Brownsville was a very tough area of Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s. It had a myriad of housing projects and gangs that ruled the neighborhood. Around the various housing projects were seedy tenements that served as homes for long-time residents as well as newcomers. In 1960, the World Telegram and Sun newspaper did a report on gangs in Brooklyn and found that there were 62 active fighting gangs in Brooklyn, 11 of them which resided in Brownsville. Brownsville gangs had a certain fashion that could be spotted by anybody who was paying even the slightest bit of attention. Their clothing was hustler style Bell bottom pants, Kangs (pointed toe shoes) and stingy brim hats. Of the 11 fighting gangs in Brownsville, I am aware of at least four of them: the Frenchmen, Jolly Midgets Jibaros and the Roman Lords.
The Roman Lords were a Puerto Rican gang that counted the Frenchmen as bitter enemies as well as the Liberty Boys and the Bishops. In 1962, 18 members of the Frenchmen shot and killed a Roman Lord and seriously injured another.
Many Roman Lords lived on Livonia Ave which was under an elevated train line on a dark street, a perfect spot to hang out without being seen. Powell Street was another hangout of the Roman Lords, where many rundown tenement buildings could be found. One Roman Lord shared his experience of what it was like to move into one of these run-down apartments, which had taken his father 6 months to secure:
The apartment had no heating system: we had to use an old gas range in the kitchen to warm the entire place. The walls and ceilings were crumbling, the paint peeling. We had no refrigerator. In the winter we used the window sills as our only means of refrigeration. But at least we had lots of company. Cockroaches, rats, and mice were our constant companions. They were everywhere – on the table when we ate, on the floor when we played, even on the bed when we slept.
The turf lines of the Roman Lords were Powell Street (East), Stone Ave (West), Sutter Ave (North) and Livonia Ave (South). Besides the way Brownsville gangs dressed described above, the Roman Lords would have been easy to spot as they had their own gang sweaters and jackets. Their sweaters were made of wool with a Roman head on the front and Roman Lords name in script on the back. Their colors were green and gold. Their jackets were black and had their name with white lettering. Many RL had colorful nicknames such as Big Ray, Little Joe, Shorty and Beepop and their activities were attending parties (or “gigs”), robbing stores (one in particular was located between Stone and Christopher Ave.) and hanging out on street corners, shooting dice, and trying to avoid getting pinched by the cops.
One Roman Lord described what Brownsville was like in the summer when the heat was insufferable:
…The roughest time was the summer. The temperature would hit 100 or plus. All the windows would be open and the noise and smells of the streets seemed to fill every corner and crevice of our apartment. At night our bedroom seemed as if it was in the middle of the street. During the day the street activity was a combination of a Coney Island amusement park and the jungle. The days fell into four cycles. The kids took over the morning hours. In the afternoon the younger teens played their games. The early evening belonged to the parents and adults who played dominoes, cards and rolled dice. The hours from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. belonged to the winoes, the drunks, the addicts, prostitutes and gangs…In the middle of the night police cars rushed up and down the streets. A woman’s screams pierced the night as she was mugged. Gunshots were common.
This was the kind of neighborhood the Roman Lords lived in and besides the activities described above, they were also an aggressive fighting gang; vicious fights with enemy gangs were common. I was contacted by the daughter of a former Roman Lord by the name of Efraim Ruiz who joined the gang in 1963. Although he has passed on, he took the time to write his life memoirs, including his time in the gang. Titled “Joven Rebelde” (Rebellious Youth), Efraim’s daughter sent a translated excerpt of one of the fights the Roman Lords had with the Bishops:
One hot summer night we were hanging out in our club house, which was in a basement of an old building on Stone Avenue, there we were drinking hard liquor, smoking and dancing with the girls, just laughing and carrying on. Until we heard a banging at the club door, someone desperately wanted to come in. One of the boys opened the door and Pedro runs into the club house all out of breath and beaten. He told us that he was caught by some of the Bishops (rival gang) in their territory and they beat him. Pedro managed to escape, but he was really hurt. My friend Tito, one of the Roman Lord’s member, became so angry that he called for revenge on the Bishops.
Shorty, the president of our gang told us to arm ourselves, that we were going in to surprise the Bishops. Another guy named Jimmy asked Shorty if he could bring his own shot gun, he was given permission and was instructed not to miss shooting one of the Bishops.
We split into groups of 3, one on the left, on the right, and the 3rd would come behind and we entered Bishop territory on Riverdale and Rockaway Ave. We stood in front in front of their club house, and called out to them , challenging them to a fight. I was with Jimmy behind some oil barrels with the shot gun pointed at the club, as soon as he heard the Bishops coming out, Jimmy started shooting wildly. The Bishops ran in all directions dodging the bullets. Someone called the cops and when we heard the sirens, we ran. We made it back to our club house and celebrated.
Later on, we found out through our spies, that some of the bullets grazed an innocent bystander and no Bishop was hit.
Below is a picture of Efraim, he is the one wearing glasses. Efraim went on to attend Teen Challenge, a Christian organization that assists in helping those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. This picture is most likely of Efraim hanging out with some of the others in the Teen Challenge Program.
If you are interested, click on this page to see a brief profile of “Beebop,” President and leader of the Roman Lords.