New York has always been the epicenter of the American gangster scene. I once saw a shirt in a store on St. Mark’s Place that had a picture of a machine gun-toting gangster with the caption, “New York City, Family owned and operated since 1920.” So true.
My publisher, Barricade Books, based out of Ft. Lee across the GW Bridge, has been putting out mob books on topics other than Al Capone and John Gotti. I just finished the new book by Ron Chepesiuk, Gangsters of Harlem. The book is a good overall picture of the various criminal elements that have held sway over the legendary Manhattan neighborhood.
The early part of the book deals with the Mafia activity in the 1920s and '30s. It’s some of the same material I’ve seen in other places. But the book really starts to take off when we get to the 1950s and the rise of the black crime figures. Ironically it’s just as the neighborhood begins its gradual state of decline. Familiar names like Nicky Barnes and Frank Matthews (who is still on the lam after 25 years - take that Whitey Bulger!) are mixed in with Bumpy Johnson.
By the time the 1980s comes along, all hell breaks loose. Crack is the name of the game and gangbangers take control of the streets. No more code of honor. Paranoia and corruption rule. Some of the most violent criminals you’ll ever read about plied their trade in Harlem. Chepesiuk delivers the story with plenty of quotes from cops and DEA agents who were there at the start of the crack "epidemic." Though street gangs are not my favorite crime subject, I have to say these are the best chapters in the book. It's new and fresh information, maybe that's why I liked them.
The book ends with two “tacked on” chapters, one on numbers kingpin Spanish Raymond Marquez (excellent), the other on police corruption (boring).
Overall, Gangsters of Harlem was a great read. It could have used more pictures, and there was hardly any mention of the Pleasant Avenue connection and the Italians who still ran East Harlem through the 1970s, but that does not detract greatly.
As Harlem reaps the benefits of gentrification (or not, as some people argue), stories like those in this book may become distant memories and the neighborhood might be known once again for more than crime.