How a Diana Ross concert in Central Park ended in a crime spree

The vocal talents of Diana Ross are certainly no secret. For decades, Motown’s favourite daughter has been stunning audiences with her dynamic three-octave range. However, back in the 1980s, her voice proved to be so impactful that one of her New York concerts ended in a spree of violence and theft.

In 1983, the former Supremes leader staged two concerts at The Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park. The benefit concert, in aid of the Diana Ross Playground, which now stands in Central Park, was plagued with difficulties. On the first night, on July 21st, the concert was cut short by a thunderstorm after only 45 minutes. With winds of up to 50 miles per hour and electricity supplies to the whole of NYC impacted, the benefit show was fairly disastrous – though it was nothing compared to what would follow on the following night.The concert itself was seen as a roaring success, with a sequin-covered Ross putting on a characteristically unforgettable show. Opening with her beloved hit ‘I’m Coming Out’, over 350,000 attendees were stunned by the Motown icon’s incredible voice. With no storm to interrupt proceedings, Ross played for over two hours, complete with numerous outfit changes and a setlist containing tracks from across her illustrious career.

Following the show, as the hot summer day turned to a dark New York night, all hell broke loose. With local gangs, criminals and low-level pretty thieves aware that 350,000 people had gathered in Central Park, many of the gig-goers found themselves targeted by New York’s criminal underbelly. Muggings and robberies soon overshadowed Ross’ performance, as the crime spree quickly spread from Central Park to Times Square and Columbus Square while the concertgoers moved downtown.

There are many conflicting reports about what exactly happened in the wake of the Central Park concert, with The New York Times reporting that over 80 people were arrested by the NYPD as a result of the post-gig robberies. In addition to the arrests, over 40 people were injured following the show, some of which were life-threatening. It was reported at the time that a teenager had been taken to hospital after being stabbed while attempting to stop a mugging.

Elsewhere, an 18-year-old was wounded after being shot by a Transit Authority detective after being told to drop his weapon. Despite the approximately 850 police officers attending the show, in addition to hundreds more that were deployed when the violence erupted, the NYPD was not equipped to properly deal with the waves of youths running rampant in Central Park.

New York was a strange place in the 1980s, between the era of Taxi Driver-esque seediness and poverty of the 1970s and the gentrification and yuppie culture that came in at the end of the 1980s. While it would be bold to claim that the vocal talents of Diana Ross were so unbelievable that the singer instilled criminal madness within the New York population, her concert did provide a concentrated audience of generally well-off attendees to be preyed on by young gangs.

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