It’s rare that the tireless staff of thousands agrees to post a guest review. But there are exceptions.
Review by Jerome Sala
The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side offers a provocative eyewitness history of gang culture in the context of the whole diverse, eccentric and sometimes revolutionary LES scene of the ’70s through the early ’90s. More than that, however, the book contains revelatory moments that make you realize that gangs, though often perceived as something “other” and consigned to the outer darkness of the outlaw world, are actually, in surprising ways, representative of the mainstream currents. This is especially clear when you consider some of the transformations of the gang world recorded so lucidly in this book. Let me offer a personal anecdote, by way of illustration.Like its principal narrator, Jose “Cochise” Quiles, I too was in street gangs — but in Chicago, rather than NYC, and in the late ’60s (a little before the time frame of the book). So this history naturally stirred some memories. In particular, when Quiles describes the meaning and symbolic power of gang insignia and colors, I started thinking about how the gang I was in displayed its own emblems. This brought to mind a curious fact I’d come across about how this had changed over the years. In the Chicago of the late ’60s, instead of the blue jean jackets (with sleeves cut off) and insignia/colors on the back described in this book, gang colors were displayed on what amounted to a customized H.S. sweater. The sweaters were all black, except for a stripe at the shoulder with your gang’s color (light blue, in our case), and an emblem patch (ours featured a heraldic shield, flanked by fierce animals, and the gang name), worn on the front. In both Quiles’ account, and my own memory, this “gang wear” was custom-made by local merchants. So you could say it had a personal, “community” touch.
Many years later, someone told me the gang that I was (briefly) a part of had been incorporated into a larger, nationwide (and perhaps international) organization. With this, the way gang identity was displayed changed. Gone were the sweaters and emblems – but the colors were preserved. Members of this bigger club wore Nike gear with a certain shade of light blue to signify, in a coded way, their allegiance.Clayton Patterson tells us, in the wonderfully detailed historical introduction he offers to Quiles’ narrative, that something similar occurred with the gangs of the Lower East Side. In describing this change, he insightfully connects it to shifts in the economy at large. He notes a transformation in gang culture that coincides with corporate investment (and gentrification) of neighborhood real estate:
The corporate takeover and the killing off of street life did much to end the survival of street gangs, at least in the form they used to exist. Gangs shifted from being local outfits to being affiliates of national organizations. This was not dissimilar to the way in which in our city neighborhood local stores were replaced by chain affiliates of national corporations. Where a local coffee shop would be replaced by a business like a Starbucks, for example, so in parallel, neighborhood gangs were replaced by branches of national organizations like the BLOODS, the CRIPS and the LATIN KINGS. Many of these gangs developed in the prison system. You could see this change happening in the streets of the LES.
By the mid-’90s we started to see the ways different gangs identified their presence. There were hand signals along with beads, handkerchiefs, and clothes all colored with those shades representing specific gangs: red for BLOODS, blue for CRIPS, black and yellow for LATIN KINGS. This is parallel to the national branding and trademarks used to identify corporate products.
This contrast, between the practices/values of corporation and community, occurs a number of times throughout The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side, offering a historical context which frames the book’s more general themes (such as the relation between personal attitudes/actions and the health of the neighborhood). But before describing how these issues play out, I should say something about the book’s structure.
might offer a hint as to the magnetism of the gang experience.
A little like an oral history, the book offers a number of perspectives on gangs and culture. And as one might expect, the authors here possess lots of street cred. The main narrative, as I’ve mentioned, is by Jose “Cochise” Quiles, who was a veteran member of a number of LES gangs from the ’70s through the early ’90s — and the founder of a most unusual one, I’ll cover in a moment. Quiles’ tale is provided with invaluable context by the thorough introduction Clayton Patterson provides. Patterson himself, before meeting Quiles, knew the world of biker gangs. He is also a renowned rebel historian of the LES — noted for, among other things, capturing the Tompkins’ Square (police) Riot of ’88 on video (and bearing the consequences from authorities for it!). There’s also an essay by cultural critic Jim Feast, describing how despite persecution by City and State governments, the urban communities of the era gave birth to a musical and Spoken Word renaissance. Then, there are shorter essays and memoirs of the neighborhood and its gangs by Marc Levin, Michael McCabe, and Monica Uzerowicz. This is all topped off by a portfolio of drawings by Quiles of gang personalities of the era, color photos by Patterson of people, graffiti, regalia, and events mentioned in the book, and a poem for Quiles by Anne Ardolino. So, all in all, reflective of its ethos, The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side isn’t a book by a single authority, but by a community of voices. And what is this ethos? I think it might be summed up by the words Quiles’ tells us Bimbo Rivas, the “enlightened activist” and famed Nuyorican poet, once whispered in his ear: “service to the community is beautiful.”
The essays by Patterson and Feast paint a picture of a community increasingly under siege – not particularly from gangs (as this book records an era before the formation of the big national/international gangs and the sometimes indiscriminate violence that was the collateral damage of their turf and drug wars), but from the State, and its “War on Drugs,” targeting African American and Latino communities, often doling out exorbitant sentences for petty crime. Such actions helped clear neighborhoods for gentrification and filled prisons upstate, thereby generating jobs and votes for “Cuomo the Elder.”
even in gang life.
And what made the LES community so precious, so worth serving and fighting to preserve? Patterson and Quiles describe a scene around Tompkins Square Park that was almost magical. There was a period of years, at least up until the police cleared the park in the riots of ’88, when, left to its own devices, the neighborhood produced a rich, eccentric culture. We are told of a milieu where neighborhood gang members, anarchists, punks, the homeless, painters, poets, tattoo artists, mystics and musicians all rubbed shoulders, inspiring each other. It was a time that called for an avant-garde approach, even in gang life. And so, during this period, Quiles formed what will go down in history as one gang culture’s most original creations: SATAN’S SINNERS NOMADS. The idea behind the gang came to Quiles when got out of prison circa ’85. He noticed that many of the neighborhood’s old gang leaders were gone, and this made him see certain possibilities. Here is how he tells it:
I was thinking that with all these gang leaders (and members) dead, there was an opportunity for me to act the big shot and start my own gang. Moreover, I came up with one of the most inspired (or was it off the wall?) plans to recruit members. I would go to one of the most ‘degenerate’ spots in the city, the bus station at 42nd Street and Eight Avenue, and find prospects.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal at this time was saturated with prostitutes; male and female; hustlers; drug dealers; con artists; thugs, runaways; homosexuals, and lesbians, and they were all looking to be part of something big. And you must admit I came up with a rather liberal recruitment policy for the gang world. “Join up,” I’d say, “straight, gay or in-between; man, woman or both, I embrace you all.” . . .Frankly, I don’t think there had ever been a gang like this. Certainly, in June 1988, there had never been a Tompkins Square Park like this.
In light of what I remember of the extreme machismo of gang culture, the boldness of Quiles’ concept seems literally mind-blowing. But then again, as Quiles’ says above, there was never a setting/social scene quite like the Tompkins Square Park where the gang had its headquarters. It was a scene so inspiring, in fact, that it helped awaken his own creative sensibilities; Quiles’ drawings (some of gang personalities) and artwork were exhibited in Patterson’s Outlaw Museum during this period.
And, as both Quiles and Patterson point out, such “community-based” gangs (with their colors/insignia even made in the neighborhood) were not as violent as the gangs that were to come, such as the national/international ones mentioned earlier. Part of the reason for this is that the gangs Quiles writes about in this book, for the most part, were more about reputation and honor than making a quick financial killing by dealing drugs. In this light, Patterson sees Quiles’ own gang as “an L.E.S. holdout” — preserving some of the old values of “social brotherhood” and “a sense of family” — especially when compared to the well-armed, hyper-violence of the gangs of the future.The biggest rumble in the book, for example, over the rights to the Tompkins Square Park turf (which takes place around ’73, between an alliance of smaller Puerto Gangs and the biggest African American gang in the city at that time), is fought with bottles, knives, chains and baseball bats. Violent, to be sure. But imagine the kind of fatalities that would result if such battles were fought with the semi-automatic weapons of today. Further, as Quiles points out, such community gangs could become conscious. Dropping their concerns for reputation and intergang rivalry, they did, at times, band together to improve living conditions in the community, and even get involved in political organizing. As Quiles tells us, as early as ’72, Bimbo Rivas and the poets of the Nuyorican organized gang members to help lobby the local school board for more Latino members.
Yet, I would be misrepresenting this book if the relatively positive things I’ve said about these local gangs creates the impression that Quiles’ is less than critical of certain elements of their culture and values. Throughout the rich history he offers of the ’70s-early ’90s gangs of the LES (and there are scores of gangs mentioned here), he never pulls punches about their often deeply self-destructive aspects. Though the gangbanging of this era may have been, on the whole, less harmful to the community, the personal toll it took on its participants could be great. Many of the characters in this book wind up dead or in jail as the result of their participation. Quiles himself ends up doing hard time because of his own alcohol-fueled altercation (fortunately not fatal) with two members of his SATAN’S SINNERS NOMADS club. As the book progresses, in fact, one of its most compelling aspects is the psychological battle that takes place in Quiles himself – between more creative, communitarian, and even mystical values (prophetic dreams keep warning him what to avoid), and gangbanging itself (and the “drinking, drugging and other self-destructive activities” that go along with it). In short, two forces fight within: creativity/community vs. the old ideology of outlaw glory. Reflecting on this battle, Quiles writes that he felt as if “there were two souls in my body.”In light of such potential for self-destruction, as I read this book I wondered, along with Quiles, how so many (myself included) get sucked into the gang scene. “It’s not inevitable,” as Quiles tells us. And he adds that it’s “not just the street kids or the fatherless kids”, who join. Sometimes members are just looking for a sense of belonging and love – and are drawn by the force of the “glamour and prestige of the gang members” and the “charismatic leaders.” Such insights made me think again about gang insignia, emblems, jackets and colors, and the sheer cool they seem to emanate. At one point in the book, Quiles tells us “. . .I would often hang up the colors on my bedroom wall on a hanger. Sometimes I would even lay in bed simply staring at my colors for hours as if it were a magic talisman.” And it’s not just Quiles, Patterson (who also discusses this) and myself who are interested in such gear. Early in the book, Quiles reveals that the great poet Miguel Pinero had a whole wall in his apartment devoted to gang jackets. And most of them were from fake gangs, featured in movies he had appeared in, suggesting, of course, Hollywood’s own fascination with such insignia. It’s almost as if these symbols really do exert a magical power, embodying all the glamour and charisma Quiles mentions in and of themselves.
In short, they are totems — a fact that made me wonder if Durkheim’s classic theory of such symbolic media might not offer a hint as to the magnetism of the gang experience. In his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim observes the almost godlike power that a totem (“an emblem, a virtual coat of arms” he calls it) holds over the clan organized around it, and the respect it demands. He reasons that what this fetish-like object communicates, on a deep symbolic level, is the euphoria that can come with belonging to a social group in the first place. Such a symbol, he reasons, enables us to experience social power – a force greater than our individual selves – on an internal, psychological level. In this way, a totem helps our society become “an integral part of our being, and in so doing, it elevates and enlarges that being.” When you consider how gangs often flourish in places where people feel excluded from such social power, might not groups that make a taste of this power (and even transcendence) accessible (even in a small way) be particularly attractive? This might also shed light on why there is a tradition of gangs who, as Quiles, Feast, and Patterson tell us, instead of continuing to turn on each other, become community activists. Perhaps because they are so familiar with “group power” on a visceral level, (ex) gangbangers can see the potential of turning such force toward the social good.
In any event, we can be grateful that this particular “gang” of communitarian, “organic intellectuals” and rebel historians, have come together to offer us their own powers – in the form of the compelling insights they provide in The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side. Whether your interests involve sociology, politics, poetry, anarchy — or just discovering a great read — this book delivers.
Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Carol Cosman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Jose “Cochise” Quiles and Clayton Patterson, The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side. New York: Clayton Books, LLC, 2016.