The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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The Stickup Kids
Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream
By Randol Contreras
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Rise of the South Bronx and Crack
THE BRONX IS A LAND OF STEEP HILLS, green parks, and elegant architecture. The borough is slightly smaller in square mileage than Boston, but with over 1.3 million residents, it has almost two and half times its population. Still, it is only New York City's fourth most populated borough, coming ahead of just Staten Island. The Bronx is also the only borough attached to the mainland; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island—water separates them all. The land borders Long Island Sound to the east, the East River to the southeast, the Harlem River to the west, and the county of Westchester, a wealthy neighbor, to the north.
The natural landscape is beautiful, with parkland covering nearly a quarter of the borough. These parks offer shady trees, green grass, athletic fields, and colorful playgrounds, all for pleasant mornings, evenings, and afternoons. On streets outside the parks stand butter-colored art deco buildings, a signature of curves and arches that soften the Bronx sky. These elegant buildings have housed residents from all over the world; in their early years, from Europe, and later, from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
But a close inspection reveals severity. Sidewalks wrinkle with cracks, roads crater with potholes. Building facades crumble, litter adorns the street. Every bright color is dimmed by soot, a thick coat of gray. Though reviving, the Bronx is still the Bronx. Next to most New York City boroughs, it is crime ridden, poverty ridden, and uneducated.
It is here that the lives of the Dominican drug robbers have unfolded. Not so long ago, the South Bronx was an urban inferno, with thieves, drug pushers, and vandals roaming its abandoned streets. This was not always so. The Bronx was once a glorious city. But some political, economic, and social woes reversed the borough's forward momentum. Then it was the Hopeless Bronx. The Shameful Bronx. The City on Fire. Under Siege. These Dominican men came of age then, during the time when the South Bronx was falling apart.
More important to their lives was the crack era. This period coincided with the South Bronx demise and influenced them first to become crack dealers, then drug robbers. Thus, they evolved within a social context in which political, global, and social forces transformed the drug market, forces that would later affect other urban areas too.
And I must describe those historical factors in some detail. My own readings of ethnographies suggest that a superficial "background" section—one or two pages—is like a speck of dust, large enough to notice, but small enough to forget after flicking off. This then leads to a limited analysis that dismisses historical and structural factors. For example, in explaining why Black men are overrepresented as robbers, Katz argues that poverty is irrelevant since other poor ethnic groups do fewer robberies. He then links this crime statistic to Black culture, claiming that it glorifies the criminal "hardman."
I am unsure how Katz discovered this Black cultural trait from just looking at arrest data, police files, or robber autobiographies. Also, "hardmen" can be found in other ethnic cultures, like the bandido in Mexican culture or the mafia heist man in the Italian American community. In the end, I wish Katz had considered how history—its social forces and criminal opportunities—matters just as much. Because perhaps African American robbers have less access to crimes controlled by certain ethnic groups. Perhaps the actions of public, business, and political leaders, and a fleeing White (and Black) middle class, drain the community's economic pond, which in turn creates a concentration of poor African Americans, which in turn increases their risks of doing street crime.
Perhaps it is a combination of all.
I pay attention to these historical and structural matters. Though these Dominican men did not create the South Bronx, it set the stage for their lives. In the South Bronx, their criminal opportunities rose and fell, and the effects of the crack era lingered long after the demand for crack had peaked and declined. The South Bronx was where they first became dealers, then drug robbers, then self-destructive human beings. Thus, these Dominican men were situated in a historical and social context. Race, class, history, community, and drug market swings all shaped the motion picture of their lives.
For real, bro? Nah, that's bullshit, man. I don't remember the Bronx being like that. This shit was always fucked up, at least far as I could remember. Shit was on fire back then. Fuck, shit's still on fire now, ha-ha. Nah, I can't believe that, bro. You must got your facts wrong or somethin'.
Like Pablo, I could not believe that our South Bronx was once called the "Wonder Borough." Yet during the nineteenth century, the area was an Eden, a tranquil, hilly, and leafy wilderness parceled into large estates. It would attract prosperous Manhattan residents who were sold on the idea of country and morality, who wanted to escape the mostly German and Irish slum neighborhoods that were filled with street gangs, drunkards, disease, and crime.
And by the early 1900s, the Bronx had gone from an idyllic country escape to a posh city, full of style. To make a mark, Bronx boosters built impressive, large apartment houses. These apartments, which the study participants and I now called "home," were designed according to the period's French art deco movement. Resembling French flats, they had all the modern amenities—hot water, separate living and sleeping quarters, electric lights, telephones, steam heat, separate kitchens, and private bathrooms. The grand buildings also featured elevators, large hallways, and marbled lobbies, and sometimes had entrance courtyards with water fountains, statuary, and shrub-filled gardens.
Bronx boosters also lavished funds on one grand public amenity: parks. They wanted a remarkable but tranquil experience in wide-open areas with grass and trees, where people could forget, if for a day, urban life. Like Manhattan's Central Park, Bronx parks would stimulate modern residential construction, raise property values, and ultimately increase tax revenues. Potentially, the Bronx could rival the grandest cities in the world: London, Paris, Rome. Indeed, the construction of Crotona Park, Claremont Park, Van Cortland Park, and Pelham Bay Park made the borough's reputation sparkle.
True to plan, by the 1920s, the Bronx was a smash, with modern buildings, large parks, and spectacular public works:
It had the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, a broad, four-mile curving boulevard that was modeled on the Champs-Élysées of Paris and that showcased three roadways, one for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and two for automobiles.
It had Yankee Stadium, which was made famous after "Babe" Ruth, one of the greatest hitters of all time, awed baseball fans with spectacular home runs and led the Yankees to a string of World Championships.
It had the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which featured exotic animals and plant life, and attracted visitors from all over the world.
It had respectable institutions of higher education, housing the campuses of Fordham and New York Universities, two intellectual sites that attracted the city's brightest.
It had the Concourse Plaza Hotel, a luxury establishment that catered to a high-end clientele, hosted extravagant events, and was home to athletic superstars.
And it had a powerful Democratic presence—led by "You're in like Flynn" Boss Flynn—which played a crucial role in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential victory.
The Bronx had it all.
The successful borough also attracted a middle class wanting modern living and a working class wanting upgraded housing. In addition, it drew in a mix of immigrants, mostly Americanized German Jews and Irish wanting to escape Manhattan's congestion. Later, oppressed Russian and Eastern European Jews, as well as Italian peasants, would make the Bronx their home. The Bronx became a symbol of accomplishment, a move up on the status ladder.
The Bronx Slides Downhill
Then, like a mudslide during a torrential rainfall, the Bronx went downhill after the Second World War. Many White, middle-class residents fled from newly arrived poor Puerto Ricans (who themselves had fled from a sad island economy) and from newly arrived poor Blacks (who themselves had fled from a tyrannical Jim Crow South). Through the G.I. Bill, which sponsored low-interest loans, they settled in suburban homes.
Poverty in the Bronx would also expand because of a one-man social force, Robert Moses. As a public official, he purposely designed bridges and parkways as cages to contain minorities; and he demolished 113 streets, dispersing tens of thousands of Jewish residents in East Tremont, all for a seven-mile stretch of highway to ease travel for outsiders—the Cross Bronx Expressway. He also cleared Manhattan slum neighborhoods for public housing, which uprooted poor Blacks and Puerto Ricans to South Bronx neighborhoods. The influx of poor residents would allow some Bronx landlords to lower building maintenance, which lowered their expenses while increasing their profit.
The Bronx slid further because of the demise of New York City's manufacturing economy. For generations, manufacturing had provided unionized security for European immigrants and their children. However, between 1947 and 1976, New York City lost about five hundred thousand factory jobs, many to non-unionized regions of the country.
In an intriguing account, sociologist Robert Fitch argues that New York City could have saved hundreds of thousands of those manufacturing jobs. However, city officials sided with the real estate elites, who wanted to develop more office buildings for higher profits and land values. Specifically, the elite persuaded the city to give Title I status to much of the land where the remaining manufacturing sat. Thus, the plants and factories where hundreds of thousands of people had worked were knocked down for the promise of "urban renewal."
Worse, the city whole-heartedly subsidized office building construction by offering developers serious tax abatements and relief. Banks also granted them mortgages in staggering amounts. But after the towering office buildings went up, the projected white-collar economy never took off. And for the next several decades, vast amounts of office space went unused. The city continued to subsidize the empty spaces despite losing the tax revenue. The banks also lost millions of dollars in unpaid mortgages. The winners were the elite; they played with city and bank money, not their own.
Those who lost the most were blue-collar and low-wage New Yorkers. Hundreds of thousands of them lost traditionally secure jobs, all because their presence was a profit blocker to the powerful. And they knew very little about how the city and real estate world had ruined their lives. Instead, they blamed the minority poor, echoing the distortions created by public officials. As a spokesman for New York City's municipal association argued decades later, "It's the fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans. They use too many city services and they don't pay any taxes. New York's in trouble because it's got too many fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans."
For Bronx residents, then, the mighty manufacturing industries were no longer the first-generational step toward the realization of the American Dream. And the borough's postwar newcomers, who were mostly minority, uneducated, and unskilled, would need a higher education to succeed—one that, like the new office buildings, was skyscraper high.
Beware of the Bronx: Las Gangas y los Tecatos
The 1960s was the decade when the South Bronx gained a sinister reputation. The borough's new inhabitants were thought to embrace drugs, welfare, and crime. True, Blacks and Puerto Ricans committed most of the borough's violence and experienced most of its poverty. Critics, though, generally blamed their supposed wayward cultures. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the language barriers, the need for education and training, all were lost in the public's explanation of the Bronx decline.
Worse, during this period Bronx residents witnessed the rise of los tecatos. Filthy and worn out, los tecatos were well known to us as they roamed the streets day and night chasing manteca, or a heroin blast. After copping some manteca, los tecatos sought sanctuary in dark alleys, stairwells, abandoned buildings, or lonely rooftops. They wanted privacy to experience heroin's sudden euphoric flush, which, for some, was more pleasurable than passionate sex, more nourishing than a plateful of mami's home-cooked food. Pura tranquilidad.
The tranquility, however, was short-lived. Often, the more users used, the more tolerance they gained—and the more manteca they needed for the same high. If not, they got "sick," or experienced withdrawal. To support frequent use, los tecatos would soon swell the ranks of joloperos and ladrones, who robbed, burglarized, and mugged residents for that quick dope cash.
Then the gangs began to make their mark on the South Bronx scene. Wearing denim jeans and jackets, thick belts and big boots, all adorned with war regalia and violent emblems, these youths paraded as the new aristocracy of the streets. Like feudal lords, they commanded neighborhoods, setting the rules and meting out the punishments. They claimed to do the good that the police wouldn't do: they beat up tecatos, ran drug pushers off the streets, and put up signs that warned, No Junkies Allowed. The gangs declared that they were about street justice, about cleaning up the community, about doing what the city had yet to do.
However, gangs like the Savage Nomads, whom I often saw milling about, fought bloody turf wars with rivals. Worse, many gangs terrified neighborhoods rather than protecting them: they mugged, robbed, and burglarized people, while doing heavy drugs too.
South Bronx residents were in trouble. Now they feared both the tecatos and the gangas lurking in the shadows, eyeing the scene for that pendejo walking down a lonely street. Cuídate ... que valla con Dios, said fearful Bronx residents as they bid a safe farewell in the most literal way.
A cold, misty underworld took over the streets. In 1960, there were close to a thousand reported assaults; in 1969, over four thousand. In the same period, burglaries increased from just under two thousand to over twenty-nine thousand. To outsiders, the mere mention of the South Bronx brought the shakes and the shivers, the body moves that showed how it was best not to go there. Go to the Bronx? You must be crazy.
Fuego in the Bronx
Yeah, I remember that shit. People just used to put shit on fire back then, B. Fuckin' landlords be like, "Don't wanna pay no more taxes, B." Ha-ha. "Twenty families still in there? Fuck it, they gonna [burn] too, B." Ha-ha. "Time to put you out your misery. Go get Fulano, the fuckin' pyromaniac motherfucka. He's gonna get shit started now." Ha-ha.
Then it got hot. Real hot. The South Bronx was on fire. With the start of rent control laws, many landlords lost money as building maintenance costs rose. Historian Evelyn Gonzalez notes that landlords also lost money because many South Bronx apartments lay empty. Residents that could secure enough resources moved to better neighborhoods, but often had no one replacing them. Landlords lost profits fast.
To keep profits up, landlords simply stopped maintaining their properties. Then buildings crumbled. Then tenants complained: no heat, no hot water, garbage and rats everywhere. Slumlords. Hearing the cries of poor tenants and community activists, lawmakers tried to strong-arm landlords: they passed legislation that penalized neglectful owners; they empowered tenants to withhold rents in buildings with code violations.
Landlords fumed, disinvesting in their properties altogether. Buildings then broke down faster. Residents and neighborhood merchants packed up and left. Eventually entire city blocks of crumbling buildings were uninhabited. Only imaginative kids and desperate junkies used the empty space. They created playgrounds and clubhouses, drug dens and homes.
Excerpted from The Stickup Kids by Randol Contreras. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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