Reliving the Glory Days for the Gangs of New York

Reliving the Glory Days for the Gangs of New York

The leader of the gang the Reapers talking to other gangs about not retaliating and keeping peace, Bronx, New York City, 1972.

SourceJohn Shearer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Why you should care

Because the comedic possibilities of head wounds are largely limited when it’s your head that’s wounded.

They wore vests festooned with patches, Kangol hats tilted to the side and Haggar slacks or jeans, and they carried inverted golf clubs — for clubbing, not golf. Standing atop and astride milk crates spread across the sidewalk, three teens laughed and glowered at the pedestrians who had to step into the street to get past them, a procession of women, kids and, most appallingly, able-bodied men who figured that the better part of valor was getting home in one piece. In the 1976 streets of Brooklyn, even without today’s widespread firepower that makes even casual conflicts fraught with the peril of imminent gunshot death, it generally made sense to avoid trouble.

But sometimes someone has just got to stick his hand in the tiger’s cage, and so it was that the teenage version of me walked between the milk crates and not around. Which got me braced by the guys whose vests read “Jolly Stompers.” Which for those in the know was Mike Tyson’s crew.

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More than 150 Black and Puerto Rican youths from 20 gangs gather in the gym of the Boys Club of America, South Bronx, in December 1971, after the church memorial of Cornell Benjamin (Black Benjy), who was killed as he tried to break up a fight in the South Bronx.

Source James Hughes/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

“What clique you with?” I’d never heard that word before. Looking to my friends who had stepped into the street, I could see they didn’t know either. But we all knew the language of threat, and though we got past unharmed, it was the luck of the foolhardy since street gangs in ’70s New York — the same city that President Gerald R. Ford told to drop dead, at least according to the famous New York Daily News headline — operated largely without sanction and without much police interference.

“The cops used to laugh at me,” says Edmund Newton, an award-winning reporter who penned several series on the gangs of New York for the New York Post. “But I did know that the kids who started these gangs were idealistic. At first.” That idealism cohered around stemming the flow of drugs into their neighborhoods and protecting themselves and their neighbors from the predations of those using and selling drugs. Teenage gangs like the Ghetto Brothers were into physical fitness and martial arts and even managed to produce a few hit single records pre-hip-hop. But “idealism on the street doesn’t last too long,” Newton says.

The gang scene soon devolved into a chaos that was clumsily captured in the 1979 Walter Hill film The Warriors, which … had theaters in the hood cracking up.

Founded by Black Benjy and Yellow Benjy, the Ghetto Brothers rode that wave of best intentions right up until a rival murdered Black Benjy. The gang scene soon devolved into a chaos that was clumsily captured in the 1979 Walter Hill film The Warriors, which depicted gangs and gang warfare and had theaters in the hood cracking up at the Hollywoodization of what was a very real struggle for them.

“We had the Hells Angels on 3rd Street, the Hitmen on 12th Street, the Allen Boys on Allen Street, the Newcomers at 12th and Avenue C and the Second Avenue Boys,” says former longtime Lower East Side resident and New York hardcore godfather Harley Flanagan. “Plus you had different cliques in the different [public housing] projects. Every five to 10 blocks you had a different gang or crew.” This was on top of the Italian hold on Little Italy, the Chinese Tongs running crime in Chinatown and the Irish Westies in Hell’s Kitchen.

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Leader Eddie Cuevas urging members of his gang, the Reapers, not to retaliate for the actions of a rival gang in the Bronx, New York, 1972.

Source John Shearer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Before the ’70s spooled out to an end, more than 40 gangs, including a Hebrew gang, B’nai Zaken, occupied each corner of the city’s five boroughs and were not nearly as concerned with the “good Samaritan thing they had been doing,” says Newton. Which is to say gangs went from protecting turf from drug dealers to protecting turf to drug-deal. “The turf stuff was all about drug stuff,” Flanagan says. “It was all about drug-dealing locations and the money that was tied to that.”

It primed the city to perfection for the crack epidemic of the ’80s, the brief flirtation with the West Coast-inspired Bloods and Crips thing and the establishment of an effective conduit to imprisonment. After the 1994 election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor and his muscular approach to policing, the city got a handle on the more conspicuous elements of New York gang culture so that eventually, the colors and identifying marks disappeared, along with a lot of the original gangsters, subway crime, graffiti, porno-pocked Times Square, dog-pooped sidewalks, blighted buildings and abandoned cars on garbage-strewn streets.

So is the new New York generally gang-free?

Not by a stretch. MS-13 and other Central American gangs, the Mafia and the Tongs have all benefited from an increased federal focus on terrorism. But what these newer gangs lack in sartorial splendor they more than make up for in ruthless dedication to cash creation. So while the streets of New York are safer than they ever were in the ’70s, crime hasn’t disappeared, just the outward manifestations of it.

“And don’t even talk about the Albanians,” says Fred Santoro, a retired New York cop who worked undercover on the organized-crime beat. “They’re really savages.”

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