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.