Ride the 7 train, the “Orient Express,” through Queens from Long Island City to Flushing, and you might as well be circumnavigating the globe. According to the 2000 census, 36 percent of all New Yorkers are foreign-born—up from 28.4 percent in 1990—and the epicenter of this immigration explosion is Queens, which is now the most ethnically diverse county in the country. Historically, such massive immigration, cramped living quarters, and poverty have always spawned street gangs, as young male newcomers banded together to fight more entrenched groups for turf and, of course, honor.
The fifties saw “rumbles”—pitched street battles between the switchblade gangs, immortalized by the fictional Puerto Rican Sharks and Anglo Jets of West Side Story; in the sixties, the black Jolly Stompers held sway in Brownsville, Brooklyn; and the mostly Latino Savage Nomads prowled the South Bronx in the early seventies. But what gangs are battling for turf now? Are Colombians jousting with Chinese and Koreans for control of the parks and playgrounds of Flushing?
By all accounts, the answer is no. “The gang situation in New York is under control,” says Inspector William Tartaglia, head of the Gang Division of the New York City Police Department. According to Tartaglia, there are several thousand Latin Kings still spread throughout the five boroughs (they suffered a massive takedown in May 1998, when scores of Kings and Queens were put away for long stretches), along with a loose array of Bloods wannabes and a smattering of new ethnic gangs. But when it comes to large numbers, group loyalty, and active criminality, today’s gangs of New York are limp and demoralized, if not completely clueless. “Sometimes,” says Captain Charles Alifano, also of the Gang Division, “we pick up a kid who identifies himself as a Blood, and we have to tell him which pocket he’s supposed to have his red handkerchief in.”
The Bloods and Crips have been able to maintain L.A.’s status as the drive-by-shooting capital of the world, and the mega-street gangs of Chicago like the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords continue to flourish. So where have all the New York gangs gone? Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College, suggests that urban renewal has helped speed the demise of the ethnic gang in New York: “So many neighborhoods were destroyed, there was nothing left to fight over.” Curtis points out that West Side Story was about a battle over land that is now Lincoln Center. He also notes that this has been compounded by the fact that many new arrivals are too savvy to move into the notorious inner-city neighborhoods that have traditionally served as immigrant portals: “You simply couldn’t sell the South Bronx to the Eastern Europeans.”
Ethnographers like Curtis also speculate that the heroin epidemic of the seventies and the crack boom of the eighties actually weakened the ethnic street gangs. With the demand for drugs came corporate-style drug-selling organizations, and for young men in New York’s poorest areas, the lure of fast money quickly replaced neighborhood fealty and gang affiliation. Members of the New York Bloods, modeled after but not affiliated with the West Coast version, have been known to change their gang affiliation when it suits them—an act unheard of on the West Coast. “They are just drug-dealing crews that try to capitalize on the name,” explains an NYPD detective. Indeed, the gang, such as it is, cuts across ethnic lines. There are Latino Bloods, and even white Bloods, to be found in Staten Island.
Integration, apparently, isn’t healthy for gang culture. The general trend toward diversity in popular culture, where white and Asian hip-hop fans do their best very best to imitate inner-city minorities, has further pushed the ethnic street gang toward obsolescence. Fifty years ago, Eminem might have led a white gang against black youth from across town. Now he’s in heavy rotation on Hot 97.
But according to Tartaglia and other police experts, the real reason gangs are disappearing is the NYPD Gang Division. The division, 300 strong, gathers intelligence from local detective squads, precinct cops, and informants. When it picks up a rumor of a gang fight from school security or learns of an assault where a gang name was used, it saturates the area with uniformed officers and detectives. “You can’t have a gang behind closed doors. You have to be in the streets, and that’s where we put our people,” Tartaglia says. “We show up and we keep coming back.”
But while New York may be experiencing a lull in gang activity, that’s no reason to get comfortable. “Unfortunately, gang affiliation is on the rise in our high schools,” says Norbert Davidson of the Department of Education School Safety and Planning. Predictably, the activity parallels immigration patterns. A group that calls itself DDP—for Dominicans Don’t Play—has carved out some territory in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Caribbean-immigrant youths, while not forming their own gangs, have been drawn into the Crips. (According to Davidson, a high-school youth may be wearing a Calvin Klein shirt to make a fashion statement. Or he might be sending another kind of message. “If a vertical line is drawn through the c, it means the student is a Blood, a ‘Crip killer.’”) There is even a group of Yugoslavian, Albanian, and Pakistani boys who call themselves YAPS.
But as another indicator of New York’s diminished status as a gang incubator, instead of starting in the mean streets of the city and spreading to the suburbs, as gangs like the Jolly Stompers did in the sixties, many of the new street gangs of New York City, like MS-13, which started among young Salvadoran construction workers and landscapers in Nassau and Suffolk counties, have traveled in the opposite direction. MS-13 members can now be found in Corona, Queens, and Parkchester in the Bronx. Their colors are blue and white—same as the Salvadoran flag. On Long Island, they are involved in a murderous feud with SWP—Salvadorans With Pride.
Some have estimated the number of Mexican gangs at 30, but both police and sociologists play down their significance, pointing out that the new gangs don’t have nearly the numbers or the organization that the Latin Kings or even the Ñetas had five years ago. Instead of warring with rival ethnic groups, the Mexican gangs most often end up fighting with other Mexicans. “They’ll invade a wedding or a baptism,” explains Tartaglia. It’s just like crashing a party, except sometimes the violence turns deadly. In August, 10-year-old Malenny Mendez was struck by a stray bullet allegedly fired by one of a group of ten Saint James Boys who had shown up uninvited at a baptism. According to police, the Saint James Boys named themselves after a park on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and are an offshoot of an older West Side Manhattan gang known as Los Traveosos, “the Troublemakers.”
In warm weather, small groups of Mexican gang members gather around the benches of Sunset Park to drink beer and gaze across the harbor at the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. If recent trends hold, the gangbangers of the future will be organized around neither neighborhood nor the ethnicity they hold so dear. They don’t know it, but these thugs may soon be as anachronistic as the Bowery Boys.
Gangs of New York
After a career of telling tightly narrated urban fables, Martin Scorsese has let loose the monster epic he’s been itching to do for 30 years. Equal parts costume drama, medieval morality play, sweeping romance, and New York creation myth, it feels like the movie he was born to make.NYC Gang Timeline
New York’s first street gangs date to the 1790s, when young apprentices organized themselves by trade and spent their off-hours terrorizing pedestrians. Since then, it’s been all downhill.