Photographs by Joseph Rodriguez
One morning earlier this month, just before sunrise, a silent convoy of SUVs streamed into the tiny, troubled city of Newburgh, New York. Over 200 law-enforcement officers descended on the blighted heart of town, and a company of military-style commandos prepared for a synchronized raid. Armed with M4 assault rifles and dressed in helmets, goggles, and green fatigues, SWAT teams burst into a series of dilapidated houses, shouting, “FBI! Get down!”
By late morning, twelve alleged members of the Bloods street gang were in federal custody. Along with eight others who were already behind bars, the young men were charged with murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault, possession of firearms, and conspiracy to distribute drugs. It was the third major sweep by federal authorities in Newburgh over the past sixteen months. At a press conference, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that the raid was designed to “restore the rule of law” in the impoverished city, where violent street gangs “have held the good citizens of Newburgh hostage for too long.”
Beautifully situated on a picturesque bend in the Hudson about a 90 minutes’ drive north of New York City, Newburgh does not look, from a distance, like a community mired in High Noon levels of lawlessness. But in actuality, it has less in common with bohemian Beacon, just across the river (“Williamsburg on the Hudson,” as the Times recently anointed it), than it does with, say, West Baltimore. Despite its small size and bucolic setting, Newburgh occupies one of the most dangerous four-mile stretches in the northeastern United States. “There are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies, and gang assaults with machetes,” an alarmed Chuck Schumer said in a Senate hearing last year, describing the situation in Newburgh as “shocking.” With a higher rate of violent crime per capita than the South Bronx or Brownsville, little Newburgh, population 29,000, is the murder capital of New York State.
For two decades, American inner-city crime has been dropping. Major urban centers from Boston to Los Angeles have seen murder rates plunge, and the most dramatic transformation of all has unfolded in New York, which in recent years, in the improbable but accurate boast of Mayor Bloomberg, has become “the safest big city in the country.” Across the country, violent crime has fallen to a 31-year low, despite the economic crisis, upending the bedrock sociological correlation between tough times and higher crime.
But if our major metropolises are so safe today, how do we account for the fact that Newburgh, whose residents could comfortably transplant into any small pocket of Manhattan (and probably would, given half the chance), is struggling to cope with a deadly gang war, open-air drug markets, and citizens who are justifiably afraid to walk the streets—the very “big city” problems, in other words, that our actual big cities appear to have licked?
Nor is Newburgh an anomaly. Once-placid Poughkeepsie, another twenty miles up the Hudson, has a gang problem, too, and trails only Newburgh for violent crime in the state. The FBI estimates that a single gang, the ferocious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is active in the bedroom communities of Long Island as well as nearly every state. A threat assessment released in 2009 by the National Gang Intelligence Center found that gangs are “migrating” from urban areas to suburban and even rural communities. Statistics indicate that crime is dropping more quickly in our big cities than it is in their environs. One theory, which you’ll hear on the streets of Newburgh, is that New York City cleaned up crime by sweeping it into the surrounding area.
Just recently, however, things have started to look up for Newburgh. Starting with a spectacular raid in May 2010, authorities have indicted over 100 alleged members of the two dominant gangs in town, the Bloods and the Latin Kings. The drug trade has ebbed a bit, and some of Newburgh’s meanest streets are suddenly safe to walk for the first time in years. If the improvements hold, it will be owed, in large measure, to the efforts of an FBI agent named James Gagliano, the head of the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force. “Jimmy Gags is a force of nature,” says Bharara. “That guy deserves an unbelievable amount of credit.”
Gagliano was first dispatched to Newburgh in the spring of 2008, after demoralized city officials implored Albany and Washington to send reinforcements. Imposing and athletic, he has intense blue eyes and a shaved head. He speaks in the quick-fire, fuck-inflected argot of New York law enforcement and has a tendency to lace a monologue with rhetorical questions asked and then answered.