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The Mean Street

The enduring frisson of the slums.


Some fun went out of Fun City when Umberto’s Clam House moved from Hester Street to Broome, because even if it was still Umberto’s, it was no longer where Joey Gallo was shot dead while eating scungilli marinara. No doubt it was similar when the barbershop at the Park Sheraton on Seventh Avenue, scene of Albert Anastasia’s last shave in 1957, was shuttered. New Yorkers, mostly a law-abiding bunch in favor in safe streets, nonetheless retain a possibly unhealthy but undying obsession with murder, mayhem, and the Mean Street. The so-called Bad Neighborhood has always been a lore-intensive New York Classic, dating back to when Bill the Butcher was cutting out the hearts of Dead Rabbit gangsters on the 1830s Bowery. The East Twenties were a no-go zone during the 1860s. Jacob Riis talks about the “criminality” bred by houses on Crosby Street inhabited by “101 adults and 91 children.” During the 1920s, it was great sport for well-to-do downtowners to dip their toes into Harlem for a night, or week. During the post-white-flight years, the South Bronx, which saw 68,456 arsons between 1970 and ’75 (an average of 33 a night), became the national symbol of urban apocalypse. More recently, certain urban adventurers have expressed deep nostalgia for the disappearance of Times Square’s sleazoid sprawl.

But not all mean streets can be vanquished by the slick swipe of the Rudy brush. The roster of “bad” neighborhoods -- Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York, Morrisania, Mott Haven -- shrinks and expands with the economic winds. New waves of immigrants bring more opportunity, more mean streets. Right now, if you’re in Sunset Park or Corona, steer clear of the Mexican gangs, the Crazy Homies, Los Traviesos (“the Troublemakers”), and Cachondos (“Horny Boys”) with their mi vida loca tattoos. It is an eternal process. But a mean street is in the eye of the beholder. For years, whenever a poll was taken among cityside reporters, the overpass between the L and 3 trains at Livonia Avenue in East New York was voted “most mean.” A recent visit, with the winter sun glinting off the razor coil around the train yards, revealed a slightly improved yet still somewhat hair-raising landscape. “Mean? Yeah,” said one family man standing in front of his house. “It used to be mean, but not anymore. And you know why? Because we’re here.”


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