It feels almost spooky to walk today among the Gilded Age mansions of long-dead industrialists on Montgomery Street, some of them boarded up, others carved into low-income apartments. Abandoned buildings abound, many of them gone to rot. “We’re not unique,” Nicholas Valentine, a local tailor who serves as Newburgh’s mayor, tells me. “It’s happened to many communities up and down the Hudson. Poughkeepsie. Peekskill. Things die.”
These days, roughly a quarter of Newburgh residents live below the poverty line. The city has few jobs, little retail, no grocery store, no public transportation, and not much in the way of wholesome recreational opportunities for kids. What it does have is an astonishing variety of street gangs.
For as long as anyone can remember, local kids in Newburgh have banded into informal fraternities, adopting colorful names and staking claim to some corner of turf: There were the Alleycatz, the Darkside, Five Corners Venom, too many to name. Some gangs were involved in the drug trade; others just made a ruckus. Patrick Arnold, a detective lieutenant with the Newburgh Police Department, remembers one gang, the Ashy Bandits, which had members as young as 8 years old. “They were raising hell,” he says. “Breaking into cars. Stealing your shit. We ended up getting calls from drug dealers, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something about these kids!’ ”
No one knows precisely how the Bloods first came to Newburgh, but the East Coast Bloods were born on Rikers Island in 1993, when a charismatic inmate named Omar Portee started recruiting black prisoners to oppose the Latin Kings, who dominated the penal system at the time. Portee had spent time among the original Bloods, in Los Angeles, and as he marshaled hundreds of inmates, he borrowed codes and mythology from the Southern California gang.
But while Portee’s creation was symbolically affiliated with the West Coast Bloods, it was not connected to them in any organizational sense. Gang migration, it turns out, is a controversial concept. Recent years have witnessed a profusion in small towns and suburbs of organizations that identify themselves as Bloods or Crips, Latin Kings or Mexican Mafia. But it’s not clear whether actual gangs are on the move or simply individual gang members—or perhaps just gang culture. There is some evidence of Bronx-based Bloods’ establishing new outposts for drug distribution in places like Kingston. Richard Zabel, deputy U.S. Attorney in the Southern District, says that one explanation for the presence of gangs in the Hudson Valley is the very success, during the nineties, of gang crackdowns in New York City. “They got both prosecuted and atomized,” Zabel says. “People left the city and moved to these other towns.” What we are witnessing today in places like Newburgh, he believes, is “the cresting of that problem.”
Still, Zabel argues, most gangs lack the strategic initiative to enact a franchised expansion. Instead, studies suggest, individual gang members may be moving for reasons of their own, swept up in the broader demographic currents through which poor populations have dispersed from large urban hubs to smaller cities and suburbs.
One thing is clear: The so-called national gangs now proliferating across the country often have no connection to any national enterprise at all. A local crew that starts throwing signs and wearing red might simply have intuited that when it comes to striking fear in rivals and building esprit de corps, it’s not a bad strategy to just borrow an established national brand. “Gang culture migrates faster than gang members,” cautions James Howell of the National Gang Center. Omar Portee had to travel as far as Los Angeles to bring the Blood culture back to Rikers, but that culture has long since gone viral. Those thugs outside the 7-Eleven might not be foot soldiers in some terrifying expansion, in other words, but rather, to use a favorite pejorative of criminologists, simply wannabes.
Nevertheless, as Gagliano points out, if a group of kids who call themselves Bloods start murdering rivals over drug turf, debates about their provenance become rather beside the point. “In the nineties, we hadn’t heard anything about the Bloods or the Latin Kings in Newburgh,” he says. “Last ten years? Fuck, yeah.” Almost overnight, these two gangs seem to have subsumed many of Newburgh’s fractious smaller groups, and as they started to consolidate drug turf, perhaps inevitably they went to war.
By the time Jeffrey Zachary was 9 years old, one of his older brothers, Chaz, was in state prison for shooting a man execution style at the corner of South and Lander. Chaz was a Blood. Trent, another older brother, fell in with the gangs as well, adopting the nickname Triggaman. Jeffrey was only 12 when Trent was killed, and you might think, given the logic of murder in Newburgh, that he would have become a Blood himself and sought revenge. But he didn’t. Instead, he spent the last years of his young life steering clear of the gangs, no small achievement for a boy growing up on Dubois Street. “I don’t want to die the way my brother died,” he told his sister. But then, wretchedly, he did.