Coney Island Outlaws: Life Under the Boardwalk
February 21, 1977
By Michael Daly with photographs by James Hamilton
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.