Gangs of New York


In the summer of 1999, a group of parents from Bergen County briefly lost their children to the big city. The kids, three 15-year-olds and one 13-year-old little brother, took off for Manhattan spontaneously on a Thursday afternoon. They spent six nights scamming food from pizza parlors and playing video games in Times Square before a tourist from Tennessee recognized them from a TV news segment about their disappearance and turned them in. Regional newspapers, including The New York Times, saw the story as proof that Manhattan was no longer the sort of scary place where children could disappear forever, but the teenagers’ parents didn’t seem to find this comforting. In a group interview, the mother of one told the Times magazine that her daughter was very sheltered; the last time she’d visited New York, it was to see a Broadway musical. Another parent worriedly chimed in: “They say: ‘I don’t want to see Rent and sit in third-row seats. I want to live in the alley-way behind the theater for a week.’ ”

Rent is, of course, all about ditching the folks in New Jersey to battle it out—metaphorically—on the mean streets of New York City. That the very streets it celebrates are now lined with sake bars enhances the show’s appeal. As New York gets safer, the new movie version’s gritty 1989 setting just seems sexier. The troubles facing Rent‘s characters, from crime to the AIDS crisis, were all endemic to NYC, conferring on New Yorkers the toughness that comes with surviving. Today’s threats come from outside the city, and so we’ve lost the edge that comes with the ownership of our fears.

But New York still teems with people who bought into the dream of the East Village, not as teens flirting with rebellion but as twentysomething drifters and seekers. In college, I thought the story about the Bergen County teenagers was hilarious: How clueless were they to move to New York, utterly without a plan, because a Broadway musical told them that it was bohemian? But then I moved to Manhattan myself. My reasoning might have been slightly more sophisticated, but I’d been lying if I said I didn’t feel some deep-seated romantic affection for Avenue A.

No one needs the myth of Rent more than a recent émigré to the city, which is why no one finds it more embarrassing. We can’t admit to identifying with a show that really believes power ballads can save lives. But we love the idea of everyday struggle as something difficult and thrilling; if we didn’t, we’d all be living somewhere easier, not to mention cleaner. Since Rent hits too close to home, we need a story about battling it out on the tough urban sidewalks—literally. No wonder everyone is so enamored of The Warriors.

The cult classic about a gang trying to make it home from the Bronx to their Coney Island turf has always been almost perilously evocative: When the film was first released in 1979, violence at the screenings scared the studio into pulling the movie out of theaters. With the release of a new video game and director’s cut, The Warriors is a full-blown phenomenon, but its popularity among hipsters has been building up steam for several years now. In August of 2002, the Warriors Alleycat Fun Ride saw 200 bike messengers in full surrealist gang regalia pedaling in the rain from Claremont Park in the Bronx to Coney Island. The club Supreme Trading in Williamsburg has held a Warriors-fest for the past two Halloweens, DJ’d by Afrika Bambaataa. And when the Bloomberg administration’s plan for rezoning the North Brooklyn waterfront was put to a vote last May, the organized hipster response came from a group calling itself the Williamsburg Warriors, who wore headbands like the gang and put a clip of the villain Luther’s famous high-pitched taunt (“Warriors . . . come out to play-ay”) on their website.

Warriors fetishizing seems less problematic than Rent culthood. (Bloomingdale’s actually has two Rent boutiques, where you can put together chic bohemian ensembles that say “My failing immune system and related heroin addiction have driven me to live on the streets—in style!”) But it does create odd juxtapositions in contemporary New York. Before The Warriors was a film, it was a 1965 novel by Sol Yurick, an old-school Marxist who based his characters on the gang members he met as a social worker. The novel is meant to depict the harshness of urban poverty, a theme barely touched on in the film. Given these roots, there’s something a little queasy-making about the Williamsburg Warriors, who protest neighborhood development by literally masquerading as the economically and politically disenfranchised.

When I asked head Warrior Siri Wilson, she assured me that she’d never heard this criticism before. The Warriors conceit acts as a unifying force, she said, bringing together the neighborhood’s diverse demographics. Why The Warriors, anyway? “We just liked their ‘we’re not going to take any shit’ attitude,” she explained.

Which makes sense: As a film, The Warriors has little to do with the original novel. More importantly, unlike Rent, it’s not trying to present any sort of “real life” vision of gritty old New York. Rent‘s director, Chris Columbus, has said that he used his own experience as a broke loft-dweller in the ’80s in order to give the movie utter authenticity. The Warriors, on the other hand, is set in 1979’s near future, a dystopia of darkened streets and organized gang lairs under Gramercy Park. In the new DVD of the film, director Walter Hill has added an introduction explaining the film’s allusion to Xenophon’s Anabasis, as well as comic-book interludes between scenes, in order to play up the story’s unreality and de-emphasize its violent imagery. The Warriors makes New York look like an impossibly cool, dangerous, exciting place, but it doesn’t ever suggest that it might be a good destination for people escaping the suburbs.

The depictions of the subway in each film demonstrate their different attitudes to actual, nonfictional NYC. Rent features a song-and-dance number set on the F train in front of anachronistically modern advertisements for the Freelancers Union. It looks like the actors literally piled into a car at Second Avenue sometime last winter to shoot the scene. The Warriors, on the other hand, begins with gangs across the city traveling along subway routes that no longer exist. These scenes are intercut with close-ups on an outdated MTA map, its lines all dusty blues and burnt siennas. Rent‘s subway resides in some realer-than-real limbo between Columbus’s “authentic” ’80s and our own moment, whereas the subway of The Warriors is a relic from the past hurtling through the future, displaced doubly from contemporary fans.

It’s impossible to compare Rent and The Warriors without noting that the latter is a much better movie. Rent is structurally lopsided; its midfilm headaches over what it means to be “living in America at the end of the millennium” destroy all the joyous momentum built up in the first half of the story. The Warriors, on the other hand, is stylishly single-minded—much like its heroes—and so its plot moves elegantly and fast. For New Yorkers in America at the start of the millennium, this narrative grace offers an unselfconscious reminder of the myths that brought us here.

Izzy Grinspan is a writer living in Brooklyn, which means that she knows from the Freelancers Union.