Volume 79, Number 25 | November 25 - December 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Sensational facts, told with the gregarious affection
Get to know your LES gangsters, murderers, weirdos

Photo courtesy of History Press

BY TRAV S.D.

For better or worse (usually depending on how close you live to the action), the Lower East Side of Manhattan has always been a, shall we say, colorful neighborhood.

Until recent times and through most of its history, the area has been a slum and a gangland battleground of ever-shifting ethnicities stretching all the way back to the mid 19th century. The Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Chinese, the Italians, the Latinos, and even the Counterculture have successfully warred amongst themselves and each other over this relatively small piece of real estate — until it seemed like the melting pot was boiling to the point of eruption.

Isolated nutjobs have taken advantage of the crowds (at times the population density has been the thickest in the world), so as to better commit their acts of depravity under a cloak of anonymity. Murderers, mob bosses, anarchists, cannibals, brawlers, thieves, hookers and drug addicts have always dwelt amongst the law-abiding majority who reside on the LES. And to help you keep it all straight in your head, we now have “A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City’s Lower East Side” by Eric Ferrara.

Other books have trod this territory before. Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York” and Luc Sante’s “Low Life” are the best known, although these portraits of New York’s seedy underbelly also include Hell’s Kitchen and other neighborhoods. On the other hand, Tyler Anbinder’s “Five Points” concentrates on a single bygone section within the LES neighborhood. The fact that Ferrara’s contribution to this lurid subgenre concentrates specifically on the entire area east of Broadway, south of 14th Street and north of City Hall Park, is just one of several differences with those earlier books.

First, “Gangsters” is literally a tourist guidebook, organized by street address — providing us with the lurid history of each building. For this reason, it is not such a good book to sit and read straight through. You’re better off grazing and reading a single entry at a time. Otherwise, it often reads like a 19th century police blotter — a tad repetitive. Or, better still, take to the streets and use it as the guide it was meant to be. For the latter purpose, the book contains not only sensational facts, told with the gregarious affection of a local whose family has resided in the area for a century, but useful tips. For example: don’t stand outside the headquarters of the Hell’s Angels staring and taking pictures for too very long. And when they tell you to move on: do so. They have been known to throw their own girlfriends off roofs.

The presence of the Angels in the book points up the work’s second distinguishing feature. Unlike the previously mentioned books, “Gangsters” takes us all the way to the present day. So, the counterculture is a major thread in the history: radicals, artists and underground weirdos of all types.

We get the story of Weatherman Sam Melville, who masterminded a series of bombings in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War, and led the Attica Prison riots in 1971. There’s the sordid overdose and unbelievable funeral of punk rocker G.G. Allin in 1993. Then there’s the quasi-religious street prophet Daniel Rakowitz, who carried around a live chicken and “prayed to marijuana.” In 1989, he killed and ate his performance artist girlfriend Monika Beerle, serving her as a mysterious “soup” to passers-by until finally caught and apprehended.

In the realm of more traditional transgressions, Ferrara also brings us as far as the modern era. Here we get some detail about more recent organized crime activity, for example. While earlier books may contain juicy stories about the likes of the Dead Rabbits, Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman, “Gangsters” gives us the lowdown on several more modern figures like Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino, Albert Anastasia, Frank Costello, Paul Castellano and John Gotti. You learn not only in which restaurants and cafes they did (or received) their hits, but also the houses in which they grew up. Also covered in detail are central figures in the Chinatown Tong wars (more words to the wise from Ferrara: history is alive here, too: as with the environs surrounding the Hell’s Angels headquarters, use your common sense).

Another interesting sidelight to the story is the neighborhood’s longstanding reputation as a haven for the political fringes. Not only the previously mentioned Weather Underground, but also the Black Panthers, and much earlier seditious types like Emma Goldman, Leon Trotsky, and the Fascio Centrale (an American Fascist organization) made their homes here — almost always temporarily.

Then there are the riots: at least four major ones in the Tompkins Square Park area over the past century and a half, most recently in 1989, when the NYPD decided to “clean out” the hundreds of homeless people who were living in the park in a Tent City. And then there were the Police riots of 1857, when NYC’s Municipal Police Force and New York State’s Metropolitan Police Force battled for supremacy of the streets for four days.

But the meat and potatoes of this book is your everyday tabloid grade murder. Startling fact: nearly every building Ferrara investigated was the site of at least one killing during the past two hundred years. Many of them are gang related, but a tragic amount of them spring from domestic violence. These stories are heartbreaking and are just like the ones pulled from today’s newspapers, usually concerning a husband’s anger at a wife and his subsequent loss of control. Poverty, cramped living conditions, alcoholism — the Lower East Side’s historic social statistics read like a recipe for TNT. In a way, it’s surprising there was so little murder.

You just might want to take Ferrara’s tour backwards, for one of the first addresses he introduces us to is where all the bad Lower East Siders wind up: New York City’s jail, better known as “The Tombs.” The current building is the fourth one to be located at the corner of Centre and Franklin Streets, and as you can imagine it has been the site of many a hanging, riot and jailbreak.

All in all, “Gangsters” is a must for the historical crime lore tourist — and there are more of them out there than you might think. Mr. Ferrara turns a nice phrase, and I’ve only got a couple of quibbles. One must be a typo — how is it possible that 20th century city planner Robert Moses redesigned Tompkins Square Park in 1878? The other is that the book badly needs an index. If you want to find out about, say, gangster Big Tim Sullivan, you have to thumb through addresses. But I won’t quibble with Mr. Ferrara. He’s the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried.

Eric Ferrara’s “A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City’s Lower East Side” (June, 2009) is published by History press. Ferrara will be among the panelists in “The Gotham Center Presents: The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited” — a free discussion on Wednesday, December 2, 6:30 p.m., at CUNY-Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave.). For information, call 212-817-7000 or visit www.gothamcenter.org.

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