1981 was not one of New York City’s best years. The 365 days between January 1st and December 31st were filled with news reports of mob violence spilling out into the street, rape, robbery and other seeds of crime that had the city’s citizens fearing what their city was becoming. (A trash strike tied to the mob that spanned over two weeks made the streets grimmer than ever before.)
That tumultuous year of spilled blood is the subject of the new drama A Most Violent Year. The movie follows an immigrant’s ties to the criminal underworld that surged through New York City in the early 1980s. To give you an idea of the city that inspired the movie’s title, here’s some NYC crime history that helped form the backdrop for A Most Violent Year.
There were 2,166 murders that year compared to 648 in 2013. The rate of street violence had captured the global spotlight just a year earlier with the murder of John Lennon, and was NYPD Commissioner Robert McGuire’s primary issue of concern.
“Street crime is the most serious thing we face today. It has an enormous impact on the quality of people’s lives. It determines where we walk, what time we walk, even whether we play bingo at night and whether we go to the theater.”
The Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that is today a playground for millennial hipsters with their trendy restaurants and high-rise condos was a vastly different place at the time. Lena Dunham and her Girls co-stars wouldn’t have set foot in the neighborhood that had become a hotbed of street gang and mob activity. Gangs that went by names like the Dirty Ones, the Savage Nomads, and the Black Stabbers waged war with one another, leading the area to be dubbed Brooklyn’s “killing fields” for the number of teenagers senselessly killed in the area. This map from the NYPD, detailing the gangs of Brooklyn shows just how staggering the problem was during that era.
Next to street gang activity, the mob was also reaching its peak in New York City and had prominent footholds in Queens and Brooklyn. During this time, FBI agent Joseph Pistone — or better known as Donnie Brasco to Johnny Depp fans — was wrapping up his undercover time with the Bonanno crime family. Just a month after he left that investigation in the summer of ’81, mob capo Dominick Napolitano was found murdered in a Brooklyn Basement.
Mob violence also made headlines that year when two men at the Shamrock Bar in Richmond Hill, Queens were gunned down by mobsters over a spilled drink. Charges were eventually dropped against alleged killer Ronald Barlin after Linda Gotti — niece of the late Gambino mafia boss, John Gotti — recanted her identification of Barlin. The other two accused shooters, Bobby Vernace and Frank Riccardi, would escape the murder raps in separate trials in the 1990s, though Vernace was eventually sentenced to life in prison last year for the killing.
The city’s crime rate would drop 5.1% the following year with the police commissioner crediting new police programs as the reason for the decline.
The city wasn’t a total landscape of violence of course. At the same time, groups like The Talking Heads and Sonic Youth were helping to cultivate a vibrant post-punk rock scene. Of course, this was also the year that Escape From New York came out, and if a city is too much for Snake Plissken, that’s a serious red flag.