There was a sweet piece in the Times earlier this week about how Pleasant Avenue, the short, six-block East Harlem street near where the new Target department store just opened, was once “one of the most famous gangland stretches in the history of the mob.”
Old-timers who grew up there wistfully told the Times about the days when there were five social clubs on the street, when a made man could leave his Caddy with the motor running because “Nobody’s touching it,” and where “People had respect for each other. Not like today.”
It may all even be true. But just to add to the digital record for future Google searches on the street’s history, it’s also worth noting that this strip was the chief distribution center for much of the heroin that destroyed so many lives in this and many other cities in the 1960s and 70s.
The tale of that murderous and largely unhindered trafficking was told in the most disturbing detail in The Pleasant Avenue Connection, a 1976 book by former police detective and famed NYPD corruption buster David Durk, along with Ira Silverman, the great TV investigative reporter.
Durk was tutored in the street’s drug trade by an informant he called only “the old man” who was heartbreakingly trying to keep his son out of the junk business. Lying on the floor of Durk’s sedan to avoid being seen, that old timer provided his own neighborhood highlights:
“You could see the heroin bosses in undershirts and T-shirts getting in and out of Cadillacs and Lincolns on their way from one storefront heroin operation to another. …Between midnight and dawn, night after night, millions of dollars would change hands on The Avenue. …The cutters, the baggers, the people who processed heroin for street sale would be working all night in tenement apartments above the busy storefront social clubs. …If you knew the right people, you could go there at three in the morning and borrow fifty thousand dollars in cash or rent a submachine gun or arrange to fix a judge or pick up three kilos of heroin. “
The Pleasant Avenue Connection is long out of print, but you can still find copies of Crusader: The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk, the fine bio by James Lardner which also details Durk’s desperate attempts to force city narcotics squads to close down the heroin supermarket.
“Don’t the precinct cops up here give out parking tickets?” Lardner quotes Durk asking the old man as he eyed the triple-parked luxury cars. “There’s no parking tickets up here,” the old man answered. “The cops are all taken care of.”
You can still hear nostalgic tales about those good old days on Pleasant Avenue. They tell them every night right at Rao’s, the celebrity-filled, ten-tables-only eatery on the corner of E. 114th Street where descendants of the drug brokers belly up to the bar.