Before you get to the article…
On February 23, 2018, my book on the Mau Maus and Sand Street Angels, who were two Brooklyn youth gangs from the 1950s, has been completed. It took 15 years of research and writing to complete Brooklyn Rumble: Mau Maus, Sand Street Angels, and the End of an Era. This book is roughly 6″x9″ and has 370 pages and includes a look at the characters in the Mau Maus and the details of a gang killing that happened in February 1959 in front of the iconic Brooklyn Paramount Theater (now Long Island University). If you want to buy a copy, click here and this link will take you to an online ordering page.
Who is Bruce Davidson, and why is he so important?
Davidson was and still is a famous photographer born in 1933 who started his life-long love affair with photography at age 10 when he mom made a darkroom for him. Over the years he honed his skill, eventually joining Magnum photos where he still is today. As can be expected, he has taken many photographs and series’ over the years, but the photographs that he took that are the most interesting to me happened in the summer of 1959.
In my opinion 1959 was one of the glory years’ (if that word can be ascribed to fighting gangs) of youth gangs in New York City. Bruce Davidson, a young man looking for new people to photograph, heard about a series of gang rumbles in the Prospect Park area and got in touch with a New York City Youth board worker who introduced him to a violent, unpredictable gang from that area called the Jokers.
Taking some time to get to know them, he gained their trust and they allowed him to take photographs of them hanging out in the streets, back alleys, Coney Island and the candy store. For 11 months Davidson took photographs of the boys and girls in the Jokers gang and later said that he was in fear of the unpredictable and violent members of the gang.
In 1999, the photographs he took of the Jokers were compiled into a book called Brooklyn Gang which is an incredible witness and the only comprehensive photographs that I am aware of about a youth gang from NYC in the 1950s. Later, when Davidson was asked of his experience he said (in part):
“I met a group of teenagers called the Jokers. I was 25 and they were about 16. I could easily have been taken for one of them. In time they allowed me to witness their fear, depression and anger. I soon realised that I, too, was feeling their pain. In staying close to them, I uncovered my own feelings of failure, frustration and rage.”
Here is the book cover of Brooklyn Gang which is no longer in print but can still be bought for $400.
From left to right is Junior, Bengie and Lefty, all members of the Jokers
For a complete listing of the photos that Davidson took of the Jokers, click on this link:
Davidson’s photos of the Jokers are still famous, in fact Bob Dylan used one of the photos for the cover art of his 2009 album Together for Life (see below). Click here for the struggles of Richard Quinton, a member of the Jokers in the early 1950s.