Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings

Article excerpt

Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings. Eric C. Schneider. Princeton University Press, 1999.

In the Bronx of the 1950s, gangs loomed large in the public consciousness. Especially in the consciousness of teenagers who were alternately terrified and enthralled by the sight of leather jacketed cadres who hung out on certain corners and who committed acts of mayhem on a nearly hourly basis..or so we fervently believed. Not a junior high school in New York was free of legend about the local hoods: the Red Wings in Italian Harlem, the Chaplains in Brooklyn, and in the Bronx, the truly ominous Fordham Baldies. The latter were famous for their haircuts, or more precisely, their lack of hair and hence their name. The Baldies ruled in the West Bronx and it was the Baldies, of course, who featured colorfully in Philip Kaufman's film The Wanderers (1979). In the East Bronx, the Baldies were matched in notoriety by the Golden Guineas, who prowled Morris Avenue and made Belmont safe for white (Italian) civilization. Scattered about, in occasional alliance but often in combat with the major gangs, were such loveable fraternities as the Pagans, the Imperial Lords, the Vampires, the Nordics, the Dragons, the Crowns, the Barons, and the Boca Chicas, each with their own ethnic, racial, neighborhood, and costuming requirements. Such was the mental landscape of Eisenhowerera New York City, and it is Eric Schneider's accomplishment that he has taken this compote of truth and legend, and turned a calm academic eye upon it. It turns out to be almost as scary as the legend.

Schneider is a historian and an assistant dean at the University of Pennsylvania and a former New York kid, upper east side variety. He was no gang member but he seems to know the terrain pretty well and has certainly devoted considerable energy to probing the motives and methods of the New York street gang. In brief, it is Schneider's thesis that the gangs of New York in the SOs and 60s were responses to a rapidly changing and, for many, a declining economic situation. The ethnic neighborhoods faced dramatic alterations with the collapse of the old New York economy of semi and unskilled labor: in short, the old garment, printing, and light manufacturing economy that made New York hospitable to immigrants was evaporating in the 1950s. Combine that with the fervor for urban rebuilding, the surburbanization of white America, and the steady influx of Black and Latino immigrants to New York City, and there is a fine recipe for urban disorder. …