Fifteen years ago my wife and I came home from church, opened our front door and… stepped onto a soggy carpet. We had a major leak from the upstairs floor and during the day it drained down to the main floor and soaked a good portion of our downstairs, including floors and walls, ruining whatever lay in its path including drywall. We began the insurance claim the next day and for the next week we were in doubt whether we would be covered for the loss. It was an extremely frustrating experience as most anybody reading who has dealt with an insurance company would know.
The worst part of this situation was not knowing if we were going to be covered. Finally, after much discussion with the insurance company, including a lengthy interview, they decided to cover it. Yes, I was shocked. Still am. They ruled that they would pay us $5,000 and it would be up to us to get the repairs done with that money. I’m no handy man, but my family is, and I knew right away that it wouldn’t come close to the $5,000. So in the end we ended up with extra money after the repairs were done. So the doubt and worry at the beginning melted away and in the end we were covered. It’s funny how a bad situation like that can be so stressful and sometimes in the end it works out okay, although you wouldn’t think it at the beginning…
So what in the world does this have to do with youth gangs from New York City or the Red Wings gang in East Harlem?
Well, when I learned the story of Joseph or “Joe,”, a member of the Italian Red Wings in East Harlem, I was reminded of my story. Hopefully you see that too when you read it.
On February 18, 1958, at 9:20 p.m. on 116th Street between First Avenue and East River Drive, in Manhattan, four Red Wings were hanging out together and up to no good. A taxicab cruised past them driven by Harry German. The boys hailed the taxicab down and asked German to drive them to 106th Street. Harry drove them to their destination and when it came time to pay, one of the Red Wings brandished an imitation pistol and robbed the working man of his money, threatening him that if he didn’t comply, “I’ll blow your brains out.”
Harry German handed $28 to the boys as well as the car keys which they also demanded. One of the Red Wings there – George Clemente – said “knock his brains out anyway.” But some semblance of sanity thankfully existed and one of the other Red Wings refused, saying, “No, we got the money.” With that, all four Red Wings took off from the scene they created and made their way north on East River Drive. Unfortunately for them, they ran past a patrolman from the 23rd precinct who was on foot patrol that evening. He managed to collar Joseph, one of the Red Wings in the group of four. By the next day, the police nabbed the other three boys involved.
All were members of the “Red Wings Tots,” an Italian gang in East Harlem that had a long and established reputation. In 1954, the Red Wings gang were involved in a murder in the Bronx – click here for information about that.
One of the detectives assigned to the case said all four gang members were remorseful and described them as being “four jerky kids.” He called the youngest of the four a “bit of a psycho.” One of the four, Joseph, or “Joe,” is the subject of this page.
Born in 1941, Joe lived on 105th Street in East Harlem with his parents. He was a good lad, running about playing with his friends and attending school. He was well regarded by his teachers and caused no trouble for his parents. His Dad worked for Union Settlement, an organization that worked with kids in East Harlem, giving them a healthy outlet for constructive activities. Both Joe’s parents were engaged and interested in his well-being and cared for him and his two brothers. Joe came from a tight-knit family. I have found that often gang members came from single parent family homes. This was not the case with Joe.
So the question comes up, how did young Joe get involved in the Red Wings gang? How did it come to this, robbing a taxi driver? This was a boy who never gave trouble to his parents and did well in school (Joe was interested in going into the accounting field and one of his teachers said he was “outstanding in dependability and courtesy”). His mother was worried and tense and afraid of what kind of scandal it would bring to the family. His father diligently provided for his family and worked in maintenance for Union Settlement.
Joe’s slide into delinquency started rather innocently. In the mid 1950s, the New York City Housing Authority took over large areas on the south side of 104th Street in front of Union Settlement as well as on 106th Street. They demolished both areas, and the families and friends that Joe knew were forced to move. Nearly all of them left the neighborhood, and so the families that Joe and his family knew for two decades were no more. Joe had only one friend remaining in the neighborhood. Puerto Ricans that migrated into this new area carved out by the Housing Authority did not interest Joe. And so Joe gravitated up to the area of 116th Street which was still strictly Italian and where LaGuardia Memorial House was, another center for kids to hang out at. There he made new friends. But now he was hanging out 10 blocks away from home and his parents did not know his new friends or know what he was doing, whereas before he played on the streets near their home.
The old adage of “you are who you hang out with” is so true and with this new neighborhood and friends, Joe got tangled with the wrong crowd. This is where he met members of the Red Wings and became a member of the Tots. Joe was a follower, and not a leader and so he went along with whatever the guys wanted to do.
Up to that point he never caused trouble to his parents or got into scrapes with the law. But now, with his new set of friends, that changed. On November 12, 1956, he was arrested on 116th Street and charged for breaking into a Consolidated Edison Company repair wagon on the street and stealing tools and pipes. When asked about it, Joe said he went along with a friend without “knowing why.” About a month later, he got into more trouble. This time he was caught for truancy and fighting on the street in front of Benjamin Franklin High School.
When Joe was arrested for the taxi cab arrest, his family was thrown into an uproar. As mentioned above, his mother was a nervous, excitable type and it was particularly hard on her. But it was a close family, and this was to be a major benefit to Joe. It was agreed that Joe would move in with an aunt and cousin in New Jersey who he was close to. Joe moved there shortly after and his aunt, a busy, intentional woman, watched Joe like a hawk. He could barely do anything without her knowing. But she surrounded him with love; it wasn’t all rules. Now that he was out of East Harlem, away from the Red Wings, Joe settled into a routine with his aunt and cousin and attended a new school. He helped pay Harry German back the $28 he stole, got a job and later saved up enough to buy his own car.
Shortly after he moved to New Jersey, an incident involving the Red Wings shocked the city and hit the newspapers with the force of a monsoon. On Memorial Day, seven members of the Red Wings gang entered Jefferson Park and found a Cuban man named Julio Ramos sitting on a bench. They attacked him with a wine jug, slats from a park bench, punched him, kicked him and then threw a Parks garbage can directly onto Julio’s head. He died the next day.
One of the Red Wings involved in this brutal killing was George Clemente, one of the Red Wings involved in the taxi cab robbery. Clemente was friends with Joe and later Joe admitted himself that if he didn’t move to New Jersey he could have been there on that fateful night and facing a murder charge.
And so with hindsight, while the taxi cab robbery was a stain on his record, Joe escaped the neighborhood because of it and most likely escaped being involved in a gang killing. With a little time. the wisdom of your parents’ can be seen as Joe saw that his parent’s strictness was out of love. Like the water leak, things can seem hopeless at first, but with time, it can work out in the end.