The Gang That Couldn't Wear Its Hair Straight

The Jheri Curls of Washington Heights, and how they made everybody else's hair curl

At the time, most of the residents adapted to the Jheri Curls by learning to treat them as one might treat a doorman—that is, with every outward show of respect, plus a touch of aloofness. It was a trick that everyone in the building seemed to learn, except for Jose Reyes.

A retired social worker who lived on the fifth floor, Reyes didn't take to cowering in the face of the Jheri Curls, several survivors of the era recently told the Voice. In the spring of 1991, a few months before Lorenzo Martinez's arrest at the bridge, Reyes confronted several members of the gang.

Not long after the argument, someone broke into Reyes's apartment while he was out. Depending on who is telling the story, the intruders either left a death threat for Reyes in the form of a letter or they left a death threat scrawled on the apartment floor in black paint. Either way, it wasn't an idle warning.

Stylin': Martinez brothers (clockwise, from bottom left) Lorenzo, Julian, Daniel,  and Cesar
Stylin': Martinez brothers (clockwise, from bottom left) Lorenzo, Julian, Daniel, and Cesar

A few days later, Reyes went out to run some errands on Broadway. Late in the afternoon, according to court documents, he walked out of a doughnut shop and began strolling up Broadway. As he passed a television store, a thin man in a striped polo shirt approached Reyes from behind and fired a single shot into the side of his head. Reyes crumpled to the pavement, dead. In the meantime, the news ricocheted around the neighborhood, along with the usual murmurs: Don't meddle.

Pauline Turner watched as the police robot rolled through the long, barren courtyard, approaching her building.

It was the early '90s, and Turner was living on the second floor of the Jheri Curls' building at 614 West 157th Street. From her window, she looked at the robot in disbelief. "There were ambulances and police cars," recalled Turner. "Here comes this robot. I said, 'What is this?' I still don't know. Nobody told us anything. I find out the next day that there was supposed to be a bomb in the elevator shaft."

Some 15 years later, Turner, now 85, widowed, and retired, still lives in the same apartment she moved into with her husband in the early '60s. Back then, Turner explains, most of the building, like the surrounding neighborhood, was Jewish. Turner and her husband were one of the first black families to make the building their home.

Over the next 40 years, Turner watched as whites gave way to black people, blacks gave way to Dominicans, and Dominicans gave way to Central Americans. Now the neighborhood is slowly turning white again.

What was the building like back in the early '90s when the Jheri Curls moved in? To hear Turner tell it, living next door to the drug dealers wasn't all that much different from living next door to anybody else. Just another group passing by in the halls. Plus the occasional bomb-sniffing robot. Plus the occasional shooting.

"They were quiet," said Turner. "I would be coming up the steps, they would help with my groceries. Very well-dressed people."

What annoyed Turner about the occasional outbursts of mayhem was the lack of communication about it from the police. Exhibit A: the murder in the lobby of a man thought to be a gang member.

The leader: Rafael Martinez

"From my window, I could see something in the lobby," recalled Turner. "I didn't know what it was until later they told me that the man had been shot. We never were told who was shot. We never were told who shot him. Police don't tell you anything."

But Jose Reyes wasn't tight-lipped. "He was quite talkative and in people's business and all," Turner recalled. "And he did the wrong thing."

Even now, in 2006, Turner is reticent to talk about the era of the Jheri Curls. "You know better than to get into that," she said. "That's what happened to Reyes. He got into that, and you see what happened?"

At the time of the Jheri Curls' infestation, Cassandra Lewis was a schoolteacher in charge of the building's tenants' association. Now retired, she still lives in the building. Like other residents, Lewis watched her once elegant building descend into disorder. Back in the '60s, the foyer was well kept and comfortable. Then the furniture disappeared. Then the rugs. Then the chandelier. By the time the Jheri Curls moved in, there weren't even locks on the building's front door.

Not that Lewis had a personal problem with her new neighbors. "Many things went on, but none went on openly in the building," recalled Lewis. "They were very polite. Whatever they did was in their apartment. They minded their business, and you minded yours."

Except, of course, for Jose Reyes. Lewis said she tried to convince Reyes not to confront the gangsters. "Jose was very outspoken," said Lewis. "He had his faults, like we all do. You have to be subtle. I would tell him, 'Something not too nice is going on in this building, but you have to be subtle.' "

By all accounts, subtle wasn't Reyes's style. Lewis said she and Reyes once worked together for the city's welfare department. Lewis knew her neighbor and co-worker to be the crusading type. And it worried her.

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