The Clinton Years

The murder of Nicole duFresne on Clinton Street near Rivington was the kind of crime that made many New Yorkers—even those who would never think of confronting a gun-wielding mugger—feel afraid again. But its very shock value was also a reminder of how much safer the Lower East Side has become. The rap sheet on Clinton Street:

In January 1984, police began Operation Pressure Point to shut down open-air drug markets, including a popular one on Clinton Street. By March, police had seized nearly 90,000 packets of heroin and made nearly 3,000 arrests.

But ten years later, the Clinton Street drug trade had recovered, thanks to gangs like the Sanchez Brothers. “Whatever you wanted, you could get,” says Fredy Alvarez, owner of Caché Jewelry, located steps from where duFresne was killed.

In 1990, three men and a toddler were killed execution-style in a Clinton Street apartment where police found $80,000 in cash.

In 1994, police warned drug users to stay away from China Cat, a heroin brand sold on the corner of Clinton and Rivington, after eight people overdosed in five days.

In 1995, the NYPD and DEA began a crackdown that would eventually dismantle the drug souk. (Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin’s OD on L.E.S. heroin kept the spotlight on the area.)

In 1998, a man was stabbed to death outside 29 Clinton Street. Police found $8,000 in his pocket. But an attempted-murder case reflected gentrification: Landlord Alvin Weiss hired a man to kill two people at 42 Clinton; he wanted to charge new tenants more money. Photographer Clayton Patterson says that while the nineties were more dangerous, “you could park your car and it wouldn’t get stolen. Drug dealers didn’t want problems.”

By 1999, the heroin trade was enough of a memory that Dewey Dufresne (father of chef Wylie and no relation to the victim) opened 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a gastronomic beachhead on what would become a restaurant row. Amid the bustle, crime is down (there were eleven murders and 823 robberies in the 7th Precinct in 1993, and three murders and 207 robberies in 2004). And though Dewey, now at WD-50 (at 50 Clinton), says business was good the weekend after the duFresne murder, some of his customers staying at hotels wanted concierge assurances that they could get cabs home.

The Clinton Years