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East Bronx Story—Return of the Street Gangs

"Do you know the cops are after you?" the friend asked.

Judd smiled the same uncertain smile he had on Daly Avenue as he faced the Warlocks. "For the dude that was hit last weekend? Yeah," Judd said. "I didn't have anything to do with it. Neither did the two they got yesterday."

The friend, who clearly didn't believe him, asked, "Are you going to split until things cool off?"

"I know the detectives around here," Judd answered, as he started walking away. "There are only three of them who could spot me." Then he said, over his shoulder, "The Man better get all the leaders before summer, 'cause if he doesn't, nobody's gonna stop us then."

It's easy to see why New Yorkers haven't had to worry about street gangs in any serious way for more than a decade. By 1962 the group tensions and violence that previously arose in quarrels over "turf" and girls were all but totally relieved by a new kind of ghetto street worker—the dope pusher. Heroin destroyed the gangs.

It's a good deal harder to say what began to bring the gangs back. One major factor, clearly, was the emergence of the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, and the Young Lords—groups of young people with at least the semblance of a program, a taste for violent confrontation if necessary, an interest in change, and a strong intolerance of hard drugs. By the late 1960s it seemed as if half the blacks and Puerto Ricans in the Bronx had become members of, or at least identified strongly with, such groups.

Since then, calls for revolution and hassles over political doctrine appear to have lost their appeal. They offer little to a sixteen-year-old with a father or a brother or sister who is a heroin addict. Slowly, neighborhood gangs of young people, mostly teenagers but an astonishing number no older than ten, began to reappear.

At first, these new gangs—or "cliques" as they prefer to be called—showed little interest in violence just for the hell of it. When they began, much of their anger was tightly focused on the dope traffic in their midst. Independent of one another, many gangs began a reign of terror against pushers. By early 1970, when the city government awakened to their existence, these new gangs had pushed at least a portion of the heroin trade westward, across the Grand Concourse.

Instead of staging full-scale rumbles over turf here and there, cliques began sending out tentative peace feelers to one another. In mid-January of 1971 the outlines of a remarkably sophisticated political alliance began to take shape. A coalition known as the Brotherhood was forged by Ruben Maldonado, then president of the Royal Javelins, and Robert Williams, president of the Peacemakers, with the help of Eddie Vincenty, whom they enlisted as an utterly trustworthy adviser and middle man. At the time, the Javelins and the Peacemakers were the two most heavily armed gangs in the Bronx, with single large divisions in the East Tremont area. Within a month they were joined by the Young Sinners, the Reapers, and the Black Spades.

Outside agencies quickly became interested in the Bronx gangs. The Young Lords and Será, a Federally-backed Spanish-speaking anti-poverty group, joined with the city's Youth Board to open a storefront center for the Ghetto Brothers, a large and vocal clique in the Southeast Bronx. Various neighborhood groups with Federal funds began making overtures to gangs in the Tremont and Hunts Point areas.

But other outside groups began paying attention too. Within days of a Daily News story on the Brotherhood last November, various New York equivalents of Krupp and Skoda—munitions salesmen dispatched by the organized black underworld, some gang members are convinced—were filtering through the Bronx ready to deal in hand guns, machine guns, grenades, and explosives. Earlier this month, a large clique in the Northeast Bronx concluded a deal—one of the gang insists it was with the Black Panthers—for four high-powered rifles and "several" .38 revolvers. Reported price: just under $300.

With Bronx street gangs, as with nations, arms races tend to lead to disaster. As a result, the delicate Family Treaty negotiated by Eddie Vincenty last November is rapidly losing whatever force it had. The death of Emilio White on Vyse Avenue last month is no isolated case. Some recent items:

February 18: three all-white gangs from north of Fordham Road go south, with machetes, looking for Black Spades. The Spades are nowhere to be found; they are up north on the white gangs' turf, with guns.

February 24: Robbie Williams, 21, former Peacemaker president and co-founder of the Brotherhood, is stabbed outside his home on Vyse Avenue. He is released from the hospital four days later, just in time to see his new daughter baptized.


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Mar 27, 1972 issue of New York
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