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Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative

The first cracks in that stability showed up during the war, when a lot of fathers were away fighting and a lot of mothers were working in war plants. Some Brooklynites had been shocked at the revelation about Murder, Incorporated, the brutal Brooklyn-based Jewish-Italian mob whose members killed for money. But when the teenage gangs started roving Brooklyn during the war, then some citizens thought the end was near (you could abide Murder, Inc., of course, if your other institutions—family, church, jobs—remained stable). In Bedford-Stuyvesant, the first black gangs, the Bishops and the Robins, began to assemble down on Sands Street; the Navy Yard Boys were already rolling sailors and shipyard workers; the Red Hook Boys came out of the first projects and the side streets around the Gowanus Canal; the Garfield Boys, from Garfield Place in South Brooklyn, expanded into the South Brooklyn Boys, and became the training ground for many of the soldiers who are now in the Brooklyn chapters of the Mafia. In my neighborhood, the Shamrock Boys became the Tigers, and they fought the South Brooklyn Boys with an expertise in urban guerrilla warfare (on both sides) that the Black Panthers would be advised to study. I don't know if there ever really was a gang called the Amboy Dukes (I am told by buffs that there was), but Irving Shulman's The Amboy Dukes became the bible for a lot of these kids; they studied the sayings of Crazy Shack the way the motorcycle gangs later studied Lee Marvin and Brando in The Wild One.

The gangs were wild, often brutal; there were more than a few knifings and gang rapes, and a number of killings, especially after the war, when veterans started bringing home guns as souvenirs; in shop classes in the high schools, students spent more time making zip guns out of pieces of pipe than they did making bookcases or pieces of sinks. The gun—especially if it was a real gun—became a thing of awe. The first time I ever saw Joe Gallo (they called him Joe the Blond in those days) he was in the Ace Pool Room upstairs from his father's luncheonette on Church Avenue; someone, I think it was an old friend named Johnny Rose, whispered to me. "Don't ever say nuthin' about him: he's packin'."

"When the gangs started roving Brooklyn during World War II, many citizens thought the end was near."

The gangs started breaking up in the '50s. First, the Korean War took most of the survivors away, all of those kids who had been too young for the Second World War. By the time they came home they were sick of fighting; they married, and some of them moved away. But while they were gone, something else had arrived in Brooklyn: drugs. What the Youth Board and the cops had not been able to do, heroin did. More of them died from O.D.'s than ever died in the gang wars. Prison took a lot of them, and for some odd reason, the ones who had managed to escape arrests and habits became cops. Only two really new gangs started in the '50s: the Jokers and a gang from my neighborhood which called itself Skid Row. The Jokers lost a lot of members to drugs, and a few of them were involved in a brutal stomp-killing. I still see some of the Skid Row kids around. My brother Tommy was a member for a while; by the time he was in CCNY, three of the gang were already dead from heroin.

The whole terrible period of the gangs, followed by the introduction of heroin, changed a lot of citizens' attitudes about Brooklyn. Those who had escaped the Lower East Side now started talking about escaping Brooklyn. Events seemed to have moved beyond their control. You could do the best you were capable of doing: work hard, hold two jobs, get bigger and better television sets for the living room, watch steam heat replace kerosene stoves, see the old coal stoves in the kitchens dragged out to be replaced by modern gas ovens, and still people in their teens were found dead in the shrubs of Prospect Park, their arms as scarred as school desks. "We gotta get outa Brooklyn." You heard it over and over in those days. It wasn't a matter of moving from one neighborhood to the next; the transportation system was too good for all that; it was out "to the island" or to California or Rockland County. The idea was to get out.

Leaving was made easier by four central factors in the period of postwar decline in Brooklyn. All, in their special ways, were emotional. The four factors: 1) the folding of the Brooklyn Eagle; 2) the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for California; 3) the long years of insecurity and the final folding of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; 4) the migration of southern Negroes, most of whom settled in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.


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