New York’s Mean Streets


It was the era of Eisenhower, Elvis, and West Side Story.On the real streets of New York City, the Daily News headlines in 1959 told about the “Capeman,” who killed two boys in a playground on West 45th Street. The Capeman was 17-year-old Salvador Agron, a sullen Puerto Rican kid from uptown who somehow ended up in Hell’s Kitchen with a bloody knife and a murder charge.

Eric Schneider, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, builds on the Agron case to form a comprehensive and tantalizing picture of the street gang culture that was part of New York City mythology from the ’40s through the ’70s–from the Red Wings of
Italian Harlem to the fearsome Fordham Baldies up in the Bronx, with the Enchanters, the Chaplains, and the Latin Lords in between. These disaffected young men sprouted from the sidewalks of Harlem and Morrisania, and were the result of a New York economy that essentially made adolescents disposable. The gang became the means to assert male dominance, defend threatened neighborhoods, and generally combat the grim future of low-paying jobs and dreary adulthoods.

Schneider grew up in the East 80s, not much of a gang guy, but he knows his way around the streets and does a particularly good job of making sense of the drug plague that ended the original postwar gang culture. The flood of heroin in the ‘6Os killed many of the members, and transformed gangs into dealers. By the ’80s, crack made the surviving gangs into street-level business organizations. By then, gang membership meant easy money and clothes more than masculine pride or unofficial neighborhood vigilantism.

There is some sociological jargon in the book, but Schneider’s understanding (if not affection) for the gang style informs the work throughout. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings is a sharp book about a peculiar moment in New York life–one that seems strangely antiquated as we approach the new millennium.

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