Gangs of New York

“The best single thing that has happened on the streets on New York in the past ten years is the re-emergence of teenage gangs… These young people are standing up for life, and if their courage lasts, they will help this city to survive.” p. 49


The re-emergence of gangs became a consequence of urban renewal ushered in by Robert Moses, the burnings, and financial downturn of the time. Land redevelopment and the construction of Cross-Bronx Expressway turned South Bronx into a Necropolis. Those who could afford it moved out, but the majority lived on through the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods. Businesses were closing, people were losing their jobs. Nobody cared about the affected population of poor Hispanics and blacks.

Then the slumlords stated burning buildings. Apartments abandoned by those escaping the Bronx, became primary targets for insurance arsonists. Burning became so profitable that buildings were set on fire every day in the mid 1970s. The burnings symbolized the figurative and literal destruction of the Bronx at the same time. On one hand, whole blocks were cleared out by fires, and on the other, burnings seemed like an appropriate response to the growing sense of abandonment that was felt by the inhabitants of Bronx.

And with that sense, unemployed and angry young men found solace in the gangs. Most referred to them as families, and its members as brothers and sisters. Gangs presented a chance to be a part of something, to be around like-minded people. They gave a sense of purpose and freedom. And they certainly presented plenty of chances to take out all the built-up anger. Gangs existed as long as there was conflict. Constant struggle for turf and respect kept pouring fuel into the “fires” of Bronx. Gang activity bred more gang activity. Kids started joining at younger ages, seeking protection or even just friends. As something that spawned from the socio-economic decline of South Bronx, at their peak, the gangs started to turn against poverty and violence. Relabeling themselves as “peace organizations,” they started advocating for truth and peaceful co-existence between gangs.

Jeff Chang describes peace between gangs as the first step to their eventual decline. Without fuel, the “fires” in the Bronx subsided. When New York Post columnist Pete Hamill wrote that, “(gangs) will help this city to survive,”  I think he was referring to the effect their eventual demise would have on the city.

Gang Culture in the Bronx

The hope and optimism of the 60’s exploded with the assassinations of leaders like RFK, MLK , and Malcolm X. These feelings of despair and hopelessness combined with the post Robert Moses conditions of the Bronx, set up the perfect conditions for the gangs that sprung up in The Bronx in the late 60s and early seventies. Chang argues that youth movements usually spring up and last for 5 years,  putting both the youth and civil rights movements of the sixties and the subsequent gang activity in a perfect time frame.

The Ghetto Brothers were a revolutionary group of young people that emerged around 1968. Formed by the four Melendez brothers, it also included Charlie Suarez and Black Benjie. Although involved in gang activity, the group was taken under the wing of their teacher Manny Dominguez. With this, they attempted to make a transition from a gang to an organization. The Ghetto Brothers attempted to organize a gang truce in 1972. They were a great example of the youth energy that arose from the ashes of the sixties optimism.

One very interesting aspect of the ghetto brothers was their expression of their youthful energy and political ideology through their fun energetic music. The new youth movement that would spring up in the Bronx after the Ghetto Brothers disintegrated in 1973 would be influenced by the energy and sense of community of the Ghetto Brothers. This lead to the block parties that would eventually become the foundation of hip hop.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Ch. 1 and 3

The chapters discuss reason for the downfall of Bronx. It is interesting to note that Robert Moses’s plans for New York City can cause such destruction for one community.  When I first learned of Robert Moses, it was about his funding for High Way expansion into the outer boroughs as well as Long Island. He used the funding to build Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This park still exists today and it is a big part of the Queens community because it has become an iconic symbol of the Unisphere and all the free resources such as swimming pool, soccer fields, and BBQ pits. The destruction of Bronx caused by Moses’s plan is a shocking comparison to the result of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.


Moses’s plan destroyed South Bronx and its community. Landlords made more profit from destroying its property than improving it and collecting rents. This resulted in more apartment buildings being damaged and abandoned. There was a lack of funding into South Bronx as well as lack of police officers in the community. Teenagers often had to join gangs for their own safety. These gangs were often the police of their community and they kicked out drug addicts and protected their turf. Eventually the gang activity escalated into violence with their neighboring gangs. The view people had about South Bronx grew worse as people saw images of collapsed and abandoned buildings and images of teen gangs and violence.


“Fires of Abandonment”

“So the Vice President travels to Europe and Japan, the Secretary of state to the Middle East and Russia, the UN ambassador to Africa. No one of comparable stature comes here.” Chang, pg 24.

As the streets of the Bronx turned into a hell on earth, the government lacked participation to prevent the corruption from the building owners to escalate into such chaos. Countless families were victims of not only the danger provided by the gangs that were forming at the same time, but also from being misplaced from their homes due to the greed of these building owners. These “slumlords” would hire junkies or thugs to set their buildings on fire in order to collect insurance money for the damages. Slumlords as well as insurance companies would benefit from these arrangements as more policies were sold. My question is where was government intervention when entire apartment buildings would burn to ashes and hundreds of families would find themselves homeless on a weekly basis? The government surely failed the citizens of the Bronx to provide a solution to this fast growing problem. The comment of New York’s democratic senator, Patrick Moynihan, “the time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from ‘benign neglect'”, was what finally caught president Nixon’s attention. The government took some action regarding the crisis the Bronx was suffering by cutting back on social services to the inner cities, and by so, removing more than seven fire companies from the Bronx. Unfortunately, this action resulted in what was called “a ‘contagion’ of fires” leaving behind blocks of abandoned destroyed buildings which later on would serve as clubhouses for the developing mass of gangs and cliques.

Two Tracks and the Cross Bronx Expressway

Throughout the 1960’s people across the nation people were raising their voices against the injustices they felt were happening in their world. The Bronx was no exception as people mobilized under the standard of many causes. Towards the end of the sixties the architecture begins to change, literally. Chang describes the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, Robert Moses’ enormous road that would allow residents of New Jersey to quickly traverse the Bronx and go into the suburbs of Queens. The project led to the mass exodus and displacement of Bronx dwellers. As the people and jobs left the neighborhoods began to deteriorate as apartments remained empty and unkempt and then were destroyed by fire in order to collect insurance and have some profitability and with this came the demise of the social movement of the previous generation. The Bronx had been converted into rubble and as Chang puts it: “The gangs were a vanguard of the rubble… They had no reason to sing to sweet harmonies. They were the children of Moses’s grand experiment and the fires had already begun.”

As the Bronx began to re-segregate there was a resurgence in youth gangs in the Bronx as turfs were divided violence ensued both among themselves and against other people and authorities. They were the terror of the streets but they also became a respected source of power in the community. In the early seventies with this enormous social following some gangs, like the Ghetto Brothers, took it upon themselves to look beyond the beef and violence to the possibility of peace and change in their neighborhoods. In a momentous, yet somewhat insincere, occasion the gangs met after the death of Black Benjie  made peace very publicly and later privately. It was made clear to them that they were not each other’s enemy anymore.

The Decline of the South Bronx

In “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, Jeff Chang discusses the decline of the Bronx and how it became the birth place of Hip-Hop. During the 1950-60’s Robert Moses’s construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the South Bronx led to a decline that borough is still recovering from today. Due to the construction of the Cross Bronx, neighborhoods of Jewish,Irish and Italian families were destroyed when they had displaced all along with many businesses. Due to the construction of the Expressway led to decline property values, which made it undesirable for whites. White’s moved move to suburbs which is known as the “White Flight”.  Hispanics and Blacks soon moved into neighborhoods undesirable by Whites.

Decreased property also meant that landlord made less rent profits. For landlord it was more profitable to leave their building in disrepair and later burn them down to ashes to collect insurance money. Building fires were really common in the 70’s with the lost of 43,000 housing units. South Bronx residents felt neglected, and some  people (mostly youth)  formed gangs to support one another.

The Change in The Bronx

Jeff Chang begins to write about the racial issue of the New York Yankees, which has been based in the South Bronx, in 1970’s that Reggie Jackson struggled to get along with his teammate. Jeff then continues to write about the change in the Bronx. Due to the plan to construct the Cross-Bronx Expressway by Robert Moses, the Bronx would fall into great confusion. Many poor African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Jewish families had to move to new places like the South Bronx, and jobs in the South Bronx escaped from this migration. As a result of this change, the South Bronx economy had been hurt that last 600,000 manufacturing jobs and so on. Moreover, new residents were treated unfairly by slumlords, and slumlords asked villains to burn their vacant apartments to earn insurance money. Thus, the South Bronx became wasteland and was in chaos.

Jeff goes on to write about the conditions in the South Bronx in the end of 1960’s and the beginning of 1970’s. At that time, many gangs thrived in the South Bronx, and they often quarreled each other based on racial and territorial matters. However, because of abuse of police power, the Savage Skulls, a black gang, and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang, cooperated to fight against police. Furthermore, because public services were unreliable in the South Bronx, gangs provided health care systems and shelters for homeless kids, so people relied on them. These situations affected bonds among them, cultures and their social thoughts, and other people started to pay attention to the South Bronx.

Robert Moses’ Vision of Manhattan; Downfall of Bronx

The historical development of Bronx, as stated in page 11 of the Book “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” started in 1929 by a man called Robert Moses with a vision of leading the white exodus out of the Bronx. He wanted to make Manhattan a center for attention basically, and it caused most of the white residents in Bronx to move away while Robert is laying down a plan to reform the city. He wants to first build a highway system to connect from New Jersey to Manhattan to Queens. But by doing that, he will need to clear space for the highways to be constructed. There are Bronx residents currently living in the ways of the highway system but Robert doesn’t care. He demands the residents to move and this event led to the development of hip hop in the Bronx. With all the white residents away, Robert built new “tower-in-a-park” buildings for residents to live in. It became populated with African American and Latinos. This led to poor living conditions, arsenic cases for old buildings around the Bronx, and many other disastrous events. It led to gangs being formed for many reasons besides those stated above.  It caused a rise in a way where people can connect with each other.

South Bronx lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs and the daily income is just half of New York City’s average. The numbers showed South Bronx is decreasing in every category. The collapse was called “A mythical wasteland, an infectious disease, a condition of poverty and social collapse, more than a geographical place,” by Robert Jensen.

1977 World Series

“Manager Billy Martin seethed.  He had opposed signing Jackson. He refused to attend the press conferences introducing Jackson in pinstripes.  As the season began, he cold-shouldered the star, sometimes benched him.  When he was upset, he called Jackson “boy.”


Even a little more than thirty years ago, racism was still prevalent in professional sports, specifically in Jackson’s case in major league baseball. However, even as a victim of racism on his team, Jackson received a 3 million dollar signing contract with the Yankees and made more money than his teammates.  It is ironic how his teammates and his manager looked down on him and even benched him just because of his skin color even though he was the most talented ball player on the Yankees.  The New York Yankees won the 1977 World Series because of Reggie Jackson and he was named MVP.