Wednesday, September 9, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood

In the 1950s, the East New York section of Brooklyn was populated largely by white descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Germany, with a few Slavic families thrown in. It was bordered by neighborhoods like Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant, which were largely "colored", the term used back then for African-Americans. Blacks and whites kept pretty much to themselves for many years with only scattered incidents of violence. In the early sixties, this began to change. The impetus for the change, in my opinion, was the emergence of street gangs.

The 1960s were a turbulent time. Black and Latino minorities, unhappy with the slow pace of civil rights and the lack of jobs, banded together, not just in Brooklyn, but across the country, to flex their muscles and push back against some of the injustices that prevailed in that time. In our neighborhood, white gangs formed to defend their turf. I remember names like the Javelins, the Bishops, and the one that ruled in our neighborhood, the Baldies. These gangs began invading each other's territories and inter-racial gang fights became common.

I have two personal incidents to contribute. The first came when a local punk named Louie bullied my friend Vinny, a timid soul who bothered no one. I made it clear to Louie that if he didn't leave Vinny alone, I would intervene. Little did I know that Louie's bravado stemmed from the fact that his older (and bigger) brother was a member of the Baldies. One day Louie called me over to a stoop on Fulton Street, whereupon he opened the hallway door to reveal his brother and two other knuckle-dragging Baldies. They explained to me, punctuated with a couple of taps on my head with a stickball bat, that Louie was "protected". I readily agreed.

My second experience came at the hands of a black gang. We had just left the Pitkin Theater, myself and three other friends, when we were set upon by a group of black gang members seeking to avenge an earlier attack on one of their own. We had a running fist fight with them all the way to Rockaway Avenue, where we made our escape, bloodied but not bowed. When we came into the candy store to clean up, a couple of older guys were there. After hearing our story, they rounded up a posse complete with chains and baseball bats, and told us to get into their cars. They were headed for Pitkin Avenue and sweet revenge. I was scared to death, and to this day I thank God we never found any of our attackers.

Before the gang wars, race relations on our block were kind of live and let live. We had black families on Somers Street, but didn't mix much with them except, interestingly enough, when it came time to play baseball or stickball. Prejudices were suspended for these games, and color didn't matter when we chose up sides. If you could hit and field, you were picked, period. We had a black kid named Roscoe Gregory living down the block near Stone Avenue. He was small, but one of the best ball players I ever saw...he always got chosen first. When the game ended, blacks and whites went our separate ways.

In time, more and more black families moved into the neighborhood. White families became frightened and the exodus to the suburbs began. I don't have any answers to the race relations problems we continue to experience in this country. There are polarizing forces on both sides that make racial harmony an elusive goal indeed. Mistrust, even hatred, permeate the dialogue between the races and who knows if it will ever end. For my part, I would love to know if Roscoe Gregory is still around so I can sit down over a beer and get to know him a little better. It's a start.


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The Whiner said...

Wow, that sounds like something straight out of A Bronx Tale. By the way the Baldies don't sound as intimidating as the Jets or the Sharks...where on earth did they get a name like that? As for race relations, I'm no expert. Just always try to keep an open mind about everyone.

Jim Pantaleno said...

The Jets and the Sharks were from West Side Story so all their violence involved a choreographer. The Baldies got their name because all the gang members shaved their heads. Word on the street was that if they caught you they would shave your head too.

The Whiner said...

oh I see. Well that makes sense. They still probably could have used a choreographer...