How the Disappearance of Etan Patz Changed the Face of New York City Forever

tags: crime, New York, urban history, children, gentrification

Paul M. Renfro is Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University. His book, Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State, is now available from Oxford University Press.

Down Prince Street in SoHo—past the palatial, multilevel Apple store and adjacent to the cast-iron Polo Ralph Lauren storefront touting “luxury suitings”—sits the longtime home of the Patz family. Stanley and Julie Patz purchased their spacious third-floor loft in 1972, the year in which their son Etan was born and before SoHo’s late twentieth-century metamorphosis into a hub for haute couture.

As garment and print manufacturers vacated the area in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a cadre of artists, bohemians, young professionals, and families moved in. The Patzes belonged to this cadre and forged enduring bonds with its other members. “What makes SoHo a small town,” one 1980 New York Times article explained, “is the friendship and a shared sense of survival that links its early settlers. They were in the trenches together.”

The war metaphor notwithstanding, the SoHo of the seventies “was gritty,” a longtime resident recalled in 2012. After all, the neighborhood was part of a city in crisis. Amidst violent crime, financial insolvency, and crushing austerity in the mid-1970s, a network of public sector unions printed and disseminated provocative pamphlets dubbing New York “Fear City.”

Until things change,” one of these pamphlets warned, “stay away from New York City if you possibly can.” Still, the “tight-knit community of artists and factory workers” helped make SoHo feel like “a little town”—seemingly shielded, to some degree, from the convulsions felt throughout the rest of the city.

Then, on May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan vanished.

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