When did New York City youth gangs first begin? The answer to that lay in the years leading up to the end of World War 2. The years 1944 and 1945 first began to reveal bands of youth that roamed neighborhoods and committed petty crime as well as violent acts. These groups of boys even named themselves and although people weren’t aware that these gangs were here to stay – or even that there was a gang problem – these anti social groups popped up across the city.
Ground zero implies that everything (whether it be crime, gangs, an outbreak etc.), radiates and spreads out from one person or area. But I don’t think that was the case in New York City. It appears that Brooklyn and East Harlem were two areas where gangs began at roughly the same time. Or maybe East Harlem really was the first, because the recounting I am about to provide happened in 1943, a year before Brooklyn gangs were officially reported in the newspapers and with the district attorney.
Not too far from present-day Fred’s Wine & Liquors on 77 Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem with its faded yellow sign and bars on the front windows, was 54 West 114th Street. At one time 54 West 114th Street was a four-story rooming house, but it seems to be have been long torn down and now it appears to be a large apartment building.
In November 1943, the principal of an unnamed school called the police of the 28th Precinct. One of his female students was being harassed by members of a Harlem gang called the Socialistic Dukes. An address of 54 West 114th was given to the police as the home of one of the Socialistic Dukes, and the police began their watch on the building on November 24, 1943. Soon enough three of the gang members entered the building and the police followed them in. The arresting officer, Robert Ellison found them in the bedroom of one of the defendants who lived in the home.
The police considered the Socialistic Dukes a troublesome gang. In fact, there was a Mrs. Harris who kept a log on all the troublesome Harlem gangs, including the Dukes. When the boys were arrested, one had a hunting knife in a sheaf tucked inside a black lumber-jacket he was wearing. He told police he needed it for protection.
The second boy also had a hunting knife, which he hid in his pants. The third boy had a combination hatchet and dagger in his desk drawer. Not only that but this third boy was suffering from a gun shot wound of the upper left arm which was inflicted by an east side gang called the Comanches who had shot him on November 6, 1943. In other words he was walking around for over two weeks with a gun shot wound.
And that’s it. No more details on the Socialistic Dukes or the Comanches. But it is a peak into one of the earliest incidents of youth gangs in New York City. As the 1940s closed and the 1950s began, Harlem and Manhattan gangs were as notorious and violent as the gangs in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The public wised up to the pattern and the hysteria of juvenile delinquency and youth gangs reached a tremendous clamor all the way up into the early 1960s.
Well, maybe I won’t quite end there. On January 9, 1944, one of the mother’s penned a letter to Warwick, the institution where her son who was in the Socialistic Dukes was being held. Her letter began (in her exact words and grammar) :
I have received your letter, + I was very pleased, to hear that he is in such a good school. I hope he
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