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East Bronx Story—Return of the Street Gangs

The Royal Javelins solved their problem in an enterprising way. They proposed, to a somewhat uncertain and probably intimidated building superintendent, that they be given the use of a three-room basement apartment, in return for which they would provide protection to the building's tenants and help keep the building clean. Thus far, the arrangement has been working out to the apparent satisfaction of the landlord, whose tenants are "taken off" in the streets less often, and to the Javelins, who seem to find pleasure in their "police" responsibilities.

Between 60 and 70 gangs now have clubhouses in the Bronx. Most of them are in basements, but a few, like those of the Javelins and the Seven Immortals, are in apartments. Most of the clubhouses are "leased" under arrangements similar to the Javelins'—in return for police and sanitation services, a place they can call their own.

But a fair number of other gangs, like the Reapers of 180th Street and Vyse Avenue, don't have a headquarters and swear they don't want one. "You'll never get me in a clubhouse, brother," said one young Reaper, nodding toward a passing police car. "There, the Man knows where you are, and he can come down on you whenever he wants." He pulled a six-inch blade from the pocket of his denim jacket and said, "Sometimes you just can't afford to get popped in on, know what I mean?"

Like all gangs through time, today's Bronx cliques have their own notions of right and wrong. Their code accords, in a broad way, with that of the society outside. But their chief form of punishment, administered in high seriousness, is a physical beating—the severity of which is not always predictable. A girl associated with the Majestic Warlocks was recently disciplined for having taken heroin and having lied about it to members of the gang. To the Warlocks, the lie was as serious an offense as the deed itself. In the Warlocks' basement headquarters, the girl, fully clothed, locked her arms around a column and received twenty strokes with a wooden paddle across her buttocks, ten strokes on each count. The Royal Javelins favor a garrison belt (not the buckle end) on the bare back. Several gangs use a wet towel.

Virtually all gangs collect weekly dues, usually a dollar or two, spent on firearms or for the improvement of the clubhouse. Failure to pay dues on time is almost always grounds for punishment. Other laws of conduct vary a good deal from clique to clique, but several rules are common to most. The use of marijuana, alcohol, and LSD is generally condoned, but systemic addictives like cocaine, heroin and amphetamines are taboo. First offenders are beaten. Repeaters are often given a choice between expulsion from the gang or a far more severe beating.

Robbery—of outsiders as well as of one another—was becoming a punishable offense in some gangs, on the theory, strenuously argued by the gangs that formed the Brotherhood, that coexistence with the community would naturally lead to community support for the gangs. It's impossible to guess whether the idea could catch on—especially if the Brotherhood should dissolve.

The gang leaders, invariably called presidents, derive their authority from what can only be called strength of character. Above all, gang members respect courage. Virtually all presidents, and their war counselors (their seconds in command and first to strike a blow in a rumble), are articulate and, in their way, good administrators—good at delegating, good at getting things done. Presidents are seldom elected. They simply assume command, or are given it by acclamation, and they rule with unlimited authority until death, jail, or age intervenes, or until their magnetism gives out.

Some New Yorkers of a certain age—those able to nod knowingly at the drop of such names as the Amboy Dukes and the Redwings—will be tempted, as they ponder the return of the street gangs, to console themselves with the thought that the city has seen all this before. They will be kidding themselves. The city has never before seen so much factory-made firepower in so many youthful, organized hands. Others may think that an old ally in repressing gang violence, heroin, will return. That is less certain. The gangs in the Bronx have been down on hard drugs for several years now, and while no one can say whether they will stay that way, that is the present fact. No one, though, will assume that against the possibility of gang violence in the streets on a tragic scale there is a sensible, adequately financed plan equal to the threat.


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