Martin Scorsese acquired the rights to Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbery’s 1927 history of Gotham’s urban underworld, in 1979. The movie focuses on the murderous mayhem of mid-19th century Five Points, but 1970s New York City was itself a study in violence. Bloodshed was so prevalent here in North Brooklyn that Luis Garten Acosta, founder of the local outreach program El Puente, dubbed the area “The Killing Fields.”
Pre-eminent New York City History podcasters The Bowery Boys unearthed a map produced in 1974 by the New York Times which plots the territory of “youth gangs” in ’70s North Brooklyn. In all, reported the Times, the NYPD had identified 48 gangs in the area with a total membership of 2,500. The police also held that six of those gangs were “responsible for more than half of the criminal gang activity in Northern Brooklyn.” Greenpoint in particular was home turf for the Sinners, the Mad Caps and the Sons of Devils.
Other gangs that walked “the high crime badlands” on the Williamsburg – Greenpoint border were The Driggs Boys of Justice, The Dirty Ones, The Satan Souls and the Screaming Phantoms. If these names seem fanciful, that’s because they were made up by kids. Members were generally ages 11-18, with the youngest used to commit the grisliest deeds. In 1974, the Times reported that the largest percentage of gang members arrested for robbery and burglary in Brooklyn were 14 years old, and that members under 16 were commonly used to commit murder, because they would face lesser sentences than their older counterparts. The Jolly Stompers were allegedly responsible for at least 5 homicides in 1973 alone, and the Tomahawks were responsible for at least 11 in the same timeframe.
Beyond inter-gang warfare, whereby at least one person had his nose cut off in 1972, members concentrated on “robbery, burglary and larceny,” and/or running the local roller disco. This groovy extortion was part of network involving up to two hundred local merchants which yielded neighborhood gangs at least $1,500 a week in February 1974. To save their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives, local merchants hired gang members and granted them free admission to their facilities (such as movie theaters, night clubs and the aforementioned roller disco). Not only that, shop owners also cut the Jolly Stompers & Co. in a percentage of their profits.
The racket led many companies along the Williamsburg Waterfront to arm their employees with bulletproof vests, guard dogs and revolvers. Others simply moved out of town, leaving behind an abandoned industrial landscape.
The grimness helped inspire further gang affiliation. In 1983, the Times profiled Jonny Santiago, an ex-gang member from Brooklyn who called himself Sting Ray when he founded The Assassinators in 1973, at the age of 11. When Santiago was 14, he wrote a poem summing up his experience in the gang, “You walk with your friends so big and bad/ But deep inside you’re really sad.” According to the piece, Santiago found a happier path. He left the gang when he was 18 with encouragement from his family, joined the National Guard, and earned extra money as the leader of a whole new squad: the sing and dance group “Sounds of Success.”