the well guarded as others packed their bags to leave.

New York City did have more addicts, more crime, and more disorder than any other major American city, but it shared its death struggle with all of them. They too suffered from declining population, job loss, and a rising crime rate. The urban crisis of the late twentieth century was rooted in numerous decisions made over the previous twenty-five years: by residents choosing to abandon old neighborhoods in the face of new migrants, by bankers deciding to withdraw capital from the urban core and invest it in the periphery, by politicians and government officials inaugurating federal programs that created a white, suburban middle class while reinforcing urban apartheid, and by businessmen moving jobs out of the city, to the South and to the West, and eventually out of the country altogether. Urban decline was visible in its effects, however, not its causes, and the most visible form of decline, its human face and literal embodiment, was found in the stereotypically grim features of the heroin addict.

Stewart Alsop described those features as African American. He recounted a visit to a heroin selling spot on the West Side of Manhattan where everyone from the pusher in a limousine to the doorkeeper at the front of the building and the addicts inside were black. Only the building manager . . .

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