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Lost Boys of the BronxThe Oral History of the Ducky Boys Gang
By James Hannon
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 James Hannon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bronx
To understand the Ducky Boys, it's important to know something about the New York City borough that they came from. The absolute basic soundbites of information about the borough that anyone interested in the Bronx should know:
"The Bronx is the northernmost of the five boroughs of New York City. It is also the newest of the 62 counties of New York State. Located northeast of Manhattan and south of Westchester County, New York, the Bronx is the only borough situated primarily on the North American mainland (while the other four-apart from the very small Marble Hill section of Manhattan-are on islands)."
"In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the borough's population on July 1, 2008 was 1,391,903, inhabiting a land area of 42 square miles (109 square kilometers). This makes the Bronx the fourth-most-populated of the five boroughs, the fourth-largest in land area, and the third-highest in density of population."
"Although the Bronx is the one of the most densely populated counties in the U.S., there is a lot of open space there. Almost a quarter of the borough is open space with parkland such as Woodlawn Cemetery, Van Cortlandt Park, Pelham Bay Park, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo."
"The Bronx was named after Jonas Bronck, a 17th century Swedish sea captain. In 1639, Bronck sailed up the East River on a ship named The Fire of Troy, and acquired five hundred acres of land across the river from the village of Harlem. This farm became known as Bronck's Land and covered roughly the area south of 150th Street in the Bronx."
"Mr. Bronck died in 1643 and his land was eventually sold off. The area was known as 'Broncksland' only through the end of the 1600s - so the modern name of the New York borough does not come directly from it. However, the river which runs North-to-South through the mainland area, and which his farm butted against, kept the name Bronck's River, eventually being abbreviated - or misspelled - to Bronx River. This name stuck, and it was this river, which splits the borough in half, that The Bronx was named after."
Wikipedia contributors, "The Bronx," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Bronx&oldid=334704679 (accessed December 29, 2009).
That will be all of the "academic" history of the Bronx you will find in this book. If you want to read more about this great borough, there are plenty of excellent resources out there, particularly, many books authored (or co-authored) by Professor Lloyd Ultan, the current official Bronx historian, and Steve Samtur, the editor of Back in the Bronx magazine.
For most people, just hearing the words "the Bronx" conjures up many images, often negative. Sure, the initial images of crime and poverty are so often portrayed in the media that they will usually prevail. But there are plenty of good memories, events and stories of the period, which Bronxites have experienced. Thanks to the Bronx being so densely populated, there are many current and former Bronxites spread across the country, and even the planet. Chances are good that you might have interacted with at least one in the last few days, wherever you are in this world!
I'm guessing that there's a good chance you picked up this book because you may be one of the aforementioned Bronxites - or you've been through the Bronx at least once before. So I'd like for you to take a moment and think of your earliest memories of the Bronx.
Were those memories nostalgic ones? Like the sound of a cracking bat and the roar of the crowd at Yankee Stadium? Or maybe it was the sound - or smell - of all the exotic animals at the Bronx Zoo. Maybe it was something much simpler like the attention Mom gave you after getting sunburned at a family outing at Orchard Beach, or the praise from your dad after you caught your first fish at City Island, or even the first time you climbed into the historical Poe Park bandstand or visited musty old Poe Cottage.
There are just so many warm, evocative, and fond ways to remember this much-maligned borough that people who haven't experienced the Bronx first-hand cannot begin to understand. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not living in a fantasy world, and I do realize that there were plenty of unfortunate experiences too. But I just wanted to remind people that things weren't as thoroughly bad as the media would have you believe.
Some more good memories just to drive home the point even more. Do you remember the goldfish pond and the lit "stars" sparkling in the dark ceiling of Loews Paradise movie theatre? How about finding the perfect gift amidst the hustle and bustle of Alexander's on Fordham Road? Perhaps you remember the thrill of a successful attempt at crossing the Grand Concourse, with all the cars whizzing by. Or maybe you can recollect the surprisingly comforting sound of the screeching wheels coming to a halt on the Jerome Avenue el train?
One of more serene memories of the Bronx is the lush green landscape of the Botanical Gardens and Bronx Park. This wonderful stretch of forest, river and lakes in the middle of the concrete jungle of the Bronx was a great oasis and refuge for people of all ages.
As kids, Bronx residents would go to catch turtles and climb trees; as teens, they would go and find quiet time to be alone with their girlfriends and boyfriends; and as they got older it was a place to enjoy the serenity of nature and sort out any problems that the daily grind of the city may have thrown at them.
And right outside this expanse of parkland is a small neighborhood that is now called Norwood, and this is where most of the Ducky Boys came from ...
Chapter TwoDucky Neighborhoods
The neighborhoods that most of the Ducky Boys came from were mainly Irish working-class areas known as Fordham-Bedford and Norwood, although a few gang members would travel from surrounding neighborhoods such as Woodlawn and Allerton.
Many Bronxites who left prior to the 1990s have never heard of the neighborhood called Norwood. Wikipedia explains:
"Due to its use in city publications, subway maps, and local media, Norwood is the neighborhood's more common name, but the entirety is also known as Bainbridge, most consistently within the neighborhood's Irish American community-centered around the commercial zone of Bainbridge Avenue and East 204th Street. However, as this Irish community largely fled the neighborhood during the 1990s, the name Bainbridge has accordingly lost a great deal of currency. Even the name Norwood does not carry a great deal of currency as do nearby neighborhoods such as Riverdale and Woodlawn."
Wikipedia contributors, "Norwood, Bronx," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Norwood,_ Bronx&oldid=330634609 (accessed December 30, 2009).
There were some generally accepted street boundaries of the Ducky neighborhoods:
The Southern Border was East 196th Street, which was a few blocks north of Fordham Road, one of the largest shopping areas of the Bronx. At the Briggs Avenue intersection were two schools, Public School 46 and the Catholic school Our Lady of Refuge, where many of the Ducky Boys went to grammar school. The P.S. 46 schoolyard was also a very popular hangout, and many of the Ducky Boys used to congregate there, before or after their time in the gang.
The Western Border was the Grand Concourse, considered to be the major thoroughfare of the Bronx. Lined with ornate buildings, the 1939 WPA guide to New York called it "the Park Avenue of middle-class Bronx residents, and the lease to an apartment in one of its many large buildings is considered evidence of at least moderate business success." Ducky kids living near this western border usually ended up going to the Catholic school St. Philip Neri.
Defining the Northern Border unearths some controversy amongst the gang members. Some have described it as being East 204th Street near St. Brendan's Catholic School, while others say it was Gun Hill Road near Reservoir Oval Park. A small minority of people even included McLean Avenue by Woodlawn.
Everyone is in agreement, however, that the Eastern Border was Bronx Park and the Botanical Gardens. Not far from the 52nd Precinct (which came to know the Ducky Boys intimately) lies a small duck pond called Twin Lakes which, as you will see in the next chapter, would become the epicenter of the Ducky world.
Amazingly, in this area of the Bronx during the late 1950s and '60s, Irish-American teenagers comprised about half of the total population.
Let's hear from the Bronx Historian, along with some former neighborhood residents, about how this neighborhood came to be such fertile ground for the Ducky Boys.
Bronx Historian, Professor Lloyd Ultan In that neighborhood in the '60s, the largest single ethnic group were the Irish. You also had a very large number of Jewish people who lived in that area and there were some small enclaves of Italians, but those were largely the people who lived in the area at the time.
Neighborhood resident, Gary Weiss I grew up on the Concourse in the early '60s, and the neighborhood during those days was divided up ethnically to a certain extent. It was largely Jewish along the Grand Concourse, but down along the side streets towards Webster Avenue, it became more and more Irish.
Neighborhood resident and friend of a few Ducky Boys, John Cunningham Back in my day a lot of us were first- or second-generation Irish, so I remember the majority of kids being Irish with the fathers and moms having accents. There were Italian kids in our group, but most of the Italian kids lived on the other side of the Concourse and were from the Villa Avenue area.
What made the children of this generation different from previous ones?
Professor Ultan The people who had lived in the neighborhood for a very long period of time generally had a strong family life. In the 1930s and '40s, the emphasis was always upon family. However in the 1950s and '60s, you have people who grew up in that period of time and were starting families of their own.
Similarly, there were an overwhelming number of youngsters around -much more than the older people. This is the baby boom generation that we're talking about, and you have that huge demographic bulge at that time, right after World War II.
So the baby boomers were born, and when the 1960s arrived, they're now teenagers. And teenagers of course are always looking to go out on their own, to defy their parents in one way or another, be a little reckless and a little dangerous.
And as a large portion, perhaps even more than half of the people in that area, were now teenagers, you have a lot of people with teenage attitudes. And these teenagers were also not going to be disciplined that much by their parents because their parents did not want to inhibit those kids, since they were inhibited by the rigors of the Great Depression and World War II.
That was a period in transition. In most cases, you had a single parent working. But that started to change as inflation began to take hold in the second half of the 1960s, with the expenditures for the increasing involvement in Vietnam, and fewer goods available causing an increase in prices. Many couples decided to make ends meet by having the wife go to work, either full-time or part-time.
And that meant that the teenagers who were trying to break away from their parents and cut the apron strings had a much easier time doing it, with much less supervision.
Teenagers have a tendency to drift together anyway. Since the biological imperative is to establish your own identity and break away, the first step is to socialize with people of your own group. And since they were now under less supervision, they tended to be reckless and take more risks. And you begin to have this ethos that begins to grow around them. In many cases, but not all, it shifts to, "Hey, let's see if we can get some money by intimidating somebody," or by doing other kinds of unsavory things.
And with an idea of how the neighborhood kids got to this point, let's meet these particular "unsavory" teens who would make up the Ducky Boys ...
Chapter ThreeDucky Origins
The origin of the Ducky Boys is a controversial topic, as there are quite a few different versions of how the gang came into existence. As you'll see, some of the stories are more "out there" than others ...
Mark Lind, the lead singer of the punk band "The Ducky Boys," recalls hearing this version:
[The Ducky Boys band] played a show in 1997 with (punk band) The Dictators in Connecticut. Handsome Dick Manitoba, the lead singer, was kinda fascinated with our Ducky Boys merchandise and came over to talk to us.
He asked us if we knew anything about the [Ducky Boys] name and he went on to explain an elaborate legend which was kinda cool because, if it's accurate, then wow, but if it's not, it still increases the notoriety of the name.
Manitoba said that he grew up in the neighborhood where the original gang came from and that [the gang] was named after a hitman, or leg-breaker, or something like that, who had the last name of Ducci, or something that sounded like that. He said there was a phonetic spelling of it, and they just changed it 'cause it sounded like "Ducky."
According to Manitoba, this Ducci guy had been arrested, and as a gesture to the "powers-that-be" in the organization, cut out his tongue, and that's why in the movie they didn't talk. I just thought they didn't talk 'cause they were badass.
Dick Manitoba's version of the origin may seem just a little far-fetched if you ask one of the Ducky Boy leaders.
Lenny Lim What the f**k are you talking about? That never happened!
The actual Ducky Boys would tend to agree with Lenny, but this story shows just how much the legend of the Ducky Boys was exaggerated. A more realistic, although a bit romanticized, version, is this:
Multiple Ducky Boy older brother, Joe F. The Ducky Boys were formed in the beginning of the '60s. Four kids aged eleven to thirteen started to hang around in Bronx Park around Twin Lakes, which was eventually referred to as "the Ducky." They were two sets of brothers - Jimmy and Frankie Byrne, and my younger brothers Biff and Jerry. And they used to fish, and ride their bikes around the lake.
There was another group of older guys and girls (eighteen to about twenty years old) who used to hunt birds and rabbits with slingshots in the park. I remember Bobby and Terry being in that group. They were teenage troublemakers with nothing better to do. These older guys started messing with the kids and eventually threw one of their bikes into the lake. The kids fought back valiantly, but the age difference was too much for them.
Janey V, a girlfriend of one of the older guys, felt bad for the kids and stopped the older guys from picking on the younger kids. The kids all developed crushes on Janey, and she would look out for them. From that day forward, she was dubbed the "Queen of the Ducky" and she called the kids her Ducky Boys. And it just grew from there.
Excerpted from Lost Boys of the Bronx by James Hannon Copyright © 2010 by James Hannon. Excerpted by permission.
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