Street Gangs

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New York City has had a rich tradition of street gangs going back to the 1700s. With no fewer than over 200 gang wars fought within the city by 1850 and being the birthplace of rap and hip hop, it’s no wonder that the city has been so closely linked with gang activity. There have been three distinct eras in which street gang activity was at its peak: During the Tammany Hall era of the 19th Century, during the 1960s and 1970s in the Mean Streets era, and through the 1980s and 1990s during the crack epidemic.

After the post-war era, economic stagnation set into the city. This stagnation reached critical mass in the 1970s as the nation was gripped by inflation, recession, an oil embargo, and rising energy costs. This led to a dramatic rise in gang activity as frustrated youths (among the nation’s highest unemployed demographic) took to the streets with ghetto blasters flooding city streets with their favorite hits. These gangs were depicted most aptly in the movie The Warriors (1979). They were unorganized and went into decline due to violence with other gangs, drug use, and lack luster economic performance. The final nail in the coffin to this era was the rise of hip hop which provided a more creative outlet and lucrative economic opportunity for young inner city minorities especially within the African American community.

However when crack cocaine burst onto the scene in 1984, gang activity in the city took a sinister turn. Suddenly gangs were not dueling with boom boxes, switch blades and the occasional handgun anymore. Uzis and drive-by shootings were the preferred weapons of the day. The profits from crack, made it possible for previously localized minor hooligans to become players on a national and even international level. The leaders for these street gangs quickly adapted to their environment and expanded operations across the country. Soon the Bloods and Crips from Los Angeles, were infesting New York City with crack-houses and absorbing local street gangs into their organizations. The epidemic finally burned itself out and precisely why is a matter of speculation, rumor, and debate.

Some credit the popular response to the epidemic as the root cause of the decline. After seeing so many reports of drive-by shootings, the crack baby phenomena, young kids growing up to see their parents hooked, etc. the appeal of crack cocaine seemed to whither. It was just too distasteful to swallow even in urban culture. The term “crackhead” or “crackwhore” had such negative connotation to it that it seemed almost the reverse of peer pressure was happening with the drug and by the mid-1990s the epidemic had run its course.

However, the gangs remained and there seems to be a resurgence in activity with the arrival of crystal meth to the Northeast.

Currently the most prominent street gangs in New York City are the Bloods, Crips, Ghost Shadows, Flying Dragons, Latin Kings, and MS-13.

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