Coney Island Outlaws: Life Under the Boardwalk

Outlaw pocketed the roll of bills and walked back down Steeplechase Pier to the Coney Island boardwalk. He had just sold his .32-caliber nickel-plated automatic. Now he had $65 to buy clothes for his two-day-old son. At the end of the pier a 15-year-old from New Jersey leaned over the railing and aimed his new gun at the water 20 feet below. The explosion scared two gulls off the side of the pier. The birds fluttered down to the hard sand where shallow waves collapsed onto the beach.

Two elderly women were sitting in lawn chairs at the base of the rusting parachute jump feeding a pack of stray dogs. Outlaw tipped his gaucho hat and crossed the boardwalk to West 20th Street. A bus stopped up at Surf Avenue and unloaded a crowd of passengers. Seven white teenagers carrying ice skates walked past him toward the Abe Stark Skating Rink. Outlaw followed the three Puerto Rican passengers across Surf Avenue into the Coney Island Urban Renewal Area, site of the largest development project in the City of New York.

Twenty-five years ago Coney Island was a resort town. Each summer, millions fled the city’s sweltering ten­ements for the three miles of beach, boardwalk, and amusements. The summer bungalows that clustered around the three-story walk-ups north of Surf Avenue went for $500 a season.

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Then the resort became a dumping ground. “Win­terized” bungalows went to welfare families for $1800 a year. The amusement area became a summer battle­ground for street gangs. The poor man’s paradise had become the poor man’s purgatory.

In 1968 the city decided to build a “new community.” Outlaw has seen nine years and $500-million worth of demolition and construction. Twenty housing projects now tower over a moonscape of rubble-strewn lots and abandoned buildings. Outlaw is a 20-year-old member of this “new community.” He has attended its schools and enrolled in its social welfare programs. He does not have a high school diploma or a job. He does have a police record.

He arrived in front of a six-room cottage on West 27th Street 18 years ago in the back seat of a battered Chevrolet. His Puerto Rican mother and father had spent their first 11 years in America picking beans and corn in New Jersey. During harvest they made six dollars a day. Then Outlaw’s mother heard about welfare in New York.

A family from Queens had rented the six-room stucco bungalow for the previous 25 summers. In April of 1958 the owner of the cottage received a phone call, from a real estate agent.

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“Forget about the summer rentals,” the owner re­members the agent saying. “The welfare people got so many families without houses that they’d settle for pup tents.” The owner salvaged a boiler from a tug boat, bought five radiators at a junk yard on Cropsey Avenue, and called the agent. The Department of Social Services mailed the agent a finder’s fee, Outlaw’s family moved in.

The only other Spanish-speaking people on the block were the descendants of a tribe of 212 Bantoc headhunters imported for a Coney Island sideshow in 1905. One of the Bantoc women, Maria Martez, had an affair with an Algerian horseman working at a nearby sideshow. Martez stayed behind when the tribe returned to the Philippines. In 1923, she married the famous Dog-Faced Boy and settled into a two-family house on West 27th Street.

On sunny afternoons Martez and her next-door neighbor, the Bearded Woman, would sit on a stoop and tell stories to Outlaw and the other neighborhood children. The Bearded Woman would recall the days Al Capone worked as a bartender at Frankie Yale’s Harvard House. Martez’s favorite story was about the Somalis who lived in a tent next to the Bantoc’s hipa huts.

“They were tattooed all over, and they got paid by the number of blue lines,” Martez would laugh.

The Bearded Woman left when 11 different savings banks refused to refinance her mortgage. A band of gypsies crowded into her 12-room house. In the mornings, Outlaw could hear the gypsy women shouting and laughing as they trooped down the middle of West 27th Street to their tea rooms on the boardwalk.

“It was a good place to live,” Outlaw remembers. “We played lot ball. Johnny on the Pony, cops and robbers. I liked to be the cop. There was German, there was Puerto Rican, there was black, there was Italian. There was all kinds. Things might have been bad on other blocks. But you walked down our block and everybody would say hello and smile.”

Young men with clipboards appeared on the streets around Outlaw’s cottage. The U.S. Congress had passed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. Section 1601 of the act concluded that “the national housing goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” could only be “substantially achieved within the next decade by the construction and rehabilita­tion of 26 million housing units.” The city prepared a 10-year plan to build 5000 of these units in Coney Island. Draftsmen in Manhattan shaded in the area bounded by West 37th Street, Neptune, Surf, and Stillwell Avenues and marked 11 sites for the first phase.

Dump trucks and tractor trailers rumbled down West 27th Street. The Housing Authority was clearing three sites for high-rise housing projects.

In December, a white man in a suit distributed leaflets on Outlaw’s block.

“Homeowners, now is the time to sell or lease your property,” the leaflets said. “The city has plans to take over the entire Coney Peninsula. List with us.”

Six white families on West 27th Street sold out to speculators. Eighteen black and Puerto Rican families moved in.

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The city project on West 32nd Street opened. Six hundred new apartments shone above the deteriorating bungalows. Housing officials ruled that “families in need of emer­gency housing” would have priority for admission. A six-year epidemic of arson started.

The demolition of the federal urban-renewal sites began. The din of the planned destruction rattled the windows of Outlaw’s classroom at Mark Twain Junior High. Fire engines screamed past the school. Outlaw pulled fire alarms, released fire extinguishers, and set off firecrackers in the hallways. A clinician at Coney Island Hospital’s Department of Child Psychology certified him as “disruptive” and “emotionally handicapped.” Outlaw was transferred to Jim Thorpe School, an all-male facility for the “socially maladjusted and emotionally handicap­ped.” The school is nestled in the middle of Trump Village, a middle-income complex on the other side of the subway tracks from the urban renewal area.

In June of 1970 Outlaw walked up to the front of the school lunchroom in a rented tuxedo and delivered the graduation speech. He had stopped ringing fire alarms.

“Outlaw wasn’t wild, he didn’t have that kind of internal aggression that had to come out,” a school official said later. “If he had been in a different neighborhood situation, it would have been different. All but two or three of our kids are from Coney Island.”

The renewal continued. Spectacular arsons gutted entire colonies of bungalows. Boilers cracked and water mains burst in the city-owned buildings. Three hundred more welfare families moved into Coney Island. Outlaw enrolled at Lafayette High School.

“At Jim Thorpe they let me work with my hands,” he told a guidance counselor. “I want to go to a vocational school.”

“I’ll research it,” the counselor said.

“I’ll work on it,” the counselor said a month later. “See me next month. Don’t drop out.” Outlaw dropped out.

Hundreds of ironworkers, carpenters, bricklayers, and laborers were swarming over the construction sites. Outlaw went to the city’s neighborhood Manpower Center. While waiting for an interview, he read a pamphlet that told him, “Anybody who wants a job can just walk off the street into a center.”

“You need skill and experience to get a job with a contractor,” the interviewer told him.

“Even to tear down a house?” Outlaw asked. Outlaw crossed Mermaid Avenue to a construction site.

“How did you get your job?” Outlaw asked a laborer.

“My uncle,” the laborer replied. “He works here.”

Outlaw’s mother saw a Job Corps ad on television.

“Get a skill today,” the ad said. The Job Corps sent Outlaw to Indianapolis, Indiana, to study cooking.

“They had 1400 kids in this camp outside of town,” Outlaw said later. “They gave you green uniforms, like you were in the army.” A fight broke out between the black and Puerto Rican trainees. Seven blacks were hospitalized. Outlaw was expelled from the program. A week later he was back on West 27th Street.

Ten housing projects had been completed. Ten more were under construction. Sixty-five per cent of the com­munity’s population lived in the new housing. Then Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on housing sub­sidies. The city planners panicked. Nobody had drawn plans detailing acres of vacant lots and hundreds of abandoned buildings.

The Economic Development Administration had cleared acres of buildings for factory sites. No industry moved in. The Sonny Boy Bottling Plant, Mermaid Cleaners, Breakstone Milk, and others relocated out of the area.

Outlaw was 16, out of school, and out of work. Not a single gym, movie theatre, bowling alley, or dance hall was open on Outlaw’s side of the subway. Outlaw spent the winter in front of a television set.

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On April 4th, 1973, Outlaw walked past the ticket booth at Steeplechase Park and joined the Homicides youth gang. The year before a six-foot Hispanic named Big Man had gathered half a dozen Hispanics in an abandoned building off West 30th Street and founded the Homicides. Over the next few months there was a big run on denim jackets at the clothing stores on Mermaid Avenue. Mothers and girlfriends sewed blood-red letters reading “Homicides” on the back of the jackets. Sporting black gaucho hats, motorcycle boots, and earrings, the gang carved out a turf from Stillwell Avenue to West 31st Street.

In the summer the Homicides crossed Surf Avenue. Coney Island now had an answer to the Savage Skulls, Crazy Bishops, Glory Stompers, and the other “out of town” gangs that converged on the amusement area. To the ride operators the Homicides were cheap, off-the-books labor. To the police gang-intelligence unit they were 196 sure killers, thieves, and arsonists. To Outlaw the Homicides meant money, parties, and some place other than his family’s living room. He did not come home for three weeks. He drank, fought, and collected tickets for $25 a day.

“I was small then,” Outlaw remembers. “I could sleep in the bumper cars.”

The first violence came on the Fourth of July.

Over a million fun-seekers had flocked to the boardwalk to watch the U.S. Air Force Salute to Independence Day. As a precision team of five Thunderbolts rocketed over the beach, Outlaw and 20 other Homicides were making gas bombs in their clubhouse on West 30th Street. A group of Italians in Brighton Beach had attacked a Homicide. Four hours later the Homicides slipped up to a house on West 2nd Street. Four gas bombs flew into the doorway. A baby on the second floor started crying. A woman screamed. The Homicides fled to arcades behind Nathan’s hotdog stand. Two of the smaller Homicides broke into a clam bar and passed out food and whiskey.

The Seven Crowns from Queens were waiting for them in Steeplechase. Knives came out and bats swung. The Homicides pushed a Crown into a dark corner behind the jungle gym. The Crown crumpled to the asphalt with a .22 bullet in his stomach. A 10-pound cinder block smashed into his face. Outlaw had seen his first murder.

The Homicides broke into the Steeplechase cashier’s office and stuffed $2400 into their denims. Later that night the Devil Rebels, the Crazy Bishops, the Savage Skulls, and Puerto Rican Brothers crowded around the clubhouse stoop for a street party.

“That was some party,” Outlaw remembers. “It was nice staying with 30 to 40 guys in a clubhouse. We all had girls. At first all I saw was the good part about gangs — the parties. The violence, well, if I do something to somebody else, then it isn’t going to happen to me. You have to understand that I was young, that I wasn’t thinking. Things had been happening to Coney Island and to me, big things. I had to make things happen to somebody else before I could start thinking for myself.”

On August 30 a drunk staggered up to Outlaw on Steeplechase Pier.

“I know karate,” the drunk slurred, taking wild swings with his hands and feet. Outlaw broke a beer bottle and slashed at the drunk. The drunk jumped off the pier. Outlaw was arrested the next day for attempted murder. A Homicide gave the drunk a ticket to Virginia. The complainant failed to appear at the hearing, and the case was dismissed.

But at the city’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a policeman cranked a fresh yellow sheet into a typewriter and pecked out the first entry on Outlaw’s record.

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In the next two months two counts of possession of a deadly weapon, inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, and unlawful assembly were added to the yellow sheet.

After the arraignment on the last charge a social worker asked to see Outlaw in the hall outside the courtroom.

“I think you should go into the Phoenix program,” the social worker said.

“I’m not a junkie,” Outlaw said.

“Wait here, and I’ll go upstairs and get somebody who can describe it in detail,” the social worker said. Outlaw walked out of the Criminal Court Building and took a subway home.

In January he was picked up on warrants for five outstanding charges. At the end of a six-month term on Riker’s Island, a corrections bus dropped him at Queens Plaza. The subway to Coney Island was packed with people in swimsuits. A child slipped on a pool of suntan oil and dropped his ice-cream cone on Outlaw’s shoe. The mother bent over to pick up the child and poked Outlaw in the throat with the end of a beach umbrella.

Outlaw was back at the rides with the Homicides. In December he was sentenced to three more months on Riker’s Island for assault and unlawful assembly.

He was still on his first change of prison clothes when a Housing and Urban Development Administration site manager knocked on the front door of his family’s cottage. The housing moratorium was over. The city had marked 15 more sites for condemnation. Outlaw’s block was labeled Site 11. The site manager handed Outlaw’s mother a 13-page “Relocation Guide for Residential Tenants of Federally Aided Projects.”

“Dear Tenant,” a letter tacked to the handbook began, “New York City is currently engaged in various programs in its efforts to eliminate slums, construct new housing, schools, and other public improvements… with the ultimate aim of providing safe and decent living quarters as well as appropriate facilities for all its citizens.”

That night a woman living on the other side of the block lay down in the middle of Neptune Avenue with a fifth of whiskey.

“Run me over,” the 300-pound woman screamed. “Kill me, because it’s getting cold and I ain’t going to have no place to live.”

“Come on, lady,” one of the officers at the scene said. “We can’t let somebody as big as you just lay in the street. You might wreck a car.”

Outlaw’s mother started signing her Department of Social Services rent check over to the Department of Relocation and Management Services. Five weeks later the radiators went cold. The site manager told her the city would not fix the boiler.

Outlaw’s mother applied for public housing. The IBM system at the Tenant Selection Division of the Housing Authority summoned her to Manhattan for an interview.

“Where is your second son?” the eligibility interviewer asked at the end of the 15-minute session.

“He’s in jail,” Outlaw’s mother said. A week later she received a form letter informing her that “a review of our records reveals that you do not meet our eligibility re­quirements.”

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In early 1975 the family moved to a five-room apartment above a gospel church on Mermaid Avenue.

“I still miss the house on 27th Street,” Outlaw’s mother said two years later. “It was a good house. It was where I raised my children.”

Two hours out of Riker’s Island, Outlaw got off the subway and walked to West 27th Street. The cottage’s basement windows were sealed with sheets of tin.

“Property of the City of New York,” the red letters ­stenciled on the tin read. “Coney Island Urban Renewal.” Outlaw peered into his youngest sister’s room. In the middle of the far wall, where the 10-year-old had scribbled “my graffiti,” the names of the members of the Homicides were scrawled in a three-foot circle. A note wrapped in a plastic bag tied to a door knob told Outlaw his new ad­dress.

Outlaw returned to the Homicides. One Homicide was arrested for shooting a boy in Bay Ridge. Another threw a member of a rival gang off a moving subway car. A third was collared after a stabbing. All three were convicted of murder. Four carloads of police raided the clubhouse and busted 32 Homicides on weapons charges. The cops grabbed Outlaw’s brother, Deadeye, on the boardwalk and took him to the 60th Precinct. According to Deadeye, two officers handcuffed him to a cell door and beat him with nightsticks.

“You and me are playing a game of checkers,” Deadeye remembers an officer saying. “You’re going to make a wrong move, and I’m going to blow your head off.”

Outlaw and four members of the Crazy Homicides, a gang from East New York, got into a rumble with six black teenagers. A Crazy Homicide felled one of the blacks with a .32 automatic. Another stuck an eight-inch safety pin into his back. Outlaw was arrested for attempted murder. While on remand on Riker’s Island he dipped a needle into a mixture of pencil-lead shavings and water and tattooed Cootie on his right arm. Released pending trial, Outlaw married Cootie. Two days after the wedding he was convicted and put on five years probation.

“Are you staying out of trouble?” the probation officer asks one of his 176 charges once a week.

“Yes,” Outlaw answers.

“Do you have a job?” the officer asks.

“No,” Outlaw answers.

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In May of 1976 the pastor of the gospel church told Outlaw’s mother that he planned to convert her apartment into a choir-practice room. The family moved to a three-story abandoned building on Railroad Road, a short alley that cuts between two rows of gutted buildings on West 20th Street.

Outlaw and Cootie installed a new sink in the bottom apartment and filled their three rooms with replicas of bulls, roosters, and love birds. On the floor above, Deadeye hung curtains. The two younger brothers pasted rows of pictures of individual Homicides on the walls. “Death Before Dishonor,” one of the younger brothers painted below the one-inch pictures. On the top floor the parents tacked up school pictures and a painting of the Virgin Mary. On her bedroom door Outlaw’s mother taped a napkin with the legend: “Peace on Earth.”

More Homicides were arrested. Others started shooting heroin. One was cut in two by a shotgun blast. Another was crushed by a roller coaster. Another died in a car accident. One got a full-time job in a nursing home. The membership was down from 100 to seven.

The remaining Homicides joined the Neighborhood Youth Corps’s summer-jobs program. The gang attacked a shuttered row of storefronts with three two-inch paint brushes and 18 gallons of paint. The labels on the sides of the red, green, and black enamel guaranteed “a gloss like new for five years, even in inclement weather.” The rust on the storefront gratings broke through the two coats in three months.

In the last two weeks of the program the gang helped clear a vacant lot at West 29th Street and Mermaid Avenue. Outlaw and the others carted the rubble of what had been a string of businesses to the back of the lot. A dump truck brought a load of donated top soil, and they planted a garden. They watered the shrubs and flowers with discarded paint cans and water ferried from a fire hydrant.

Dominico, a loan shark from the Dominican Republic arrived in Coney Island and hired the Homicides as bodyguards. He parked his jacked-up Chevrolet two blocks from the Dime Savings Bank and gave out the first personal loans in Coney Island in five years. The flashy car also attracted the police. After five months of frisks and searches, Dominico returned home.

“By then we had calmed down,” Outlaw told a reporter. “But people were still pushing us. When you’re not being bad, everybody comes after you. The cops took two guys out to the boardwalk and beat them bad.” All of a sudden the cops were going into everybody’s pocket. It’s just too easy to get mad and, instead of fighting with your hands, go upstairs and grab a gun and blow somebody away.”

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Nine weeks ago Outlaw and Deadeye unlocked a metal footlocker and pulled out their arsenal. Mermaid Avenue had the greatest one-day gun sale in its history. Junkies, stick-up men, and burglars bought rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Deadeye shot himself cleaning an automatic for a customer. The profits helped pay his $1609 hospital bill.

At 7:47 p.m., January 11, Cootie gave birth to a five-and-a-half-pound boy in Coney Island Hospital.

“I called up in the morning and the nurse told me that my wife had a baby,” Outlaw said a week later. “I asked the nurse if it was a boy or girl. She told me she wasn’t allowed to give out that kind of information on the telephone.”

The next afternoon, Outlaw sold the last of the weapons, a .32 automatic, and walked into Abe’s Clothes on Mermaid Avenue. He piled $65 worth of baby blankets, shirts, pants, booties, a pacifier, and a Gerbers Baby Starter Kit in front of the cashier.

“I want him to look nice when people come to visit him,” Outlaw told the cashier. “I like to dress up too.” He wrapped his arms around two bulging paper bags and walked out into the street.

Two youths lugging a canvas bag stuffed with brass pipe fittings passed him. The night before the brass had been attached to the drains in a building on Surf Avenue. In 15 minutes it would be in a scrap yard on Cropsey Avenue.

Outlaw nodded to the winos in front of the bank and the junkies huddled in the doorways as he walked down Mermaid Avenue. Eleven-year-old Jesus ran into the street and kicked a moving Ford Fairlane. Three months ago Jesus’s friend Bobby was crushed to death by an elevator in a project on West 23rd Street. Jesus watched the emergency service police pry the parts of his friend out from between the shaft and the car. Jesus started attacking moving traffic. Across the street 11-year-old Edna was stabbing a cardboard box with a six-inch kitchen knife.

Outlaw entered a restaurant at West 26th Street. Dead­eye and three Homicides were sitting at a side table. Two teenage girls were dancing to the jukebox. A crowd of older men huddled around a bottle of rum at the back. The six-item menu was propped on a counter. The cook stood at the window smoking a cigarette. Nobody was eating.

Outlaw folded his hands on the table and started a 10-minute monologue. The other gang members smiled. They have heard Outlaw talk to dozens of reporters, social workers, police community-relations officers, youth or­ganizers, and community activists.

“All we do is hang out,” Outlaw said. “We don’t hustle anymore. We don’t even drink that much. Nobody hears about us. It’s like we’re a lost island. Who the hell is going to come out here in the winter? The only people who come are the cops, and they don’t have any answers. You put 20,000 people in jail, and there’s still 20,000 people left.”

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Rodney and Henry waved to Outlaw as they came into the restaurant. Rodney sells heroin. Henry burglarizes apartments, strips cars, and robs junkies who come to Coney Island to score. When business is bad, Rodney and Henry sleep in a 23,000-square-foot commercial shell. Six years ago the Urban Development Corporation tore down a luncheonette, a show shop, a camera store, a beauty parlor, and a dry cleaner to build the block-long structure. The storekeepers had been paying $150-a-month rent. UDC offered to rent them similar space without lights, plumb­ing, or windows for $1300 a month.

“But this is our community,” Outlaw continued. “We protect it. This is my home. This is where my son is going to grow. I just hope that he doesn’t have to go through what I had to go through. He sees what I see, and he’ll fall into the same step. It’s like a tradition. I don’t want to steal. I’m going to try and find a job and stick to it and raise that kid until he’s hard enough. You make $80 a week that you don’t have to ask for and you feel more like a man. When you don’t feel like a man in Coney Island, you feel like a fly in a bottle.”

Outlaw, Deadeye, and the other Homicides took a cab to the hospital.

“You must have a high-school diploma to have this job,” Outlaw said to the driver.

“No,” the driver said. “I never finished school.”

“If you had a high-school diploma, then you could drive a bus for corrections,” Outlaw said. “They give good ben­efits.”

“I’m too small,” the driver said.

“They got a guy that’s smaller than you,” Outlaw said. “He wears glasses and we call him Shorty.”

Deadeye and the others stopped off on the third floor to visit the gypsies keeping vigil over a sick relative. Outlaw continued up to the eighth floor to see his wife and son.

“Hey, he’s trying to suck his thumb,” Outlaw said to the nurse in the nursery. “Make him stop.”

“It’s natural,” the nurse said, “You can’t make him stop.”

“I’ll stop him,” Outlaw said. “I’ll tie his hands together. And I don’t want him circumcised. When he gets old enough to play around with girls, I’ll tell him that he has to be careful of the sickness.”

Outlaw’s friends came upstairs and watched television in the day room with four pregnant women.

“When the big boss dies, the guns blaze anew,” the narrator of a Frank Sinatra movie said. “And the kid takes over the town of guns, gin mills, and gun molls.”

On the way back to the urban-renewal area, Outlaw and the Homicides started to sing:

When the sun beats down and melts the tar upon the roof,
And your shoes get so hot, you wish your tired feet were fireproof,
Under the boardwalk, down by the sea
On a blanket with my baby’s where I’ll be.*

* Copyright 1964, The Hudson Bay Music Company. All rights reserved, Used by permission.

From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Chinatown ’89: Rubbing Two Neighborhoods Together

A T-SHIRT ON SALE in Hong Kong captures the colony’s apprehen­sion about China as the day of its 1997 takeover approaches. It shows Chinese atop the Great Wall asking for more tourists; below them a dragon chews on hu­man bones above the caption: “The ones that came earlier were deli­cious.”

Nervous Hong Kong developers are funneling a lot of their capital to the low-­income neighborhoods of New York City’s Lower East Side. The resulting gentrification has upset Hispanics in the area who scapegoat poor Chinese immi­grants for the doings of rich Hong Kong developers.

The money pouring in from Hong Kong — roughly $400 million so far in Manhattan alone — has been spent on real estate. As a Chinatown realtor says, “The Chinese would rather own bricks than money.”

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Most of the Hong Kong capital comes from pools of cash jointly held by as many as 20 investors. In contrast, the Japanese investment in U.S. real estate­ — which is expected to reach at least $43 billion by 1990 — comes largely from ma­jor corporations, which prefer to invest in office towers and hotel properties in Mid­town and the downtown financial district. Hong Kong investors, on the other hand, have concentrated on loft buildings and garment factories in Chinatown, which is devouring contiguous communities like Little Italy — now trimmed to just two blocks — and a previously Jewish neigh­borhood in the Lower East Side. Real estate brokers in New York maintain that property values on the Lower East Side increase the closer they are to the heart of Chinatown.

“Tiananmen Square has had a deep effect on Hong Kong,” says Thomas Li of Grand Enterprise Corporation, a partner in a proposed $15 million Hong Kong­–backed condo project on Delancey Street. “People who wanted to stay after ’97 have changed their minds. Many people I know are pulling out 80 per cent of their investments.”

It’s too early to tell how much of the capital flight fueled by recent events in China has ended up in New York. But the pre-Beijing massacre investments were already intensifying pressure on China­town, where commercial rentals and housing are already scarce. Businessmen were on edge about the colony’s future as far back as the early ’80s. But the new money has already inflated prices and ensured increasing gentrification. Three years ago, the largest feasible real estate deal in Chinatown was worth around $18 million. Today, a $50 million project is under way. In 1986, vegetable stall own­ers in Chinatown paid more rent per square foot than the owners of Tiffany & Co. in midtown Manhattan.

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THE DISPLACEMENT of other ethnic groups that is accompanying Chinatown’s expansion has given birth to a racially hostile environment where Hispanics vent their anger indiscriminately at all Chinese. The low-income Chinese, who have taken the brunt of gentrification-­inspired antagonism quietly, are blamed for the intrusion of their rich counter­parts into the neighborhood.

“Other ethnic groups in the area are confusing two different groups: the immi­grant workers and the Hong Kong inves­tors,” says Mini Liu of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. “There’s a sense among non-Asians in the commu­nity that all Asians own land and are taking over.”

Last November at Seward Park High School, a racially mixed school on Grand Street, several Chinese students were as­saulted by a group of Hispanic class­mates. “There were three, four, or five incidents in a span of a couple of weeks, ” says Jules Levine, the school’s principal. “Although there were several Hispanic boys in the area when the attacks hap­pened, only one was identified as the ag­gressive one. He was brought to the po­lice, and the problem was solved.”

While doing its desperate best to shield the incident from public and press scruti­ny, Seward Park has been working with the Seventh Precinct, members of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, church leaders, and community organiza­tions to remedy the damage.

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Members of the ethnic education com­mittee planned to start a racism-aware­ness program by this fall. But, according to Mini Liu, “The school’s approach has been cosmetic. The committee had to be pushed hard to talk about racism aware­ness. They’re more interested in teaching cultural diversity — different types of food, dance, that kind of thing. They haven’t included a racism-awareness pro­gram in the curriculum.”

Several committee members stress that the Lower East Side, known for its Jew­ish, Hispanic, and — more recently — Chi­nese immigrant population, has had a history of racially motivated violence.

“Incidents like Hispanic kids chasing around young Chinese immigrants are cy­clical,” says Victor Papa, an activist priest who heads the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference. “Seventy years ago Irish kids chased Italian kids on the very same streets. It’s part of the process of immigrant assimilation.” Papa nevertheless insists that “the Lower East Side is a model neighborhood for the whole nation of how many ethnic groups can exist together in relative harmony.”

“There are underlying tensions in the Lower East Side that surface when com­petition for housing and jobs gets stiff,” says Mini Liu. “When there’s a sense that one group is getting more help than other groups, that’s when the tension comes out. People tend to lash out at the most accessible people — in this case poor Chinese — instead of at City Hall or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It’s a systemic problem, not an attitudinal one.”

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HALF A WORLD AWAY, the Hong Kong investors who have ignited this ethnic tension are spurred on by pending negoti­ations on provisions of the Basic Law — ­the colony’s post-1997 Constitution. The 59-member Basic Law Drafting Commit­tee, composed of Chinese officials and Hong Kongers appointed by the National People’s Congress, is now working on a third draft. The provisions currently per­mit martial law and the presence of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong. China’s vow to keep its “socialist system and socialist policies” within its own bor­ders while giving Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years follow­ing the takeover seems dubious. China reserves the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law— even after negoti­ations have been finalized.

Two in every five of Hong Kong’s 5.7 million residents migrated from Commu­nist China. Hong Kongers’ distaste for communism is manifested in last year’s emigration figures: an estimated 45,000 Hong Kongers left the colony, more than 11,000 of them coming to the United States. For Hong Kong developers, the U.S. is a political safe haven for cash reserves. Last November, in a little-publicized ef­fort, then deputy mayor Alair Townsend and powerful members of the Chinatown business community flew to the colony with the Hong Kong Development Trade Council to promote investment in the New York real estate market. Ken W. Chin, a real estate lawyer in Chinatown and a respected member of the communi­ty, was one of the delegates.

“We’ve had a good response,” Chin says. “There’s a $50-million project on the way for a large hotel, with office and retail space and banquet facilities. We’re aiming to complete it by 1991 or 1992.” His vision for Chinatown: “It will be part of mainstream business. Five years from now, walking down Canal Street will seem like walking down Lexington Avenue.”

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The Mandarin Plaza, a $37 million condo project at Broadway and White Street, is another Hong Kong–financed development. The 25-story condomini­um, which is due for completion next spring, is a joint development of Thomas Lee, a general partner in the New York–­based Target Development Corporation, and William To, a Hong Kong businessman.

According to John Eng, a real estate appraiser based in Queens, Hong Kong investors have been buying up Lower East Side loft buildings on East Broad­way, Broadway, Market Street, and Divi­sion Street. He estimates that the proper­ties are worth $70 to $74 per square foot before renovations. After the buildings’ conversions — usually into condos — they sell for $250 to $275 per square foot. In Chinatown, Eng says, Hong Kong inves­tors buy loft buildings and garment fac­tory spaces for an average of $1 million and then convert them into office build­ings. Before conversion, Chinatown prop­erties sell for $70 to $100 per square foot. After conversion, these properties are worth $300 to $325 per square foot. In 1988, Eng says, 40 to 50 such properties were sold to Hong Kong businessmen. From his figures, overseas investment ac­counts for 50 per cent of New York prop­erty sales; 35 per cent is solely from Hong Kong.

With Hong Kong property values al­most equaling those of Tokyo — the high­est in the world — market prices in the U.S. seem dirt cheap.

Though San Francisco has absorbed the bulk of Hong Kong investment in the U.S. ($500 million), the city’s Proposition M, which limits office construction to 450,000 square feet a year, is fast chang­ing that. According to Landy Eng (no relation) of the California State World Trade Commission, investors are beginning to feel unwelcome because of the difficulty in obtaining building and modi­fication permits. In comparison, New York is becoming more attractive.

Even more fundamental for the Hong Kong businessman than the rate of re­turn on investment and the economic at­mosphere of a city is the continuance of cultural and familial ties. New York’s Chinatown has the largest number of Hong Kong immigrants in the U.S., fol­lowed by San Francisco. Many real estate brokers and developers are happily an­ticipating more Hong Kong dollars in New York. ■


Tongs Strike Back in Chinatown

Nicky Louie’s Mean Streets

A pockmark-faced guy who sometimes spends 10 hours a day laying bowls of congee in front of customers at a Mott Street rice shop remembers the day the White Eagles, the original Chinatown youth gang, ripped off their first cha shu baos (pork buns). “It was maybe 10 years ago. We were hanging out in Columbus Park, you know, by the courthouse, feeling real stupid. Most of us just got to Chinatown. We couldn’t speak English worth a shit. The juk sing [American-born Chinese] were playing basket­ball, but they wouldn’t let us play. We didn’t know how to anyway. I remember one of our guys said, ‘Shit, in Hong Kong my old man was a civil servant — he made some bread. Then he listened to my goddamned uncle and came over here. Now he’s working as a waiter all day. The guy’s got TB, I know. And I ain’t got enough money for a goddamned cha shu baos.’ ”

Even then the juk tuk (Hong Kong–born Chinese) were sharp to the short end of the stick; they looked around the Toy Shan ghetto and sized up the possibilities for a 16-year-old immigrant. The chances had a familiar ring­ — what the tourists call “a Chinaman’s chance,” which, of course, is no chance at all.

So the eight or nine kids who would become the nucleus of the White Eagles walked up the narrow street past the Italian funeral and into the pastry shop, where they stole dozens of cha shu baas, which they ate — and got so sick they threw up all over the sidewalk.

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Within the next week the Eagles got hold of their first pieces — a pair of automatics — and began to terrorize Toy Shan. They beat the daylights out of the snooty juk sing. They ripped off restaurants. They got tough with the old men’s gambling houses.

It was logical rebellion: In Hong Kong they were city slickers; here the farmer “overseas Chinese” had them penciled in for the laundries and restaurants. There might be moments of revenge, like lacing a lo fan’s sweet-and­-sour with enormous hunks of ginger to watch his white lips pucker. But you knew you’d wind up frustrated, throwing quarters into the “Dancing Chicken” machine at the Chinatown Arcade. You’d watch that stupid chicken come out of its feeder to dance on a record for a couple of minutes, and you’d know you were watching yourself.

Better to be a gangster, and easier. In Hong Kong, you try anything shifty and the cops bust up your ass. They would search an entire block, throwing pregnant women down the hillsteps if they got in the way, just to find a guy they suspected of boosting a pocketbook from the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. Here the cops were all roundeyes­ — they don’t know or care about Chinese. Besides, the old guys kept them paid off. Corruption was the way and extortion was the perfect crime, since the merchants believed money sends away evil.

The fringe benefits included street-status, fast cars to cruise uptown and watch the lo-fan freaks, days to work on your “tans” at Coney listening to Brit rock and new Hong Kong–Filipino platters, plenty of time to go bowling, and the pick of the girls — in general, the old equation of living quick, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.

The Kids Get Cool

It took the Toy Shans a while to comprehend what was happening in their village. Kids had been an unknown quantity in Chinatown. Until the immigration laws eased up in the ’40s, there simply weren’t any. In a show of solidarity with our great Eastern ally, the U.S. agreed to allow Chinese women to immigrate here. At first the lo fa kews were pleased: These were nice kids, respectful kids, hard-working ones worth burning your fingers in the laundry for.

Soon there were flashy ones, too. In 1965, several juk sing “clubs” began to appear. Foremost was the Continentals, a hip bunch who were trying desperately to escape the traditional Chinese stereotype. They spent a good deal of time looking in the mirror, practicing complex handshakes and running around ripping the insignias off Lincoln Continentals. They even talked back to their parents and got acne from eating pizza on Mulberry Street, but no way they were going to carry guns and steal. These Hong Kong ghetto kids, however, had no propriety.

In the beginning the family associations did their best. They marshaled the new kids into New Year’s dragon dancing. For the older, more sullen ones, they established martial-arts clubs. But these kids didn’t seem interested in discipline; besides, they smoked too many cigarettes. That’s when the tongs intervened. Within weeks of the first extortion report, several White Eagles and representatives of the On Leong tong were sitting in a Mott Street restaurant talking it over. When they were done a pact was sealed that would establish the youth gang as a permanent fixture of “New Chinatown.”

It was agreed that the Eagles would stop random mayhem around the community and begin to work for On Leong. They would “guard” the tong-sponsored gambling houses and make sure no other bad guys ripped off restaurants which paid regular “dues.” In return, the Eagles’ leaders would receive a kind of salary, the right to hang around gambling houses to pick up “tips” from big bettors who thought the kids’ presence brought them luck, free meals in various noodle houses, and no-rent apartments in the Chinatown area.

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It seemed a brilliant arrangement: it got the Eagles jobs that furthered the status quo as well as keeping them out of everyone’s hair. But for the tongs, it was more. The On Leongs and Hip Sings no longer struck fear in the heart of Chinatown. Paunchy middle-aged businessmen, they spent most of their time competing for black-mushroom con­tracts. Tong warriors like Sing Dock were just misty reminiscences for bent-over guys playing away their last dollar at fan-tan. The Eagles brought them muscle they felt they would need in changing times. And the kids fulfilled vicariously a longing for the past. This was like having your own private army again, just like the good old days.

But the tongs weren’t used to this kind of warrior. The kids mounted a six-foot-tall statue of a white eagle on top of their tenement at Mott and Pell. Ten of them piled into a taxicab and went uptown to see Superfly; afterward they shot up Pell Street with tiny .22s just for the sheer exhilaration of it. They went into tailor shops, scowled, and came away with $200 suits. Once Paul Ma — Eagle supreme commander — showed up for an arraignment wearing a silk shirt open down the front so everyone could see his bullet holes.

During eight or so years on top in Chinatown, the Eagles set the style for the Chinese youth gang. Part was savagery. Eagle recruiting practices were brutal — coer­cion was often used to replenish their street army. They kidnapped merchants’ daughters and held them for ransom. They also set the example of using expensive and high-powered guns. No Saturday-night specials in China­town. The gangs use Mausers, Lugars, and an occasional M-14. One cop says, “You know, I’ve been on the force for 22 years, and I never saw nothing that gave me nightmares like watching a 15-year-old kid run down Bayard Street carrying a Thompson submachine gun.”

But there was another side to this. A new style was emerging in Chinatown. Chinese kids have had a tough time of it in schools like Seward Park. Blacks and Puerto Ricans, as well as meanies from Little Italy would vamp Chinese students for sport. Groups like the Cons and Eagles were intent on changing this. It was a question of cool. In the beginning they copied the swagger and lingo of the blacks — it is remarkable how closely a Chinese teenager can imitate black speech. From the Puerto Ricans they borrowed souped-up car styling, as well as the nonfashion of wearing army fatigues, which they added to their already zooty Hong Kong–cut shirts.

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But it was Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong sex-symbol kung-fu star who did the most for the Chinese street presence. In the early days of Lee’s fame, Chinese youngsters were baffled by the black and Puerto Rican kids sitting in the first rows at the Pagoda and Sun Sing theatres to watch the martial-arts epics. Later, when kung fu became a ghetto craze, the Chinese kids began to capitalize. They ran around Chinatown carrying nunchakas — kung-fu fighting sticks — which few of them knew how to use, and postured like deadly white cranes. When “Kung-Fu Fighting” became a number-one hit on WWRL, being Chinese was in. They became people not to mess with (although the police report there has never been a gang incident in which martial arts were used). “It was like magic,” says one ex-Con. “I used to walk by the Smith projects where the blacks live, and those brothers would throw dirty diapers out the window at me. Now they call me Mr.”

The image of the Chinese schoolgirl was changing too. Overnight they entered the style show on the subway. A lot of the fashion — air-blown hairstyles, mucho makeup, and tiny “Apple jacket” tops — came from the Puerto Ricans. Classy tweezed Oriental eyebrows produced a new “dragon lady” look.

Openly sexual, some of the Hong Kong girls formed auxiliary groups. Streaking their hair blonde or red to show that their boyfriends were gangsters, they were “ol’ ladies” expected to dab their men’s wounds with elixirs swiped from Chinese apothecaries. It was something to brag about — which not many Chinese women get to do. There are stories of them carrying pieces and doing sentry-work during extortions. Once a group of girls stole a car, which they used to spirit their boyfriends out of a tough spot. But who can blame them? More than half Chinatown’s women work in the 300-odd garment factories in the area, buzzing through the polyester 12 hours a day, trying to crack $100 a week. Hanging with the bad kids risked an occasional gang bang, but it was a better risk than dying in a sweat shop.

Ghost Shadows on Mott Street

The Chinese underworld couldn’t be concerned with this kid stuff; they play a bigger game. The Chinatown heroin connection dates back to the 1949 expulsion of the Nationalist government from the mainland. It’s no secret that many of the Kuomintang generals — including, almost certainly, Chiang Kai-shek — were hooked up with the notorious “Green Gang,” part of an ancient smuggling ring with access to potent poppy patches in “The Golden Triangle” (a well-fertilized area covering parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos).

When Mao marched on Nanking many of these pusher­-politicians turned tail for New York, where they eased into the On Leong power structure. At first there were problems: The Chinese could move the stuff through the Commonwealth Circuit — Hong Kong to London to Toronto — but they had no street distribution network here. It was then, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (which spends a good deal of time keeping tabs on Chinatown dope trade), that the On Leong people went across Canal Street to deal with Italian organized crime. Soon after that, several On Leong elders became very rich and a new adage was added to Mafia parlance: “if you want the stuff, get yourself a good gook.”

The connection — which is believed to be kept running by a manager of an On Leong restaurant who is also believed to be the only Chinese ever admitted to the Carlo Gambino crime family — works well. While most of the country is flooded with Mexican smack, in New York the percentage of Golden Triangle poppy runs high. The dope money is the lucrative tip of Chinatown’s pyramid crime structure. The take and extortion kickbacks of many gambling houses provide seed money for the dope trade.

With the gang kids around, business could get even better. DEA people say the gangs are used as runners to pick up dope in the Chinese community in Toronto and then body-carry it across the border. But they may play a greater role. Chinese dope hustlers have always felt on uneasy ground when dealing with flashy uptown pushers. Now, however, street sources say the gutter-wise gangs are dealing directly with black and Puerto Rican dealers.

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But using junk is frowned on in Chinatown. It probably has something to do with the senior citizen home on East Broadway. Eighty-year-old Chinese men and women who still suffer from the effects of long-ago opium addiction live out their lives on methadone over there. They’re probably the oldest addicts in America. The specter of the opium days is still horrifying down here, where landlords con­tinue to find lamps and pipes in attics. These days kids know it too; one Shadow — who was packing a .32 — said, “I look at those people and see a skull, know what I mean?”

That’s why the sight of 14-year-old Eagles nodding on Mott Street during the smack influx of the early ’70s was so galling to the old men. It was a final indiscretion, a final lack of discipline. Actually, the Eagles had been tempting fate for some time. They insulted tong elders in public. They extorted from restaurants they were supposed to be protecting. They mugged big winners outside of the gambling houses. It was playing havoc with the tong’s business as usual. Often the old men threatened to bring in sharpshooting hitmen from Taiwan to calm the kids down.

So in 1974, when Quat Kay Kee, an aging street hustler looking for a handle in the tong hierarchy, told the On Leong of a new and remarkable gang leader, the old men were ready to listen. Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadows would be more dependable, but no less dangerous. To show their style, Nicky and his top gun, Philip Han (known as Halfbreed), supposedly put on masks and pulled off a ballsy submachine-gun holdup at the Eagle-guarded gambling house in the local VFW post.

Soon after, in another gambling house, a drunken Eagle poured a water glass of tea down the brocade jacket of an On Leong elder. The word came down: The tong had formally withdrawn its support of the Eagles; the Shadows could make their move. A few nights later, the 4 a.m. quiet on Mott Street was broken by Shadows honking the horns of their hopped-up cars. They rode around the block, screeching their tires. The Eagles tumbled out of bed clutching their pieces. The shooting woke up half the neighborhood. Amazingly, no one was injured. But the change had come. The Eagles fled to Brooklyn. And Nicky Louie was pacing back and forth on Mott Street.

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Gangs and Tongs Together 

This struggle proved that the tongs needed the gangs if they were to retain control in a changing Chinatown. The gangs, too, had learned a lesson. Survival is more important than cool. The gangs now knew it was the old guys who made the illegal bread possible through their well-developed connections. Find a Shadow at the corner of Mott and Canal and ask him what the tongs mean to him. He’ll point at the On Leong pagoda and say, “A bankbook, man,” and then point to the Chemical Bank.

So it comes as no surprise that, aside from the sorties against rival gangs, Nicky’s Shadows have been model tenants during their stay on Mott Street. The perfect rebels have ended up as defenders of the status quo. Reformers are fearful of visits from gun-wielding gang members; one lawyer who spoke out against the Chinatown establishment woke up the next morning to find Mott Street plastered with wall posters telling him to get out of town. Threat of gang extortion is also responsible for pushing newer unaligned Hong Kong businesses into tong affiliation.

One hundred years of neglect has atrophied the links to the lo fan power. Years ago, according to just about everyone, the cops and tongs had a neat nonaggression pact well oiled with palm grease. The petty vice at the gambling houses and the occasional opium ODs were unreported and unnoticed except for the obligatory elec­tion-year raids publicized by tabloid “exposes” of “myste­rious” Chinatown life. Back then there was only one Chinese cop, the fabulous Johnny Kai. Kai walked a thin line between American and Chinese law and did a good job for both. Today, however, with Chinese making up the majority of the Fifth’s constituency and youth crime skyrocketing, there is still only one Chinese cop on the beat, Barry Eng, who once said with a straight face, “The associations disowned the youth gangs a long time ago.”

Estrangement from the community they supposedly protect has led to cynicism in the police department. The existence of large sums of illegal money always brings up the possibility of top payoffs. It’s a tough rap to beat — espe­cially in Chinatown — and the Fifth Precinct cops widely resented former special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari’s two-year-long probe of corruption down here.

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Not that the cops say there aren’t payoffs. One On Leong insider says, “Those guys are crooks. I was pit boss at a gambling house and gave $200 a week to the same sergeant for two years.” It’s just that the street-level police say they’re not seeing any of the money. They figure the Chinatown vice organizations are sophisticated enough to bestow their favors on higher-ups.

Fifth Precinct cops are not allowed to make gambling arrests unless they actually see money on the table. But since the chance of a lo fan getting into a Chinese gambling house unnoticed is akin to a snowcone in hell, they might as well not bother. Instead they are instructed to send intelligence reports to the public morals division uptown. Most cops, however, feel this is a thankless task. “For the most part it’s file it and forget if with those guys.” says one. “When you do raid the houses, it’s almost like they’ve been tipped. By the time you get through all the trick doors, there’s no one there but a couple of 100-year-old men smoking cigarettes.”

Nicky’s Peace

Last summer it all began to hit Nicky Louie — all the night riding and blood, and knowing any minute he could be splattered across a wall. One Saturday afternoon on Mott Street he saw an old enemy Eagle gesturing in his direction from across the street. It was a finger. Nicky was being fingered. He stood like a freeze frame, looking at the two strangers drawing down on him. One had a Mauser, the other a Colt .38. The first gunshot whistled by his ear and broke him out of his trance. He ran down Mott, pushing aside the tourists and the old ladies, turning down Canal until he was safe, panting against a wall.

That afternoon haunted Nicky. Battling Paul Ma made sense. But these unknown hitmen had no reason to shoot except money.

It was scary; things seemed to be getting out of control. Eagle Yut Wai Tom had been convicted — the first gang kid to be sent up for murder. Word was around that Tom, who’d been saying that getting 20 years wasn’t nothing, had cracked on Riker’s Island. The cops were doing a suicide watch next to his cell. Quat Kay Kee, Nicky’s old sponsor at On Leong, had been flipping out, too. Shot at in the Wiseman Bar on Bayard Street by a group of Eagles wearing wigs, Quat railed that he’d tell all. He managed to compose himself just before the drug cops got there with their tape recorders.

Being a warlord was a tough gig. To keep up their street army, the Shadows had been forced to recruit younger and younger kids. But what exactly do you say to a 14-year-old when you’re a 22-year-old legend? The young Shadows were griping about their wages, saying that they were getting spit waiter pay for long nights in the gambling houses while Nicky and Halfbreed were cruising around on the island in their cars. In the early part of the year some of the kids had broken a way from Nicky to ally themselves with the scuzzy Wah Chings. For a couple of nights in January, they had actually succeeded in pushing Nicky off the Street. It took all of his negotiating prowess to fix things again.

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For months he’d let it be known that he was tired of being a youth-gang leader, but the tong gave little indication that they’d allow him to move up in the organization. And quitting was out of the question. First of all, he knew too much and had far too many enemies. It wouldn’t be enough to leave Chinatown, or even New York City. Anyplace there was On Leong — like Toronto or Chicago — or Hip Sing, which is just about everywhere, he’d be known and fair game. Anyway, if he did get out, what was waiting? He knew lots of ex-gang guys who’d “retired” and now broke their humps for their families in the old restaurant grind.

Ironically, it was the old men who provided Nicky and the other gang kids with an escape from street fighting. Despite Chinatown’s traditional reluctance to look for outside help, poverty money is beginning to find its way down here. Funding scams may not be as venerable as gambling houses, but for a modern world, there must be modern hustles. So the tongs figured the angles. People had been telling them about a Harlem incident in which the hak guey youth gangs have given up their arms. The federal government had laid a sizable chunk of cash on groups promising to reform the kids. The old men saw an opening; if they could get the gangs to call “peace,” they could get the uptight merchants off their backs as well as pick up a large grant. There would be a cut of the pie for the gang kids, too. The plan was laid out to Nicky. He liked it and promised to set it up. He contacted Eagle Paul Ma and Dragon Mike Chen — who hated each other more than they both hated Nicky — and got them to say “cool.”

Next step was to make it respectable. So the gangs contacted one of Chinatown’s “name” social workers and told him they wanted to give up their evil ways. The worker, eager to be known as the man who stopped Chinatown gang warfare, went for it. Everything was set.

But somewhere along the line, Nicky began to forget it was all a scam. Suddenly, he liked the idea of “reforming,” learning English for real and getting a decent job. And he wasn’t the only one. Around lo tow, guys were still packing rods, but they also were talking about what they’d do when they went “legit.”

The first “peace” meeting was at the Kuo Wah restaurant on Mott Street. Kids embraced each other, saying it was crazy for Chinese guys to kill other Chinese guys. Nicky sat down with Paul Ma. They’d been trying to wipe each other out for years; but now they spent hours reminiscing about their favorite extortion spots on Mott Street.

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The old men were flabbergasted. What a double-cross! If these kids were on the level, then the whole vice structure could go down the tubes. Then again the gangs could be pulling a power play to cut Chinatown up for themselves. Either was disaster. And after that the tongs did everything they could to sabotage the peace. They spread mistrust among the merchants; they tried to bribe front the gang leaders. The kids had to stay one jump in front their bossmen. They changed the restaurant where they were meeting, which was just as well because the place was raided while the gangs met around the corner. Pissed to find the Kuo Wah deserted, the police said, “We were tipped that there were plenty of guns going to be there.”

The old men unsuccessfully tried to cancel the press conference formally announcing the “peace.” But, on August 12, Nicky and the other gang leaders read their joint statement. They didn’t expect to be forgiven, but then again they weren’t apologizing. They had become wiser; being a gangster wasn’t so great. Other kids shouldn’t get into it. It was moving; several of the old family association leaders wept. Even Nicky looked a little misty.

But time had run out on Nicky’s peace: the old Toy Shan forces of secrecy and mistrust were working overtime. The merchants had been soured by the tongs. They never believed the gangs were sincere and offered no support. The social service agencies, more interested in competing with one another than focusing on the kids’ cry for help, failed to come up with concrete programs. The cops didn’t help either. Figuring they were being good guys, they offered a 10-day amnesty period for the gang kids to turn in their guns. The gang smelled a lo fan rat. “I’m gonna turn in my gun so they can do ballistic and fingerprint check on it? No way,” said one. No weapons were turned in.

Some would say Nicky was a victim of his own history, but others knew warriors don’t give up their arms on a whim. Nicky’s peace held for nearly three weeks but tension flooded Mott Street. Cops said, “They might have called it peace, but they spelled it ‘p-i-e-c-e.’ ” Nicky knew it was over the night the Eagles ripped off a restaurant on the other end of Mott Street. He ran over to find Paul Ma and see what was up. An Eagle told him Paul was “out” and laughed. After that, Nicky kicked chairs in a Mott Street rice shoppe. Gang members say the sear was back in his eye.

By then it was just a matter of time. Within the next week the Shadows, Eagles, and Dragons were shooting at each other; the two-month-long war would prove to be the bloodiest in Chinatown history.

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The tongs used the madness to solidify their position. They promised the frightened merchants they’d get the gangs out of town. Big boss Benny Ong, backed by On Leong big shots, had the gangs over to Hip Sing and told them to ease off or they’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Murder each other and play extortion games outside Chinatown until the heat comes off. Just to make sure it worked, the tongs staged a little drama for the gangs’ benefit. It’s been common knowledge in Chinatown that a major new restaurant is the best extortion target around. Before it opened in December, gang kids were around asking $40,000 for a year’s worth of “protection.” When the place opened to brisk business, they came back, looking for more. This time, however, according to Chinese newspa­pers, the gangs ran into five smashnoses imported from Mulberry Street. Reportedly the kids wound up in a meat grinder, their remains dumped into a plastic bag and driven to Newark.

The tong plan worked. Except for a few gun violations, the cops say Chinatown’s been quiet for the past few weeks. But reports of gang extortions in exotic places like Massapequa and northern New Jersey have begun to come in. It’s a safe bet to say that there isn’t a Chinese restaurant in the metropolitan area that hasn’t been approached at one time or another for some kind of payoff.

But in fanning out of Chinatown, the gangs broke a New York City rule: Don’t mess with the rich people. The uptown cops have been laying an unwavering eyeball on extortion rings in the fancy midtown restaurants. Someone goofed when they rubbed out the young couple who run the Szechuan D’or on East 40th Street. It mobilized whole armies of cops. Determined to strike Chinese crime at its root, the police — even the public morals division — have shut down the gambling and extortion rackets in Chinatown. Every so often the cops bust a kid and claim it’s the key to the city-wide extortion game.

Word is big gamblers walk around in a daze at the OTB, trying to latch on to private pi gow games uptown. Nicky and the Shadows, seeing no percentage in hanging around for the onslaught, split for greener fields in the On Leong–run towns of Toronto and Chicago.

No one, of course, expects this to last. Some things are different. Just the other day the cops busted Mike Chen with a 12-gauge shotgun and 150 rounds of ammunition. Paul Ma, Philip Han, and Big Benny Ong are on their way to the slammer. And some even say the good people at Hip Sing could stage a takeover m Benny’s absence.

But much more remains the same. Go tonight to a restaurant on Mott Street and look out the window. Across the street you’re likely to see a good-looking skinny guy in a green fatigue jacket pacing back and forth. Nicky Louie is back in town, vigilant as ever. Look into his eyes and wonder what he’s thinking. But, then, remember… it’s Chinatown.

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The Ghost Shadows got their name from The New York Times. It happened about four years ago when the Shadows were functioning as the “junior auxilia­ry” of the now defunct Kwon Ying gang of Pell Street. A Times reporter was in Chinatown to cover an incident in which some of the young Kwon Ying were involved. The reporter wanted to know what “Kwon Ying” meant. (It means “not the Eagles,” a reference to the rival gang, the White Eagles.) One wise guy — probably an Eagle — said, “ghost shadow,” knew that a “ghost” is a bad thing to call a Chinese tough guy. The Chinese have long called whites bak guey, or white ghost, and blacks hak guey, which means black ghost. The gist is that these people were incomplete — were definitely not all there. Being a “ghost shadow” went double. The reporter dutifully filed “Ghost Shadow” with his copy. The next morning, after reading about themselves in the paper, Nicky Louie and the rest of the Ghost Shadows decided they liked their new name. It was so born to lose.

Other Chinese expressions of interest:
Toy Shan: A district in Canton from which most early immigrants to New York’s Chinatown came in the mid-19th century

lo fa kew: Descendants of the original Cantonese immigrants

juk sing: American-born Chinese

juk tuk: Hong Kong-born Chinese

lo fan: “Foreign devils”

tong: Hall or association

On Leong and Hip Sing: The two major tongs

lo tow: A slang phrase for Chinatown

pi gow: A domino game


New York’s Other Mafia: Young Warriors in Chinatown

Part I: Young Warriors Fight for Their Place in Chinatown 

Late last year, the young Chinese couple who ran the Szechuan D’Or restaurant on East 40th Street were murdered. The incident sparked fear that the crime which had riddled Chinatown was moving uptown. Police launched a citywide campaign to wipe it out. The crackdown played havoc with established vice in Chinatown. Youth gangs, foot soldiers of neighborhood crime, were forced out of town. Venerable gambling houses were shuttered. Extortion rackets that affect every restaurant in the area were interrupted. Even the Chinatown Connection, one of the city’s most active heroin conduits, was blocked.

But it will take more than a few gambling raids to shake the historical forces at work in Chinatown today. The Mott Street gangs are back. This is the story of who controls that street, and how they got there.

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October 1976

Midnight in Chinatown, everyone seems nervous. The old waiters look both ways before going into the gambling joint on Pell Street. Ladies bleary from a 10-hour day working over sewing machines in the sweatshops are hurrying home and restaurants are closing earlier than usual. At the Sun Sing Theatre on East Broadway, underneath a hand-painted poster of a bleeding kung fu hero, a security guard is fumbling with a padlock. Ask him how business is and he shakes his head, “No good.” Ask him why and he points his finger right between his eyes and says, “bang!”

A Quiet New Year

Pacing back and forth in front of the coffee shop at 56 Mott Street, Nicky Louie has got a lot to lose if there’s any serious gunplay tonight. A good-looking skinny guy with searing brown eyes wearing a green army fatigue jacket, Nicky is the leader of the Ghost Shadows, the gang of 50 or so Hong Kong immigrants who’ve been terrorizing Chinatown for the past few years.

Born Hin Pui Lui in the Kowloon slums 22 years ago, Nicky came to “low tow” (Chinatown) in the late ’60s. The old Hong Kong people naively called this new slum “Gum Shan,” which means Gold Mountain. But Nicky is sharper than that. No way he would end up a faceless waiter headed for the TB ward. He was born for greater things. When he first got into the gangs half a dozen years ago, people say he had the biggest mouth in Chinatown. He was the gun-wielding wild man, always up for action, willing to do anything to get attention. It paid off. Nicky’s been the top Shadow ever since 1973, when the gang’s former big boss Nei Wong got caught with a Hong Kong cop’s girlfriend. The cop, in New York for a surprise visit, ran across Wong and his betrothed in the Chinese Quarter Nightclub beneath the approach ramp to the Manhattan Bridge and blew off both their heads with his police revolver.

Since then Nicky’s rise in the Chinatown youth gang world has been startling. He has piloted the once ragtag Shadows from the bleak days when they were extorting a few free meals and dollars from the greasy spoons over on East Broadway to their current haunt, Mott Street, the big time.

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Controlling Mott Street means the Shadows get to affiliate themselves with the On Leong tong, the richest and most influential organization in Chinatown. Working with the On Leong gives the Shadows a piece of the money generated by tong (the word means simply “hall” or “association”) activities. The gangs guard the gambling houses in the On Leong territory that operate in the musty lofts and basements along Mott Street. The Shadows also provide the muscle for their version of the age-old restaurant-protection racket (not to mention considerable “freelance” extortion on the side). The gangs also act as runners in the Chinatown Connection heroin trade, bringing the stuff across the Canadian border and spreading it throughout New York. The money filters down to Nicky and his lieutenants; they filter the spoils down to the younger Shadows.

For Nicky, working with the tongs means a premiere position among the other warlords in Chinatown, plus a weekly income that ranges from $200 to $2000, depending on who you talk to. In any event, it is enough to buy a swift $7000 Peugeot to tool down Canal Street in.

But tongs are fickle. If another group of Hong Kong teenagers — say their arch enemy the White Eagles or the hard-charging Flying Dragons, who take target practice on the pigeons down by the East River — should show the On Leong they’re smarter or tougher than the Shadows, Nicky’s boys could be gone tomorrow. After all, it’s happened before.

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Shootout on Bayard Street

Could again. Two years ago Nicky and the Shadows pushed the surly Eagles off the street. In September, after licking their wounds over in Brooklyn and down in Florida, the Eagles with their leader Paul Ma — Nicky’s main rival — returned. And they were not going to be satisfied with crummy Elizabeth Street. Soon the Eagles started appearing on Bayard Street, part of Shadowland. Then Paul Ma, a ballsy dude, set up his own gambling house on the block; it was a direct affront to Nicky.

On September 8, the Shadows struck back, shooting a bunch of Eagles, including Paul Ma and a gang member’s wife, in front of Yuen Yuen Snack Shop on Bayard. It set off the most hair-raising month of street-fighting in Chinatown history; no weekend went by without a major incident. The now infamous Wong Kee chopchop was the highlight of the war. According to cops, the Shadows, including Nicky himself, crashed through the door of the Wong Kee Rice Shop on the Italian end of Mott and carved up one Eagle with chef’s kitchen cleavers and stabbed another with a fork. Which is why Nicky is on the street “watch” tonight. His presence keeps things cool. Without Nicky pacing up and down Mott Street, the Shadows might as well go back to East Broadway. He’s a Chinatown legend.

The Scientific Killer

Fifty years ago, chances are Nicky might have been lying around the “joss houses” and street-fighting alongside the hatchet and gunmen of Chinatown’s “tong wars.” In those days, the two big tongs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing of Pell Street, battled on the sidewalks over the few available women and the opium trade, and out of sheer boredom. Back then, there were legendary “boo hoy dow” (warriors): like Mock Dock, the great gambler known as “The Philosophical Killer,” and Yee Toy, “The Girl-Faced Killer.” Most famous of all, however, was the plain-faced Sing Dock. “The Scientific Killer.” Once, after hearing of an outbreak of war in New York, he rode in the baggage compartment of a train (Chinese weren’t allowed to ride up front) for six weeks from San Francisco. That was when Pell Street was called “Red Street” and the crook in Doyers Street was known as “The Bloody Angle.”

Today the Chinatown warrior has changed. The young gangs are not respected tong members, as Sing Dock was; they’re foot-soldier peons who are in it for the bucks. Nicky and the Shadows have given up black overcoats for fatigue jackets and puffy hairdos. (Asked if their hair is a Hong Kong fashion, the gangs say, “No, man, it’s ’cause we dig Rod the Mod, man.” Meaning Rod Stewart.) But the nicknames are still colorful. Hanging with Nicky tonight are old-time Shadows “Mongo,” the wild-man enforcer who got his name from Blazing Saddles, and “Japanese,” who shaved his head after he heard that things might go easier for him in jail if he looked like a “Muslim.” There are some guys with grade-B movie names like Lefty and Four-Eyes, but most of the kids go for names like “Stinkybug,” “White-Faced Tiger,” “Pointy Lips,” “Porkupine,” and “Nigger Choy.” There must be 20 kids named “Apple Head” running around Chinatown. Nicky, however, is just Nicky.

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The Ghost Legend

Some say Nicky has nine lives. The estimates of how many slugs he carries around inside his chest vary. According to an ex-gang member, “When he turn over in bed at night, he can hear them bullets clank together.”

Last May teenage hitmen from the San Francisco–based Wah Ching gang flew across the country just to kill Nicky. Some say it was on an Eagle contract. For whatever reason they pumped a dozen bullets into the middle of a Saturday afternoon shopping crowd on Mott Street while Nicky disappeared across Canal Street. The Chings missed everyone and wound up getting pinched by two drug cops who just happened to be eating won ton in the nearby Joy Luck Restaurant.

The “ging cha” (police) have arrested Nicky for everything from robbery to extortion to murder to rape, but he’s never been convicted.

Detective Neal Maurillo, who is assigned full-time to the Fifth Precinct’s Chinese gang section, is a smart cop. He realizes he’s got a crazy and hopelessly complicated job. Chinatown gangs aren’t like the bruisers fighting over street corners and ghetto reps up in the Bronx. There’s piles of money, history, and politics behind what Nicky and his guys are doing. And since it’s Chinatown, they’d rather do it quietly — which is why Shadows don’t wear dungaree coats with hard-on things like “Savage Skulls” emblazoned on the back.

But Neal knows all the faces on Mott Street. He memorizes gang members’ names and birthdays, walks down the street and says, “Hey, happy birthday Pipenose, seen Dice around.” That blows minds. Sometimes Nicky Louie calls Neal up just to shoot the breeze. Neal says, “That kid is okay really. But I’ve been chasing him for five years and I’ll nail him. He knows it, too. We talk about it all the time.” Neal remembers the time he came upon Nicky lying face down in a pool of blood near the Bowery. He said, “Nicky, come on, you’re gonna die, tell me who shot you.” Nicky looked up at Neal, his eyes blazing arrogance, and said, “Fuck you.” Of course, Nicky pulled through in fine shape and the two had a good laugh about it later.

Tales of this sort of exploit are enough to keep the Dragons and the hard-case White Eagles at bay. The On Leong like Nicky’s style and probably have him tabbed as a future officer. If not, he might go over to the rival Hip Sing tong, which backs youth gangs of its own.

But you have to step back from all this for a minute. There hasn’t been a tong war in Chinatown since the ’20s. And Nicky Louie is not a reincarnation of Sing Dock — he’s a disaffected ghetto kid growing into what most people would call a dangerous gangster. But you also have to remember that this is Chinatown. Down here the past and present are a little more difficult to sort out.

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The Tenement Tongs

Toy Shan is a village in the mountainous region of Canton from which the great majority of those who settled New York’s Chinatown came in the mid 1800s. It’s possible that the Toy Shan settlement in New York was as closed a community as has ever existed in urban America. Much of this is bound up in mutual racism, including the infamous “Exclusion Acts” that effectively banned Chinese women from the United States for more than 60 years.

The havoc these laws wreaked on the Toy Shan consciousness is difficult to underestimate. Drinking and gambling, both venerable Chinese passions, became endemic. There were numerous gambling houses in Chinatown (contemporary houses pull in from $40,000 to $50,000 on a good night), and Chinese faces became familiar at the city’s racetracks, probably the only place they were, outside restaurants and laundries, which prompted wags to dub the Belmont subway special, “The Shanghai Express.” Prostitutes from uptown were frequent visitors to Toy Shan back then. Chatham Square was one of the best non-hotel beats in the city. By the 1940s, when the laws finally began to ease, the ratio of men to women in Chinatown ranged as high as 10 to 1.

The Toy Shans were not eager to mingle with the people they called “lo fan” (foreign devils) in any event. Determined to survive, they built an extralegal society based on furtive alliances, police bribes, creative bookkeeping, and immigration scams. The aim was to remain invisible and separate. To this day, few people in Chinatown are known by their real names; most received new identities, such as the Lees, Chins, and Wongs from the family associations, who declared them “cousins” to get them into the country.

In place of the “Western government,” they substituted the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an organization to which the neighborhood’s 65-odd family and merchant associations belong. To this day every other president of the CCBA has to be a “Toy Shan” descendant.

It was, however, the Hip Sing and On Leong that carried much of the power in the community. Originally formed as protection societies for Chinese without strong family ties, the “tongs” set themselves up as “night mayors” of Chinatown. They controlled the illegal activities in a community where everyone felt outside the law. Their spokesmen, with hatchet men behind them, grew in power at the CCBA. Between themselves, they struck a parity that still holds. On Leong has more money and highly placed members, especially in Chiang Kai-shek’s old Kuomintang party and the Nationalist government. The prole Hip Sing, which is known as “the friend of the seaman” for its ability to sneak Chinese off boats and into waiter jobs, has more members and branches.

But in 1965 the Toy Shan traditions were seriously threatened. The federal laws were altered to allow open Chinese emigration to this country. Since then more than 200,000 Hong Kong residents have emigrated; half settled in the New York area, many of those in Chinatown.

Which makes sense. The New York pace is similar to that of teeming Hong Kong, and the business possibilities seemed good. In Boston, the Chinese community borders on a honkytonk area. In Chicago, the black ghetto is everywhere. In San Francisco, the Chinese have always thought of themselves as more sophisticated than the Toy Shan, but there the Chinatown is neatly stitched into a tourist patchwork quilt that cuts expansion possibilities. In New York, however, the old men have played it close to the vest for so long, anything can happen.

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Toy Shan Changes

Chinatown is in the midst of a gut-wrenching change. The population is edging toward 75,000, a five-fold increase since the law change. It’s one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New York and without doubt the most densely populated. Once confined to the familiar pentagon bounded by Canal Street, Worth, and the Bowery, Chinatown is now sprawling all over the Lower East Side. Already Mott Street above Canal up to Grand, once solidly Italian is 70 percent Chinese. To the east, Division Street and East Broadway, formerly Jewish and Puerto Rican, have become centers of Chinese business and residence.

But much of the old Toy Shan separatism remains. Most Chinatown residents do not vote; currently there are fewer than 3000 registered voters in the area. In marked contrast to the Asian communities in California, no Oriental has ever held major office in New York. The Chinatown Democratic Club has been busted as a gambling house. Peter Wu, the club’s leader, has been called one of the biggest gamblers in Chinatown. The political base of the community is so weak that activists feel powerless to do anything about the assembly lines that bisect the area and cut the potential Chinese vote in half. Chinatown activists say this neglect is responsible for the compromised stand in the zoning fight with the Little Italy Restoration Association, which is seeking toward off the Chinese influx and zone large portions of the area for the dwindling Italian population.

Yet changes are everywhere. Chinatown now functions for Chinese; it looks like Hong Kong. Investigate the brand new Silver Palace Restaurant on the Bowery — it breaks the mold of the cramped, no-atmosphere Chinatown restaurant. An escalator whisks you up to a dining room as big as a football field. Almost all the 1000 or so people eating there will be Chinese, many middle-class couples who’ve motored in from Queens to try a more adventurous version of Cantonese food than this city is accustomed to. (Many Chinese will tell you the “exotic” Szechuan and Hunan food is the “American” fare.)

The mass migration has transformed Chinatown into an odd amalgam of boom town and ghetto. Suddenly half the businesses here are no longer in the hands of the old “lo fa kew” (the Cantonese Toy Shans). In their place have come Hong Kong entrepreneurs and Taiwanese investors, who are fearful of the future of their island. A Taiwanese combine, the Summit Import Corporation, has already done much to change shopping habits in Chinatown by opening two big supermarkets, Kam Wah on Baxter Street and Kam Kuo on Mott.

The Taiwanese money is an indication that even though the Nationalists appear on the verge of international political eclipse, their influence in American Chinatowns is on the rise. A Taiwan concern is also behind the proposed block-long Golden Pacific National Bank on Canal Street. It’s one of the several new banks opening in this neighborhood of compulsive savers. The gold rush, prodded by extraordinary greed, has pushed real-estate values here to fabled heights.

All this has the Toy Shan posers hanging on for dear life. The newcomers, filtered through Hong Kong, come from all over China. The old Toy Shan loyalties don’t apply. These people got here without the help of the associations and owe them little. The tongs and the CCBA are beginning to feel the crunch. They’ve begun to see more and more store owners break away. Suddenly there are publicly funded social service agencies, most prominently the Chinatown Planning Council, to challenge CCBA rulings. And the younger Chinese, sons and daughters of the “lo fa kew,” have been openly critical.

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The Old Men Act

But 100 years of power isn’t something you give up without a fight. On November 3, the CCBA held a meeting to discuss what to do about Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadow buddies shooting up the neighborhood. Chinatown has traditionally been one of the safest areas in the city; it still is. Crime figures are remarkable low here for a place with so many new immigrants. That’s what made the recent violence all the more shocking. Especially in a neighborhood so dependent on tourism. Although the battles were being waged among the various Shadows, Dragons, and Eagles around, merchants were reporting 30 per cent drop in business. Places that stay open late were doing even worse.

The street fighting is “disfiguring” Chinatown, said one merchant, referring to the April shootout at the Co-Luck Restaurant on the Bowery. That night, according to the cops, a couple of Shadows roared up in a late-model blue Ford, smashed through the glass door, and started spraying .32 automatic slugs in the general direction of some Dragons who were “yum cha” (drinking tea and talking) in the corner. One of the Dragons, who may not have been a Dragon at all, got clipped in the leg. For the rest of the people in the restaurant, it was grimmer. By the time the Shadows were through, they had managed to hit three New York University law students, a waiter, and a lady from Queens who later died on the floor, her daughter crying over her body. The cops said, “The place looked like as slaughterhouse; there was blood all over the linoleum.”

Since then Co-Luck has been considered bad luck for prospective buyers. It remains vacant, rare in a neighborhood where no storefront is empty for long. On the door is a sign: “Closed For Alterations,” “Perhaps we keep it that way,” said a merchant, “as a scar to remind us of our shame.”

Restaurant owners say there won’t be so many wedding banquets this summer because of an incident in the Hung Gung a few months ago. Gang members crashed a banquet in the restaurant, stationing sentries outside to make sure no one came or went, and instructed a hundred celebrants to drop their valuables into shopping bags. “It was just like the Wild West,” says someone close to the wedding guests.

The police don’t see things looking up. In October they made 60 gang-related arrests, the most ever in a single month. They say there are more guns on the street than ever before and estimate gang membership before the recent crackdown at about 200, an all-time high. The gang kids are younger, too. 14-year-olds from Junior High School are common these days.

Pressured by editorials in the Chinese press, the CCBA swung into action. They called a public gathering at which the community would be free to explain its plight to Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morganthau.

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Getting the Lo Fan Involved

This was quite a change in tactics for the CCBA. Until quite recently one of its major functions has been to keep the lid on Chinatown’s considerable and growing urban problems. That Chinese women sew garments for 12 cents a piece, that more than one third of the area’s males work as waiters, that Chinatown has the highest rate of TB and mental illness among city neighborhoods, all that was dirty linen better kept under wraps. But Nicky and the Shadows, they make noise. They get picked up for killing people and get their sullen pictures in what the Chinese still call “the Western press.” Keeping that quiet can make you look awfully silly. So, when Joseph Mei, the CCBA vice-president, told The New York Times, “We have no problem at all about youth gangs in Chinatown,” the day after Nicky’s people allegedly shot five White Eagles in front of the Yuen Yuen Snack Shop a policy change was in order.

The meeting was held in the CCBA’s dank auditorium (underneath an alternating string of American and Nationalist Chinese flags). Yut Yee, the 70-year-old CCBA president, who reportedly has been known to fall asleep during meetings, was unusually awake that night. He said, “Chinatown will become a dead city” if the violence continues. He urged residents to come forward and “report cases of crimes: we must be witnesses.” This seemed unlikely, for in a culture where the character for “revenge” means literally “report a crime,” the act of informing tends to be a complicated business. It confuses and angers the Lo Fan cops, who say that even though just about every restaurant in Chinatown has been robbed or extorted from in the past few years, the incidence of reporting the crimes is almost nil. Despite the fact that gang members have been arrested for more than a dozen murders in Manhattan there has been only one conviction: that, of Yut Wai Tom, an Eagle who made the mistake of putting a bullet through the throat of a Shadow in front of a couple of Puerto Rican witnesses.

Morganthau sighed during the debate of Chinese businessmen, looked at his watch, said he’d “help,” and left. But this time however, many people were openly restive. “My god, when will this bullshit stop?” asked a younger merchant.

No one talked about the tongs and their relationship to the gangs. H0w could they? Of the seven permanent members of the CCBA inner voting circle, one is in the On Leong, another the Hip Sing. No wonder people tend to get cynical whenever the CCBA calls a meeting at which the tong interests are at stake. Perhaps that’s why, when a Chinese reporter asked what the D.A. was planning to do to help the community, one of the Morganthau’s people said, “What do you want? We showed up, didn’t we?”

But, really all you had to do was watch Benny Eng. Benny is the director of the Hip Sing Credit Fund (which drug cops figure is a laundry room for dirty money). He is also an officer of the Chinese-American Restaurant Association, an organization that deserves blame for keeping waiter wages in Chinatown at about $50 a week for the past twenty years.

As people entered the CCBA hall, Little Benny, as he is called in deference to Big Benny Ong, the old Hip Sing bossman who recently got caught sneaking out the door of the gambling house at 9 Pell and spent the next day teaching cops how to play Chinese poker, greeted everyone with a hopelessly drawn face. He said, “so happy you are interested in the security of Chinatown” to everyone entering the meeting. But later, you could swear you say Benny nod respectfully to the skinny-legged kid pacing up and down Mott Street.


Gang Takedown of New York Part Two: Bigger and Badder!

Just as the remaining open cases come to a close on “the largest gang bust in New York City history,” federal authorities have announced another “largest gang bust in New York City’s history.”

That time it was in West Harlem, on June 4, 2014, when 103 young men were taken down.

This time it’s in the Bronx, where 120 alleged members were arrested in and around the Williamsbridge neighborhood early Wednesday morning.

The NYPD, D.A.’s office, and the feds now appear to be going big as a matter of course, as anti-gang strategy has evolved over the years. In late 1997, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that “many of the successful strategies used to attack organized crime will be employed to combat street gangs.” At that time, the NYPD initiated special anti-gang units. The first big bust after the 1997 announcement was the takedown of 39 members of the Cut Throat Crew in May 1998. Then in 2012, “Operation Crew Cut” was announced by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. A key change, he said, was paying “attention to the new battleground of social media” and focusing on anti-crime patrols in public housing. It’s been building.

All this evolution has led to authorities adopting a “go big” strategy against gangs in the past few years, which may be good in some ways. Some of the people busted in the Bronx this week are charged with murders, including the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old boy, as well as death of Sadie Mitchell, 92, shot in her own home by a stray bullet, according to the indictment.

But there’s a problem with this approach.

“Whenever there is a large ‘sweep’ by law enforcement, the chances that innocent people get entangled in the case increase dramatically,” says Robin Steinberg, founder and executive director of Bronx Defenders.  “Friends, neighbors, bystanders, and relatives get charged merely because of their association, proximity, or relationship to the targets of the criminal investigation.”

Steinberg says this approach then forces these relatives to “cooperate” and give information or testimony against others in exchange for lighter sentences.

This is patterned after federal laws, and it enables authorities to use criminal conspiracy charges that have a far lower threshold for proof of guilt (which the Voice has covered extensively).

There are many similarities and differences between the first “largest bust” and the latest. Some of the differences: About seven hundred feds and NYPD officers were involved this time around, as opposed to some four hundred law enforcement officials in the Harlem bust. And there was more variety in the scope of alleged crimes. The Bronx gangs are suspected of selling narcotics near schools and playgrounds, committing bank fraud, and engaging in racketeering. The Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit and NYPD’s Gang Division went after the street gangs in West Harlem, but nowhere in that indictment were they ever defined as an “Enterprise.” The Bronx turf war has been going on since 2007.

Some of the similarities: The indictments concerned mainly two rival street gangs, Big Money Bosses (BMB) and 2Fly YGz. The early-morning raid involved hundreds of NYPD officers, helicopters, and the rounding-up of suspects. Similar to the 3 Staccs crew in West Harlem, members of YGz, mostly coming from the Edenwald Houses, actively used social media to post about their criminal activities — “over a hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts connected defendants’ alleged criminal activity,” said Preet Bharara, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“We bring these charges today so that all New Yorkers, including those in or near NYCHA public housing, can live their lives as they deserve: free of drugs, free of guns, and free of gang violence,” he added in a press release, echoing a statement made by Police Commissioner William Bratton and Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance following the West Harlem raid.

And what will probably remain the same: Likely one hundred or more of those arrested Wednesday will take plea deals. Some may be very guilty. But if the West Harlem case is any indication, others will have the most specious pieces of evidence, including Facebook and other social media posts, used against them. Rather than risk decades behind bars, they will opt for a handful of years.

“These big roundups first started with anti-gang legislation years ago, but it’s been growing, and it’s getting trickier the bigger these sweeps get,” says Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, law professor and expert on race, crime, and the administration of justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While the most serious criminal offenders must be apprehended, Jones-Brown says, that small number of “bad actors” isn’t being distinguished from those who are minimally involved.

“They’re doing these broad sweeps, especially when it comes to black and brown young men,” she says. “And we can’t trust that those on the periphery won’t get caught up as police and authorities continue operating on larger and larger scales.”


Facebook Posts Loom Large in Trial for Slain Basketball Star’s Brother

Taylonn Murphy sat in Room 1530 of the Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday, watching opening arguments in the case against his son, Taylonn Murphy Jr., who stands accused of murder and conspiracy charges as part of the largest gang bust in New York City history.
Taylonn Jr. is one of many suspects from the Manhattanville and Grant houses — public projects in West Harlem that have a longstanding history of violent rivalry — swept up in a massive dragnet following a four-year criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney. In total, 103 people were indicted for activity associated with three gangs — Money Avenue, Make It Happen Boys, and 3Staccs. The D.A. brought two murder charges, nineteen non-fatal shootings, and possession of firearms in a 145-count indictment.
Of those 103, the Manhattan D.A.’s office says 94 have pleaded guilty rather than stand trial. Some of the rest were convicted, one defendant was acquitted at trial, and another case was dismissed. Only four cases are pending — one apiece for Money Avenue and Make It Happen Boys, and two for 3Staccs.

Taylonn Jr.’s case is one of those four. He’s charged with being part of a 3Staccs crew involved in the killing of Walter Sumter, who lived in the Manhattanville Houses, in December 2011. For the elder Murphy, the case is extraordinarily difficult: His daughter, Tayshana, was fatally gunned down in the hallway of the Grant Houses in September 2011. She was eighteen, a rising basketball star named one of the top point guards in the country by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. Two young men from the neighboring Manhattanville Houses were later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for her murder. Now Tayshana’s brother could end up in prison.
Social media will be a big part of the prosecution’s case against Taylonn Murphy Jr. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and the NYPD have increasingly built cases against gangs by focusing on Facebook. The indictment against the 103 alleged gang members was peppered with comments on the site from the suspects, including posts written by Taylonn Jr. Prosecutors looked at over a million social-media pages in the case. A Facebook representative will be flown in for the trial.
Taylonn Murphy Jr. was initially charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. The murder charges didn’t come until seven months after the takedown. The assistant district attorneys told jurors on Monday that witnesses — who they are calling “cooperators” — will testify in the coming weeks and place the younger Murphy at the murder scene. The cooperators stand to “receive a benefit of a reduced sentence,” says one of the A.D.A.s.
“Detectives sifted through thousands of hours of phone calls, hours of surveillance video, and pages of Facebook posts,” Assistant District Attorney Jon Viega said in his opening arguments. He faced the jury of twelve men and women, with five alternates, and outlined how the only thing the gang members like more than committing violent acts against rivals “is bragging about it on Facebook.”
Defense attorney Lewis Gladston followed the prosecution with his statement. He told jurors that the three cooperators have been known to lie.
“Credibility is an issue,” Gladston said — for the cooperators, “it’s a ‘get out of jail free card.’ The informants were facing a life sentence before cooperating. My client’s DNA wasn’t found on any evidence. There is not one single video of my client hurting anybody. They recovered zero evidence in my client’s home.”
The elder Murphy listened to this, at times looking concerned, at times exasperated as prosecutors spoke. He was seated in the audience directly behind his son on the other side of the railing, next to Tephanie Holston, Taylonn Jr.’s mother. Murphy must have had some understanding of how his son might be feeling. His own experience with the court system was the subject of a New Yorker profile last October: In 1991 he had been tried for murder, proceedings that ended in a hung jury. There was a second trial; still he was not convicted. All the while he was held at Rikers. The D.A. threatened a third trial. Rather than risk it, Murphy took a plea deal for time served and was released in 1992.
He disputes how the district attorney has portrayed his son. He says Taylonn Jr. was as young as sixteen at the time of some of the things alleged in the indictment. New York is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — where the age of criminal responsibility is sixteen. His son was nineteen when he was arrested in 2014.
“My children didn’t move to Grant until 2007,” Murphy said following the day’s proceedings. “They were twelve and fourteen, and my daughter was traveling all over the country playing basketball. This problem in the neighborhood has been going on for decades. It was already there.” 
He said his children grew up in “this very turbulent environment” and didn’t know how to deal with it.
“Young people’s stress levels are so high. They find a common bond and now they’re hanging out — so they’re a gang now?” he asks. “What constitutes a gang? And being tried as an adult when your behavior is that of an adolescent? You’re trying to blame these young people for living in an atmosphere that wasn’t nurturing. This is a neighborhood that has been under anguish.”
The use of Facebook in building a case is problematic to Murphy, as well as to some experts contacted by the Voice.
“A lot of it has to do with adolescent bravado and identity formation — it’s a very complex thing. It’s not black and white. It’s part of their survival,” says David Brotherton, professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who studies gangs. He says the notion of conspiracy charges based on Facebook posts is “absurd.”
Social media being used by prosecutors to build criminal conspiracy cases raises difficult questions, agrees Ronald Goldstock, an attorney who served for thirteen years as director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force and is on the faculty at the Cornell, Columbia, and New York University law schools. 
“With social media, it makes the degrees of culpability more complicated,” Goldstock says. “When you get eighteen or twenty people, it’s hard to determine the individual culpability of each person. They’re all writing texts, emails, posting on Facebook. For a jury to determine who actually did what and how that fits in becomes really difficult. Most people plea out because if you get convicted, it could be 25 years.”
The trial, in the court of Judge Edward Jude McLaughlin, is scheduled to continue throughout the week and upcoming month.


After SUV Attack, the Internet Thinks All Hollywood Stuntz Motorcycle Gang Members Are “Pussy” “Terrorists” Who Deserve to Die

Update, 10:15 a.m.: More information has emerged on a Brooklyn man alleged to be the founder of Hollywood Stuntz. Jump to the last page for that, and another video of a possible Stuntz ride.

Earlier this week, a disturbing video began circulating of a brutal incident between a man named Alexian Lien and multiple members of a motorcycle crew called the Hollywood Stuntz. As far as we can tell, the chain of events looks something like this: Lien, with his wife and two-year-old daughter, was driving in a black Range Rover behind a massive group of riders on the West Side Highway, when one of them, Christopher Cruz, stopped short in front of him. Lien hit the back of Cruz’s bike. Cruz and several other riders got off their bikes and started to approach his car. Lien accelerated and drove away, running over another rider, Edwin “Jay” Mieses. Several more riders followed Lien to Washington Heights, where police say he was pulled from the car and beaten, sustaining two black eyes and needing stitches to his face and chest. His wife and child escaped unharmed. Mieses’ family says he is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Meanwhile, the Internet has discovered more YouTube videos of the Hollywood Stuntz’s other rides, most of them pretty tame compared to Monday’s violent melee. In the past 24 hours, the number of views have skyrocketed. Public sympathy isn’t on their side: Many of the comments on the videos call the riders “terrorists,” use a variety of racial and homophobic slurs, and suggest they should be raped in prison until they die.

See also: Motorcycle Gang Chases, Attacks SUV Driver on West Side Highway [VIDEO]

The video getting the most views is the one you see above, from the Hollywood Stuntz 2012 “Block party” ride in Times Square. The video was uploaded on August 24 of last year, and until this week, it had only been looked at a handful of times. Then the attack happened, and now the number of views looks like this:

Almost all of the comments refer to the West Side Highway attack. “These people are all terrorists,” writes one viewer. Referring to Mieses, he adds, ” He is the douchebag that got ran over and put in a wheelchair thank God for justice.”

“FAGGOTS,” writes another guy. “Beating a father in front of his wife and child? FUCK ALL YOU FAGGOTS.”

It looks like the Hollywood Stuntz have been around for quite awhile; the video above shows a group of them in 2008, riding around in either Queens or the Bronx. YouTube viewers have traveled back in time to offer their views on that one too.

“pussy ass nigger and beaner motorcycle faggots,” one offers. “always scared to ride alone.”

Here’s another from the same ride:

Although many of the Hollywood Stuntz members appear to be black, a video of a block party from this time last year shows they also have some white members. The YouTube hive mind has plenty of thoughts on that too: “i thought hollywood cuntz party was only spooks and beaners.,…white trash too? no surprise really! word!!!”

Here’s another from the same block party. Some of the riders don’t ride two-wheeled bikes, but instead show up in Campagna T-Rex 14R three-wheelers. According to several automotive sites, the price tag for those starts at around $50,000.

Unsurprisingly, the videos are being taken down almost as fast as we can embed them,
including footage of a Halloween ride from 2010.

In court yesterday, Christopher Cruz was charged with reckless endangerment, reckless driving, endangering the welfare of a child, menacing, and unlawful imprisonment for his role in the attack on Lien, allegations his attorney told CBS he denies. Another rider, Allen Edwards, turned himself in to police, but was not charged.

The Stuntz do have some supporters, though. A Facebook page set up in for injured rider Jay Mieses, Justice for Jay Meezee, has nearly 20,000 likes.

Earlier this morning, Metro New York noted that a now-deleted Hollywood Stuntz website was registered by Jamie Lao of Ozone Park, through a company called Joker Web Hosting. Cached versions of the page lead to a still-active, albeit private Myspace profile belonging to Lao, as well as a Hollywood Stuntz Twitter, which has been set to private as well. A Facebook page has been deleted.

On the Hollywood Stuntz page, the author doesn’t identify himself as Lao, but says he goes by “Hollywood,” and says he’s a Puerto Rican freestyle motorcycle rider from Brooklyn. His bio, which appears to have been written in 2009 or 2010, also reads, in part:

People know me most for putting together one of the sickest street rides in the U.S, with people from all over the U.S and even as far as Japan making the trip to N.Y. The ride is called “Hollywood’s Block Party” clips of this ride can be found all over youtube. I am working on making this ride bigger and better every year, so far its working. I will continue to do Stunt shows, Music Videos, and my street rides for as long as I can.

The video above is a related crew of riders, this time going by the name Block Starz. It’s listed on the Hollywood Stuntz page as one of their rides. The Block Starz logo is nearly identical to that on the Hollywood Stuntz page, and the video also showcases a logo for Skunk Clothing, which the Hollywood Stuntz page author lists as one of his sponsors.

One of the riders in that video, it’s worth noting, is wearing a conical Asian hat and a super-creepy mask. Here’s a screenshot, for your nightmares. It’s around the 50-second mark.


6 Wild Gang Takedown: Caught Using Facebook, Robbing Drug Dealers

Facebook is a great place to post how you’re doing, your new job, pictures of the dog, plates of restaurant food, and, if you’re members of a violent drug gang, which specialized in home-invasion robberies of other drug dealers, snapshots of your piles of cash!


Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan tells us that authorities took down 11 members of a Bronx-based gang called 6 Wild on conspiracy, attempted murder, robbery and drug charges this week for home invasion robberies dating over the past two years (two a month!).

They really tried to rob drug dealers, but on three occasions, they robbed innocent folks instead, who in at least one case were beaten with a frying pan and choked. In addition, the gang also was involved in a dozen shootings as a result of tuf battles with other gangs.

“Members of 6 Wild held regular meetings at 1041 and 1055 Findlay Ave., where they discussed making money, the purchasing of weapons and disputes with rival groups,” Brennan said in a statement.

Like many of today’s youth, the gang used slang and mangled the language on social media, communicated on Facebook, and had code words for guns like “Grip,” “Glocc,” “Tool,” and “Bike” for firearm, and for drugs like “Krills,” “Grams,” “Yams,” and “Grizz.”
The suspects also posted photos of cash with captions like, “I BURRY THE MOST CASH ND BURNING THE REST!” or “$$$$$$$ WILDDDD $$$$$$$.”

“This group carried out vicious assaults, robberies and drug dealing. Each and every activity they were involved in threatened the safety of the people in their community,” Brennan said. “They swore allegiance to only one thing — the Gucci bags full of cash that they collected from committing their crimes.”   

Here are some pictures of cash posted by the gang on Facebook:



Facebook And The Law: NYPD Deputy Inspector Targeted On The Social Network

In a week filled with headlines of a fired LAPD cop gone on a killing spree after posting a murderous ‘manifesto’ on Facebook, this story should unsettle you.

Yesterday, the New York Post reported that NYPD deputy inspector Joseph Gulotta was virtually targeted on the social network when an anonymous user posted intimate details on the specific Precinct’s page about said inspector and ordered a “hit” on him. The details included the police officer’s schedule (down to the exact hours) and car model. Almost immediately, the D.I. filed a complaint against the harrowing message and it has since been removed.

Mr. Gulotta is in charge of Brooklyn’s 73rd District – home to Brownsville, East New York and other neighborhoods with particularly high levels of violence. His unit is known for its knack to monitor Facebook for suspected criminals – kinda like the one we’re dealing with here – and its most recent social media gang bust landed 49 members. As of now, the NYPD believe the user may belong to a gang prevalent in the area known as OccFam.

But whoever it may be, the lesson here is simple: Facebook can be a real dark place for criminals and police… if it wants to be.


“Krills,” “Yams,” and “Grizz”: Decoding NYC Gangsters’ Facebook Faux-Pas

In October, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly publicly announced that he was doubling the size of the Department’s Anti-Gang Unit and would be stepping up efforts to bust gangsters using social media websites like Facebook and Twitter — where gangsters have recently taken their turf wars.

New York City’s gangsters must not read the papers — 10 more alleged thugs got popped recently, much thanks to their social media stupidity.

According to the NYPD, 10 leaders of the “violent, drug dealing” street gang “WTG” were indicted yesterday on six counts of conspiracy to commit murder, assault, weapons possession and sales, and narcotics possession, as well as 35 related substantive counts.

Many of those indictments were aided by law enforcement’s ability to crack the gangsters’ social media codes.

From the NYPD:

WTG’s leadership made extensive use of social media and developed a distinctive “lingo,” or system of code words and phrases, to communicate with one another about their criminal activity in thousands of exchanges on Facebook. During the investigation, Special Narcotics prosecutors and analysts, and members of the NYPD, reviewed of Facebook messages from January 2011 to the present, as well as additional images and messages on Instagram. Facebook and Instagram messages and photos were obtained through court authorized search warrants.

“DubbTee” refers to a member of WTG, while “Fake Dub” describes members of the rival Dub City gang. Shootings, drug sales and firearms were routinely discussed in WTG leaders’ Facebook messages. “Grip,” “glocc,” “swammy,” “slammer,” and “hammer” are all terms WTG members used to refer to firearms, while “floced” or “clapped” referred to a shooting. “Krills,” “grams,” “yams,” and “grizz” are terms used for narcotics.

Facebook also served as a primary means of gang recruitment. Messages and other intelligence reveal that WTG leadership required prospective gang members to provide money for the purchase of communal firearms, or to provide an actual firearm, in order to gain admission to the gang. New gang members were then placed “under” a leader, to whom they answered. WTG maintained readily available, loaded communal firearms for use by members. Gang leaders directed minors aged 14 and 15 to possess, transport and store the guns in order to avoid the arrest or detection of adult gang members.

In a May 2012 Facebook message, SHAQUILLE HOLDER, “aka Boogz,” wrote to another prospective WTG, saying, “If yuk an western union me 125 right now you can be WTG under me and b official.” That same month, HOLDER received a Facebook message from an individual seeking to help another individual become a member of WTG. “My manzz want to be Dub Tee under u,” the message said, to which HOLDER replied, “Gotta send n glocc or 200 cash and mac wich ya guyuzz.”

In a March 2011 Facebook message, RONALD DAVIS, aka “Ron G,” directed a prospective WTG member, “Yo bro, I want u to be WTG but u gotta put up chipz on da glock dun u my bro,” adding, “100” when asked how much. A prospective gang member asked, “You gonna turn me dub tee or when I pay for the gun?” and DAVIS responded, “Friday but if u dnt give me dat den ugonna get parked. Parked = droped from WTG Imma teach u the lingo.” HOLDER, WILLIAMS and DAVIS face Criminal Solicitation charges in connection with these recruiting activities.

Earlier this year, we consulted our go-to gang source (a 20-year-old “Crip” who happens to live next door to us) in regards to the recent spike in social media thuggery.

“[That’s not] how real gangsters do shit,” he assured us. “They put that shit up there [on Facebook] like they don’t know the cops is readin’ it. That’s dumb shit — amateur shit. That’s how niggaz end up in jail.”

Our source has been shot four times — including one shooting incident that involved him shooting himself in the leg (he happened to be sitting on our couch at the time, as evident from the bullet hole in our faux-leather sofa).

As he puts it, he and his homeboys are “for real gangster.”

“These fake-ass gangsters don’t know what they’re doing, son,” he continues. “The reason gangs survive is by not letting the cops know we is doin’ shit. We don’t do none of that Facebook shit and if you do an ‘OG’ is gonna let you know about it.”

Moral of the story: gang business has no business on Facebook.