The Charlie Rocca Incident

This is a first for this website.  I asked a friend of mine who I have been corresponding with since November 2011, to write a guest article.  He shall remain nameless, but he was a member of the Jackson Jents, an Italian gang from Williamsburg in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  This article explains some of the gang mentality of the Jackson Jents as well as a description of a fight they had with the Phantom Lords, a Puerto Rican gang also from Williamsburg who had a turf near the Jackson Jents.  This took place sometime in the summer of 1958.

Thank-you again to the person that wrote this article, I found it very interesting and I am confident that those who read this page will find it as intriguing as I did.

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If you lived in Brooklyn during the 1950s, and were a member of a teenage gang, then no one had to tell you how dangerous the summer was. That’s not to say you couldn’t be shot, stabbed, or beaten during the other seasons. It’s just the simple fact that school is over and people are going to be out on the streets all day and a good part of the night. So the odds of something bad happening skyrocket.

It’s hot in New York during the summer and those were the days before air conditioning was everywhere. The movie theaters had banners hanging outside that read ” Air Cooled “. All that meant was that they had fans inside. The gangs were out on the streets in force; combine that with the drinking and the heat, and you have what amounts to an annual explosion of violence.

Our gang was the Jackson Jents, it was a name that we inherited from the older guys in the neighborhood. They found jobs, got married, and moved on with their lives. They left the gang to us, just as we knew that we would leave it to the kids growing up behind us.  That didn’t work out.

The Jents took their name from the Jackson Street Settlement House, which was on the corner of Jackson St. and Manhattan Ave. in Williamsburg Brooklyn, and was our unofficial headquarters. It was run by NYC social workers and off duty cops. The idea was to keep an eye on us juvenile delinquents, try to steer us in the right direction and hopefully stop us from killing each other.  That didn’t work out either.

In those days the neighborhood had a sprinkling of Irish, a few Germans and Poles but otherwise was almost entirely Italian. To this day you can still hear Italian spoken on the streets.

We grew up there, went to school there. It was a close knit neighborhood, a place where you knew everyone and everyone knew you. Outsiders were not welcome and they stood out like roses in the snow . It was only natural that we would band together and protect what we had. We felt that we were being invaded by Puerto Ricans and blacks, and other white gangs. And we meant to keep them out by doing whatever we had to do. If that meant fighting, then fighting it would be. Most of the time the fighting was hand to hand, but there were guns, mostly zip guns, and knives, chains, pretty much anything you could get your hands on.

We were a kind of unofficial police force. And I must say that while we were running around the streets, I never heard of a woman having her purse snatched or anyone being mugged. In those days a woman could walk home alone at 2 a.m. knowing that no one would bother her. As a matter of fact over 40 years later we had a reunion in the back yard of one of the houses. An old woman who lived next door stuck her head out of the window and shouted down to us ” I remember you boys, you kept the neighborhood safe.”

We may have kept the neighborhood safe but the fighting caused plenty of collateral damage. From knocking over concession stands during fights at the Italian feast, to throwing a guy through the plate glass window of some store. Anything could happen at any time, and where you least expect it. Once a fight broke out in the middle of a Saturday afternoon movie. All the house lights coming on, people screaming and running down the aisles trying to get out. By the time the fight spilled out onto the street the cops were already there.

When we needed barrels for the zip guns we were making, we stole the antennas from  parked cars. Then there were the small thefts, like breaking into the basement of a deli to steal beer or steal a car if we needed one. We weren’t much like the kids we saw on TV at the time, on shows like Father knows best, Ozzie and Harriet or American Bandstand. They were so far removed from us that they may as well have been on another planet.

So here we are on a typical summer day. Four of us, that would be Doc, Mikey Blind, Sammy Chink and me, are on our way to the Holiday Lounge to get some ice cold beer. The Holiday had it on tap and would sell us quart containers of cold beer for 65 cents. At that time the legal drinking age in New York was 18, and although we were under age, Dominick the owner, sold it to us anyway. Dominick probably figured, and figured correctly, that in a couple of years we would be hanging out there and would be one of the main sources of his business.  We buy two quarts each, Dominick puts them in large brown paper bags and we head back to the club.

Club Three Steps was a basement apartment in a row house on Ainslie St. The name came from the three steps that led down to the basement. The landlord rented it to us with the stipulation that we would put a new wood floor in the front room. He would rent the place to us and provide the electric saw, and we would buy the wood and provide the labor. The rent was cheap so we took the deal. Besides there would be plenty of wood left over and we would use it to make zip guns. After all, we’ve got the scrap wood and the electric saw, now all we needed are the car antennas. One night Buba and I climbed over the fence of a parking lot and stole every antenna from every car. We made about 20 or 30 zip guns. We even turned some of the longer pieces into a kind of rifle.

We are sitting around drinking beer when Crazy Junior comes in and says “The PR’s are way down Graham Ave.  They’re jumping on cars and looking for trouble!” He thinks they’re Phantom Lords, a Puerto Rican gang whose turf bordered ours. With that we head out the door.

At the corner we make a left onto Bushwick Ave. and after about half a block we come to Netties Luncheonette. Standing on the sidewalk outside Netties we see Petey Zotch, and leaning against a parked car making out with his girl is Charlie Rocca. Petey looks at us and says “What’s happenin’ ” we tell him and he says “Wait up, I’m goin with you.” Charlie says “Me too.” I said to Charlie “Why don’t you stay here with your girl. By the time we get there they’ll probably be gone.” Charlie insists on going with us. I think he wants to go partially for the action but mostly because he’ll look like a tough guy to his girlfriend.

We walk down Bushwick Ave. to Metropolitan, take that to Graham and continue down Graham Ave. crossing under the Brooklyn – Queens Expressway to Newton St. On the corner of Graham Ave. and Newton St. is a candy store and it belongs to my aunt Marion but that didn’t register with me at the time.

Just as we figured, there is no one in sight, however on the next corner, on Engert Ave and Graham, is a poolroom. One of the guys from the poolroom tells us that he thinks they went to McCarren Park, which is a couple of blocks away. We head down Newton St. and at the next corner there should be a dead end but they’ve torn down one of the houses and you can walk right through the empty lot and cross into McCarren Park. The lot is full of scattered debris, bricks, old plumbing, odd shaped pieces of wood but there’s a clear spot and about ten men are using it as a Bocce Ball court. Bocce is an Italian game that’s a type of lawn bowling. So these two teams of five men each are busy playing Bocce as we walk past them. We walk up the hill of debris that clogs the rest of the lot and go down the other side and into the park. McCarren Park is laid out in three sections. The first (and the one we are crossing into) is the public pool. It’s the biggest pool I’ve ever seen, once when the pool was empty I saw two soft ball games being played in the empty pool at the same time. The second section is for track and field events, it’s an oval track 1/8 of a mile around. In the oval interior of the track is where the field events were held. The third section is just benches for sitting and paths for strolling.

McCarren Park Map

McCarren Park Map

We walk through the park, past the pool and head toward the archway that overlooks the track section of the park. Standing under the arch we can look across the street and see what appears to be a couple of baseball teams milling around in the center of the track. I don’t remember what drew their attention to us. I don’t know if one of us yelled something out or they just spotted us standing there, but the next thing I knew they were picking up bats and heading our way. There were so many of them that for a second I knew how Gen. Custer must have felt ” Where did all these damn Indians come from,” This is hard to explain because I doubt that the words were actually spoken. Somehow it seemed to be understood that we would fall back to the lot and take them on in a confined space. So we head back through the park and cross the street into the lot. The Phantom Lords are in the park about a block behind us and closing fast. We move to the high ground and stand atop the pile of rubble and begin looking for weapons in the debris. I turn around and look down the other side of the hill toward Newton St. and what do I see? The Lords are coming up behind us. They are coming from both sides and we are trapped in the middle.

Like a swarm of bees they seem to be everywhere. I head toward the nearest guy to me. I go at him but he moves right past me. I didn’t see where he was going because I’m now looking at a guy with a bat and he’s coming right for me. We are on the downslope of the hill and he’s below me. I spot some pieces of log on the ground and bend down to pick one up. I throw it at his head but he ducks under it and comes up swinging the bat. I twist my body out of the way and the bat whizzes by. He swings it back in a backhand motion and catches me in the side under the ribcage. My brain is screaming “Don’t go down, don’t go down.”

It was here the Jackson Jents stood, staring into the track and field looking for the Phantom Lords.

It was here the Jackson Jents stood, staring into the track and field looking for the Phantom Lords.

McCarren Park Pool 1937

McCarren Park Pool 1937

That’s when I see the bocce ball hit the guy with the bat guy right in the chest. The men who were playing Bocce ball decided to help out. I stagger forward and my legs turn to jelly and down I go. There’s chaos all around, lots of cursing and yelling. I’m on my knees on the ground, when I look to my left and see Charlie.  The left side of his face is covered in blood.  Someone put a hole in his head and a torrent of blood is running down his face and off his chin. Two guys are holding Charlie by his arms and keeping him on his feet. I told him to stay with his girl but he wouldn’t listen, look at him now. By now guys are running in all directions and a crowd of onlookers has formed. They’re clogging the street from one side to the other. I get to my feet and head into the crowd. I’m on my feet but bent over and  it works to my advantage because to my right I spot my mother in the crowd. She must have been visiting with my aunt at the candy store. She doesn’t see me and I make my way through the crowd. I get a couple of blocks and stop because my side hurts like hell. I’m standing on the corner of Meeker Ave. and Oakland St. about to cross under the Expressway when a 1958 Chevy convertible pulls up next to me. The top is down and Charlie is in the back seat bleeding all over this poor guy’s new car. “We’re going to the hospital, you need a lift?” I said “I’ll be alright, go, go.”

I’m hurt, I’m hot, and the sweat has my shirt stuck to my body. But I know where I’ll be safe. I cross under the Expressway and up Herbert St. straight to St. Cecilias’ church. The church is empty. The pews in the back of the church are covered in shadow so I slide in there. I sat there for a long time collecting myself, and looking at the altar. Wonder what God thinks about all this. I wonder if He even cares. After awhile I feel good enough to leave. I open the side door of the church and walk out into the sunlight. Time to head  home.  I wonder what my mother is making for dinner?

St._Cecilia's_Roman_Catholic_Church

It was here that the author of this article sat contemplating the events of the Charlie Rocca Incident.