Alternate of Rebels (test, will be deleted soon)
"The older generations were especially worried about ‘juvenile delinquency.’ In the 1950’s, this didn’t mean dealing in street drugs or drive-by shootings, but rather chewing gum in class, souping up a hot rod, and talking back to parents.” - Blog, "The Great Nuclear Society: Curing Juvenile Delinquency In The 1950’s,” 2013, reproduced from “The Life Of A 1950‘s Teenager,” by Richard Powers, 2000.
“If I had died then, it would have been for nothing. But if I die now, it will be to clean up the place, for other people to live in.” -
Roger McShane, 16-years-old, in response to death threats following the murder of his friend, 15-year-old polio survivor Michael Farmer, committed by The Egyptian Kings and Dragons street gangs at Highbridge Park, New York, 1957.
Tuesday, July 30, 1957 was a hot night in New York’s Washington Heights district in the city’s West Side.
It was so hot that even into the late evening, teenagers were out and about, mingling, playing ball in the park, and, for two boys, 16-year-old Roger McShane, and 15-year-old Michael Farmer, it was a chance to cool off at the nearby pool at Highbridge Park.
Aerial view of High Bridge Park. The "x" shows the location of where 15-year-old Michael Farmer, a partially handicapped survivor of polio, was attacked by members of The Dragons and Egyptian Kings street gangs. Source: "The Jury Is Still Out" by Judge Irwin Davidson, 1959.
Farmer, who walked with a limp as a result of childhood polio, had been playing rock n’ roll records in his parent’s apartment with his new friend McShane.
A small apartment can be extremely stifling in the summer heat, and the apartment where Farmer lived with his parents was no exception.
The pool at Highbridge Park was closed by 10:30 p.m, but the boys knew of an opening that the neighborhood kids had frequently used to get an extra swim, after hours.
Perhaps the prospect of breaking a rule by sneaking into the pool seemed like a fun and adventurous idea. Perhaps it was a way to bond, and to share in the not-so-well kept “secret” around the neighborhood, as the hole into the pool’s entrance was well known.
Or maybe the kids just needed to cool off. It was a hot apartment.
A week earlier, however, a local gang, The Jesters, made up of primarily, though not exclusively (as illustrated below) Irish teenage boys, had asserted their dominance in the area. Highbridge Park was their “turf,” their territory, and any gang or “bopping club” that wanted to use the pool had better be ready to fight.
This was especially true if the perceived rivals were Puerto Rican.
Members of The Jesters pose for a 1958 article in Life magazine covering the Michael Farmer case.
The Egyptian Kings and Dragons were primarily Puerto Rican and African-American, though there were also a few white members among them. Still, the pool was “off limits” to “them,” not officially by Parks and Recreation of course, but rather, by the code of the gangs.
Some Puerto Rican boys had been beaten up, at least by their recollections, by The Jesters, for simply wanting to take a swim. Now, on this Tuesday night, the combined Egyptian Kings and Dragons had gathered en masse, to run a raid, a “jap” as they called it, on any Jesters who they assumed would be out this hot night.
Though, as previously mentioned, there were some “white boys” among their number, the assumption was that any “Irish” in the Jester’s “turf” must be members of "that club.”
Armed with knives, chains, and a machete, they took their positions behind some bushes with military precision.
The seven members of the allied Egyptian Kings and Dragons street gangs that were actually charged and arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Michael Farmer.
Source: "The Jury Is Still Out" by Judge Irwin Davidson, 1959.
Roger McShane and Michael Farmer, the two boys who wanted to go for a late night swim to escape the heat of a parent’s apartment, were walking into a war zone.
When it was over, McShane, who ran from the attack even while injured, would end up on the critical list at New York’s Presbyterian Medical Center.
Farmer, the boy who walked with a limp, a reminder of his childhood polio, was unable to run.
Previously, there had been 11 gang killings that summer. Michael Farmer was the twelfth.
Mrs. Thelma Farmer, the mother of slain 15-year-old polio survivor (and as a result, partially handicapped) Michael Farmer, hearing the verdict of the murder case for her slain son. September 3, 1959, United Press International.
Debates rage over the reactions to another New York gang killing, the 4th killing in 8 days, 20 deaths since the beginning of the summer of 1959.
Political and religious leaders attack each other in the press over the handling of "the crisis in the inner cities," concerning youth gang-related fatalities.
A monsignor, Joseph A. McCaffrey, presiding over a 16-year-old stabbing victim’s funeral, launches into a verbal tirade before the packed, crowded, Holy Cross Church in Manhattan.
His verbal assault is not only against the gangs themselves, but also against what he sees to be local government and gang outreach policies that favor “coddling."
Excerpts from two issues of The New York Daily News, as well as national coverage by United Press International, of Monsignor McCaffrey's statements while presiding over the funeral of 16-year-old Anthony Krzesinski.
The articles themselves date from August through September of 1959.
McCaffrey angrily states that the gangs should be met “with force” and “caged like wild animals.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union responds, accusing the monsignor of giving free license to police brutality against all young suspects, whether they actually are confirmed gang members, or not.
The NYCLU also sees a potential racial component to the monsignor’s comments.
As for the two 16-year-old victims, friends Anthony Krzesinski and Robert Young Jr. had been stabbed at a local playground by members of The Vampires street gang.
They managed to stumble to their apartments before bleeding to death.
Both boys were not gang members.
Sources: The San Francisco Chronicle, Life, and The New York Daily News, 1959.
One of the accused, 16-year-old Salvador Agron, dubbed “The Capeman” in the press due to the red lined, black cape that he wore at the time of the murder, told the police, “I killed because I felt like it.”
Following the trial in 1960, Agron became the youngest person to be placed on death row in The State of New York.
At the behest of philanthropist, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the father of one of the victims, the sentence was later commuted to life.
Agron was paroled in 1979. He passed away in 1986.
September 7, 1959, Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Another priest, Reverend C. Kilmer Myers, who Monsignor McCaffrey might describe as one of those “coddlers,” had been working to keep the peace between the fighting gangs in the area of Forsyth Street.
The Reverend C. Kilmer Myers during his outreach program, covered in the August 26, 1957 article in Life, "Peacemaking Priest in Gangland."
For three years, the youth activity programs that he oversaw were successful, with athletics and mediation programs that prevented gang conflicts before they started.
But funds were scarce.
According to Myers, The City of New York ignored his requests for more funding to aid in supervised youth activities. The funds would have also enabled Myers to recruit expert social workers to assist in his gang outreach projects.
After three years of peace in the Lower East Side, gang violence exploded again.
Two teenage girls are fatally shot in a drive-by shooting, and a third teen, an altar boy, is wounded.
The Reverend Myers launches into his own tirade, but unlike Monsignor McCaffrey who urged punishment, Myers’ tirade, in the pages of Life, is admittedly, an angry, and frustrated, call for help.
A second photo of Reverend C. Kilmer Myers, from the September 7, 1959 follow up article in Life, "Sportsmen Vs. Forsyths: The Frightful Aftermath."
The article covered the August 23, 1959 drive-by shooting death of 15-year-old Theresa Gee during the gang conflict between The Forsyth Street Boys and The Sportsmen in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
November 2, 1956, San Francisco, California.
The confused, and tearful, parents of a 15-year-old, grant an interview to The San Francisco Chronicle.
Their son, John Alpaugh Jr., had attended a Halloween street party in The Mission District. As the party wound down, he headed home, but was confronted by four boys, ages 18 to 19.
He is stabbed in the chest, the penetrating blade piercing the tip of his heart.
Alpaugh Jr. did not know the boys who attacked him.
In fact, the four boys who would later be charged with "assault with intent to commit murder," were not only unconnected to Alpaugh Jr., they had attacked two other teens that night, 16-year-old Richard Hieber and 17-year-old Benjamin Roybal.
Like Alpaugh Jr., these additional two victims were neither gang-affiliated, nor even acquainted with the the four armed boys.
One of the attackers, 18-year-old Earl Hall, had just been cleared of possession of heroin two days before the attack.
According to court records, then-young Mr. Hall had run-ins with San Francisco law-enforcement since the age of 11, though, according to a San Francisco Examiner story, he hadn’t arrived in San Francisco till the age of 12, after his parent’s divorce in his native Kansas.
That wouldn't be the first inconsistency in the case.
Earl Hall, along with another of the alleged attackers, then 19-year-old Clement Anderson, have surviving “rap sheets” that detail arrests for auto theft and burglary since the age of 10 and 11. Those same rap sheets would cover their “careers” after the 1956 incident, which would include convictions for a drug charge in 1964, as well as additional burglaries and auto theft. (If nothing else, these young men started early, and certainly were ”prolific.”)
Click on each image below for close-ups.
Above are San Francisco news clippings profiling the teen suspects arrested for the 1956 Halloween stabbings. Included in the gallery are surviving documents of arrest, release, and conviction records of two of the alleged attackers, then-18-year-old Earl Hall and then-19-year-old Clement Anderson.
Records date from both prior to the attack, and long after the incident itself. Unfortunately, surviving records for the other two alleged attackers, William Keller and Henry Gorski, both 19-years-of-age at the time of the incident, were unavailable at the time of this writing. Courtesy of The California Archives.
All four, alleged, attackers were on parole from the California Youth Authority, with two, Clement Anderson and William Keller, having spent time at The Whittier Detention Center, and the other two, Earl Hall and Henry Gorksi, at the Preston “Castle.”
"The Castle" was, and still is, a reform school.
The “alumni” includes cowboy actor Rory Calhoun, Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady, and country music legend Merle Haggard. (One thing that could be said of Earl Hall and his criminal record is that, if nothing else, at least he went to the same reform school as the later "Okie From Muskogee.") According to their version of the events, the four (alleged) attackers were “innocent” (aren't they all?) and had been "mistakenly" picked up by arresting officers Dan Driscoll and Henry Pengell, after being identified by eye witnesses.
Anderson and Keller had said that they were performing on stage for the dance that night. (Surviving court records do not state what their alleged “performances” entailed.)
However, in an interview for The San Francisco Examiner, conducted at the Fifth Floor of City Prison, Clement Anderson also stated that he was with his girlfriend at the Century Theater on Market Street at the time of the attack! (In all fairness, theoretically, Mr. Anderson could have been to both events, one after the other, “party hopping.” However, surviving records fail to name a single witness, including his girlfriend, to verify his two alibis.)
All four boys are charged and arraigned at San Francisco Municipal Court, with Judge Charles Peery setting bail for the teenage defendants at $10,000 each. (That would be the equivalent of $95,257.72 for each defendant in 2020 dollars, adjusting the 1956 bail for inflation.)
Alpaugh’s mother tells reporters, “When I saw my son after the knife attack, I thought what a terrible waste. You spend 15 years of your life bringing up a boy, and then you think that life is about to be destroyed.”
Holding back tears, she angrily cries out, “Why do kids do these things to each other?! John is a good boy!”
Looking for an answer, she asks an all-too-familiar question, aware that no answer will come forward.
“Is it our fault?”
Despite the near fatal attack, the young Alpaugh is actually lucky.
Unlike the teen victims of New York gang violence mentioned above, John Alpaugh Jr. survives.
He died of natural causes at the age of 58 on January 6, 2000 in his native San Francisco, the city where, as a teenager leaving a dance party, he was almost killed 44 years earlier.
“The more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing.” - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “A Tour Round My Garden,” 1855.
“Perhaps it's good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he's happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” -
Aldous Huxley, “Antic Hay” 1923.
"To tell the story of my youth, I like that, it feels good. I feel like I'm sticking up for my generation. It wasn't 'Grease' and it wasn't 'Happy Days.' It was much more complex, and more interesting than that."-
Paul Simon during his interview for his Broadway show "The Capeman."
Why the hell am I writing this thing?! The idea of writing about 1950‘s youth gangs has been in my head for more than 30 years.
While researching gangs at my high school library, I was introduced to a book titled “The Violent Gang.” (That’s a pretty dramatic title, if to my eyes, redundant.)
Weren’t all gangs, at least occasionally, “violent?”
Well, except for gangs of the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s, of course.
That time period was “the good old days." Gangs of that time certainly never seriously hurt each other.
Those “gangs” that were portrayed in the high school production of the comedy “Grease” (and in the movie version) didn’t hurt each other. They were loveable (and inconsequential) oafs.
There were some “gangs” portrayed onscreen in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti.”
That classic film of growing up and “lost innocence” was a staple of summer syndicated movies here in the Bay Area during my high school years of the 1980‘s (courtesy of KICU TV 36.)
Even though they verbally threatened Richard Dreyfus in that movie, the gang in “American Graffiti” (led by Bo Hopkins, and called “The Pharaohs”) weren’t really “serious.” Hell, the most serious things that they did were minor acts of vandalism that were essentially harmless pranks.
Contrast the image of "harmless" street gangs in "American Graffiti" who "were nothing like the violent gangs of today" with a real-life 1950's/early '60's teen gang member, Salvador "The Capeman" Agron, pictured above. Directly below is a newspaper cartoon illustration, which appeared in several papers in 1959. Unfortunately, the cartoon, and the text, is so over-the-top and sensationalized, that it's easy for modern readers to dismiss the reports as being "exaggerated." The language is exaggerated, but certainly not the acts, as the actual New York case documents, provided below, just under the cartoon, illustrate. (Note, along with the documents, I also received a crime scene photo of one of the victims, Anthony Krzesinski. I chose not to include that photo.)
Upon questioning my teachers at Logan High School, the ones who were the “appropriate age” to have been teenagers between 1955 to 1962 (the “Rock n’ Roll Era”), they assured me that, though what I had seen were works of fiction, “their time” was pretty much like what I saw in those “nostalgic” movies.
Nothing bad, at least, not as bad as what kids of my age group were experiencing, happened during “their time.”
The kids of “their” youth, even the “bad” kids, “were nothing like kids today.”
The teachers who I talked to seemed to be emotionally invested in such statements.
Deep down inside, that always made feel just a little suspicious, as if they were deliberately hiding something from me and my classmates. However, being raised to be a good and obedient Filipino Catholic boy, I put my skepticism out of my mind.
Anyway, questions about the “trouble free” 1950‘s might have been mildly enjoyable, but were inconsequential.
They were “unimportant,” because there’s no way that I, as a then-teenager of the “modern” 1980's, could learn anything about the kids of “my time” by studying about the teenagers of my parents’ generation.
They were "too different from us." The kids who grew up to be my parents’ age came from a "quaint time of innocence."
Or so I was told.
No, I was in the library at Logan High School in 1984, because I needed to know about real gangs.
My high school yearbook picture in 1984. Fourteen, a freshman, and trying to look "tough," and failing, miserably! (The glasses certainly didn't help.)
I was a straight-A student.
As a consequence of being a bookish “nerd” who was up for being a member of “The Golden Key Society” upon graduation (about as “up there” on the scale of teenage “rebelliousness” as being a member of the marching band or the chess club), I was also a tutor.
My counselor told me tutoring would look good on my transcripts when I would apply for college.
I assumed that I would be helping out handicapped kids, kids who were like my brother. He had gone for the first years of his schooling undiagnosed with autism. He also went through hell from his teachers for being “lazy” and “unresponsive,” when he really had a learning disability that the teachers, and the school, were ill-prepared to deal with. (Trust me, this particular theme will relate to some members of 1950‘s-era gang members, later in this blog.)
Instead, to my horror(!), I was assigned to help out the tough kids at Logan High with their homework. That certainly wasn’t my idea.
Many of them were gang members.
The gangs of Union City, at that time, a working-class suburb and former farming community, which is a 45-minute drive South-East from San Francisco, had names like “All Brothers Together” (a gang made up of Filipino-American teens) and “Old Alvarado” (Mexican-American teens.)
So I asked the librarian about books on gangs, just so I can study up on what to expect.
She took me to the library card cabinet file (remember those?) and kindly made the time to help me find the one, and only, book on gangs in their possession.
That book was the aforementioned “The Violent Gang” by Lewis Yablonsky, a psychotherapist who treated New York City gang members before becoming a celebrated author.
The book that started my interest in 1950's and early 1960's youth gang history. I had seen the fictional portrayals in movies like "Rebel Without A Cause" and "The Young Savages," but reading this book was an eye-opener.
When I saw the 1962 publication date, I was disappointed. Well, I was both disappointed and interested. (Talk about mixed feelings!)
I probably should explain why I knew about “American Graffiti” and “Grease” at a time when my classmates at Logan High School were watching “more important” movies about teens that they could relate to, such as “Bad Boys” (the gang banging revenge movie with Sean Penn and Esai Morales, and not the much later buddy action movie with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence) or talking about the one-shot hip hop syndicated tv show “Graffiti Rock.”
Unlike my classmates at that time, I was, and still am, a fan of the 1950‘s. (And allow me to sell, here. My fan obsession for that time became a profession. I taught vintage swing dancing and hosted rockabilly events prior to the pandemic. This is actually my main website for my swing dance classes and events.)
Fandom is an obsession for a specific subject, such as a sports team or a science-fiction franchise.
I’ve admittedly been obsessed with all things related to youth culture from the 1950‘s (and early 1960's) since I was a child. I am a fan of a time period.
I’m not alone, either.
Many fellow “fans” of the 1950‘s meet up every April in Las Vegas at The Orleans Hotel for 4 nights of non-stop (and very loud!) ‘50‘s style Rock n’ Roll music.
Choosing what to read over lunch. (Only a fanboy would bring these to the table while eating!)
So I read the book, just because it was published in 1962, the year that “American Graffiti” was supposedly set. “The Violent Gang” was based on studies with New York teenage gangs between the years 1953 to 1958, which piqued my interest even more.
I remember feeling guilty for “wasting” my time, since I was there to learn about the mindset of the fellow Logan students that my mother used to tell me to avoid, before she herself became a tutor, and did a complete 180 in her views.
I wasn’t there to “escape to a simpler time” by reading about a bunch of uptight teachers wearing bowties, who wanted to cure 1950‘s kids of annoying, but harmless pranks, while blaming the kids’ (very mild) forms of “rebellious behavior” on Rock n’ Roll “oldies.”
To my surprise, the kids of the “innocent” 1950‘s described in “The Violent Gang” exhibited behaviors and mindsets that I had seen, from afar, in those then-modern gangs at Logan!
I expected to read about kids who were “better” in a moral sense, but also unrelatable, to the kids that I was about to work with.
Instead, I read about kids, in this book from 1962, who behaved just like the kids that I would work with. The kids in this book were indeed “violent.” They did use guns on occasion. A few even did drugs.
Everyone my parent’s age, who I talked to at that time, told me, with moral conviction(!) that drugs “didn’t exist” until “the hippie” 1960‘s.
So what the hell was I reading? This couldn’t possibly be real.
I ended up helping out one member of the Filipino gang with his English assignment. (And no, I wasn’t assigned to him because I’m Filipino. He was born here, just like me, and spoke English in the hip-hop based manner that was popular, at that time. Besides, Filipinos were actually the majority at Logan High School in the 1980s. I think they still are.)
That 1962 book helped me to understand the mindset of “the subculture” of the student that I was assigned to work with.
I still had to get to know him as an individual, of course. Gang members are human beings, and no two human beings, regardless of who they “hang out” with or come from are exactly the same.
Also, since the book was a study of 1950‘s “juvenile delinquents” (a term that was popular during that time to describe both gang members as well as any teenager who engaged in some kind of “misconduct”), there were some aesthetic differences between that kid at Logan High School and the kids described in that book.
Obviously, this kid from Logan didn’t wear a “duck’s-ass” hairstyle. The slang that he used was based off of hip hop, as opposed to be-bop jazz (both of which, are from the African-American experience, which I’ll get into later.)
The clothing that this kid wore was of the 1980‘s, not the 1950‘s. (He wore Bogarts, a standard “parachute” pants style popular at Logan High in the early 1980‘s. He didn’t wear Chinos with a garrison belt like his 1950‘s predecessors.)
That said, the swagger, the slow walk which simultaneously said “I don’t give a fuck” while moving to an unheard musical “beat” was there.
The constant, slow grinding motion of his teeth that gave the appearance that he was chewing something inedible, even when he wasn’t eating or chewing anything, was also there. (You ever see a camel chew? Now imagine a camel who’s trying to intimidate you by getting in your face, while chewing. If you can imagine a human version of that, then you get the picture.)
Everything this kid did was either meant to intimidate or “size you up.”
He displayed those outward behaviors and traits, just as described in that library book from the “innocent” era of the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s.
Even more telling, his willingness to settle conflicts physically whenever a “brother” gang member was assaulted was there.
His exact words, when describing an African-American student who had beaten up a “brother” member of the “ABTs” in a one-on-one “fair” fight was, “I’m gonna fuuuuck him up!” (I had to elongate the letter “u” to illustrate the phonetic principles of his pronunciation of that one verb.)
If this makes him sound like some sort of romantic “defender of his people,” it should be noted that he was also just as ready to attack that same “brother” if the latter showed even the slightest signs of emotional vulnerability. He called it “being a pussy,” and if any member displayed emotional vulnerability, especially if it was over a girl, he was just as ready to “be his daddy, and slap the shit out of him,” for the brother member’s own “good,” of course.
That “kid” (who was older and bigger than me) got a B+ on his English assignment, thanks to my help.
He did most of the work. I did not do his homework for him. He was actually very intelligent. Most gang leaders are.
He also later went to jail for shooting a member of a rival Filipino gang in nearby Hayward.
As tragic as that was, when I read that in the local papers, I was just glad that he didn’t shoot me. (And I hope he’s not reading this.)
I shouldn’t have been too worried about that, because I was useful to him. I helped him with school, and he actually told some older boys who were shoving me around in the boys’ locker room, “Don’t fuck with him!”
When he talked, other students listened. It turned out, with good reason. He was very capable of killing.
I went on with my teenage life in the 1980‘s. I had my first girlfriend and made some friends within my brainy social circle.
And, they teased me about my love of “old” music and movies. (I’ve since learned to chose my friends more carefully.)
The girl that I was dating at the time tried to “fix” me by telling me that my love of 1950‘s rockabilly and doo wop was “cute,” but also embarrassing.
“Honey, it’s old, and it’s weak.” I kept quiet. After all, she was good looking, and for a 15-year-old with his first girlfriend, I considered myself “lucky” to go out with someone “above” me. (I don’t think that way anymore, by the way.)
“Old music (1950‘s rock n’ roll) is weak, because art is a reflection of the time it comes from.” (Well, she wasn’t just “hot,” she was also very well-spoken, and also a straight-A student. She later graduated from UC Berkeley, and became a lawyer. And if you’re reading this, I didn’t mention your name, so you can’t sue me!)
“The '50‘s was cute, and quaint, and they didn’t deal with the same problems that we deal with now. So there’s no way that what you listen to compares to what someone like Grand Master Flash or Mel E Mel raps about.” (For readers who are unfamiliar, those were rappers in the 1980‘s whose songs were about social injustice and racism.)
I had some rocker/heavy metal friends, as well.
One of them, while puffing away on a joint while listening to Twisted Sister, teased me with “The '50's was lame, dude. The music was fuckin’ weak, because the people back then were goody goody. They didn’t have to deal with all the shit that we do! That’s what my dad told me. Whenever he comes around, that is. Here.” (He passed me a joint while continuing to criticize my musical preferences and harp on his parents’ divorce. I declined with a nervous smile. I didn’t believe that the ‘50‘s was actually “goody goody,” even though, to my “shame,” I was.)
Many years later, when I started teaching swing dancing at the height of the 1990‘s “Swing Dance Revival,” I was interviewed by the local newspaper, The Argus. The reporter let me know that the “novelty” of my teaching a ‘50‘s variation of swing dancing was “cute.”
However, she also let me know that she was assigned to interview me, in spite of her wanting a more “important” assignment.
Her exact words? “The 1950‘s were quaint. People back then didn’t have to deal with anything important, not like the violence we deal with today. So, the art of that time reflects that.” (She didn’t give me any examples of what she was talking about. For her, anything from that time wasn’t “worth” knowing, even if some familiarity would have helped with an interview assignment.)
My interview for a local newspaper back in the 1990's. I'm grateful that I was able to get publicity, since it enabled my teen dance troupe to get much needed funding for vintage clothing to be used in performances, as well as practice space. However, during the interview itself, the reporter made it very clear that she didn't think much of 1950's youth culture, since, in her words, "It was too cute, too clean, too nerdy, and insignificant."
By the way, we're clearly not dressed in 1950's vintage clothing here for rehearsal. Our practice space was my backyard, in the hot, mid day sun!
Even more recently, before the pandemic, some “friends” of mine in the swing dance world tried to get me to go “contemporary.” There is a modern version of swing dancing called “West Coast Swing” that's done to modern music. I do respect it. (I guess.) But, my love is for dancing Smooth-Style Lindy Hop to vintage Rock n’ Roll.
My “friends” (and I use the term loosely), with a very condescending tone, told me, “Mike, you’re a wonderful dancer. But you’re stuck with that old stuff. It’s cute, but you can do so much better.”
I told them that there is indeed a market for vintage ‘40‘s and ‘50‘s dancing, aimed at college age students, but my friends shrugged and said, “Well, it’s cute. But it’s a bit too goody goody.”
Again, the derisive tone.
Since, prior to the pandemic, my classes were packed, I decided that any so-called “friends” who put down my art are friends that I don’t need. I don’t care how “well-meaning” their intentions are.
It’s a funny thing about human nature. We respect things that can kill us. We are attracted to things, or people, that are dangerous.
We certainly like things that are comfortable.
But comfortable things, generally, don’t excite us. Comfortable things, or people, don’t earn our respect.
Pop singers who have a reputation for being too “clean and wholesome” don’t get the same airplay or critical recognition that an artist who’s been through rehab and multiple arrests, do.
Sure, it helps if the musician in question actually has musical talent, but a bit of a “bad boy” aura certainly helps. (Remember Donny Osmond? If you do, it’s probably with a chuckle, and as a butt of a joke.)
Perhaps that’s why we’re fascinated with the mafia gangster, the outlaw biker, or the daredevil stunt artist.
Though they are all different and distinct from one another, they seem to be “free” of the rules of society that we sometimes wish we didn’t have to follow, but do, because it’s physically safe to do so.
That combination of attraction, revulsion, fear, and excitement can also be seen in dating.
We know the archetypes, “the bad boy,” “the femme fatale,” “the hot mess.”
Sure, there are “nice guys” and “good girls,” both of which are simplistic stereotypes that ignore the complexity of human beings, but they are convenient labels to illustrate the point.
The “good” (or responsible and mature) dating prospect isn’t as sexually “exciting” as the dangerous sociopath, at least when the two are compared in the media.
When we mature, we know to “run in the other direction” when encountering “the hot mess,” but that still doesn’t mean we aren’t attracted to that person. It only means that we’re more self-aware. For our own well-being, our mature selves resist our self-destructive instinctual attraction for the sexy sociopath.
“Simple,” “innocent,” and all of the other “wholesome” adjectives that are now currently in use to describe the youth culture of the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s make that time out to be “comfortable,” which is great, and maybe even necessary, as we grow older and both the world around us, and ourselves, change.
But unintentionally, that “simple and innocent” perception also makes that time, it’s art, and it’s history seem insignificant.
Nostalgia is the need to escape from the problems of today, but history is it’s polar opposite.
History is the study of people.
I don’t care if someone doesn’t like what I like. No two people are the same and no two preferences are exactly the same.
But, I am a fan.
Fans of sports teams hate it when “their” team is disrespected. (They’ll even fight for “their” team.)
Fans of certain fantasy or science fiction franchises hate it when “normies” (their term for the mainstream) dismisses “their” art form as unimportant. (As an example, fans of the DC comic book icon “Batman” will often get angry whenever the 1960‘s Adam West tv show is mentioned, because in their view, that show made “their” originally “dark” character an object of ridicule.)
That’s the reason for this blog. I’m a fan of 1950‘s Rock n’ Roll-era youth culture.
I want my obsession to be respected.
I’d rather have it be disliked for the “right” reasons, than "liked" for “the wrong” reasons. (And I know that’s both “anal” and makes no sense whatsoever.)
I’d rather someone tell me that she hates Rock n' Roll music because it’s “loud, noisy, aggressive, and sexually suggestive” (actual criticisms that Rock n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues artists faced during rock music's initial thrust into the mainstream during the mid-1950‘s) rather than tell me that she likes '50's "oldies" music, “because it’s sweet and wholesome, like the rest of that time.” (Where’s the fun in that?!)
If showing that the 1950‘s had just as many potentially violent and dangerous youthful criminals, that made their society look at questions of poverty, race relations, mental health, and street crime (just like we do today) seem “worthy” of being taken “seriously”....then (with a sigh) “so be it.”
If I can show that the issues that they struggled with back then are essentially the same that we still deal with today, and thus, still “relevant,” then let the perception, and myth, of an “innocent simple time” be done away with. (I should add that people my age are mentioning how the 1980s were “innocent and simple” times. That should annoy me too, but I’m not in love with “my time” the way I am with the 1950‘s!)
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of “digging” to make my arguments for this “respect by danger” for the years 1954 to 1962.
I would like to thank the following people and organizations, listed below, who helped me out in my research for this project:
Thanks to David Van Pelt, author of "Brooklyn Rumble: Mau Maus, Sand Street Angels, and the End of an Era." His website can be accessed at http://newyorkcitygangs.com/.
Stuart King who runs the “Juvenile delinquent vintage paperbacks! ( jd pulp for some )” Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/juveniledelinquentfiction.
The administrators at the “San Francisco Remembered” Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/remembered.
The staff at The San Francisco Main Library showed me how to access their various historical archives, for which much of the information in this blog is derived from. So a big thanks to them. Their website is at https://sfpl.org/.
"Sebastian" (for privacy's sake, no last name) at The California State Archives at https://www.sos.ca.gov/archives/ tracked down juvenile court documents and arrest records, dating all the way back to 1951.
The Aces Car Club of Bellflower, California at http://acescarclub.com was kind enough to grant permission to use their vintage photos, to contrast the difference between law-abiding hot rod car clubs of the 1950's, and fighting turf/street gangs of the same time period.
My good friends Dawn Ishisaki and former professional sportscaster and writer Ron Spain took the time to help proofread this blog for errors. There were many on my part, and considering the length of the blog, there might still be some around. We did our best to remove as many typos and inconsistencies, as possible.
And, I especially wish to thank Gary Jensen, Ben Choate, and Bay Area poet laureate and writer Patrick Coonen. All three gentlemen grew up in San Francisco during the late 1950's and early 1960's. As former teenagers of that time, they were also a part of the street subcultures that are the subject of this blog.
As leaders of their respect groups, their interviews were invaluable to this project.
I want to add that, of course, there were “good” kids in the 1950‘s. They indeed were the majority.
There are many law-abiding and considerate young people today, as well.
Since one of my jobs was to teach teenagers how to swing dance, I can say from personal experience that they are the majority, as well.
This blog is to show the diversity of that time. Experiencing both the "bad," as well as the "good," is the totality of the human experience.
It is my firm belief that if we hold on to the myth of the "innocent days" where "there was nothing serious, unlike what we deal with today," not only do we deny ourselves the opportunity to actually learn from the past, we also deny the existence of the victims of gang violence of that time (and there were many.)
We deny the efforts of the good people of that time, who honestly tried to make living in their communities safer and more productive for the residents of those areas. We deny the efforts, and even the existence(!), of the brave kids who stood up to their peers against violence.
And, we also deny the efforts of those gang leaders who actually tried to steer their clubs away from violence, and towards more constructive efforts (there were a number of them, as well, who "went social," as they called it.)
That myth of "innocent care free times" does not "protect" the reputation of that time. It takes away the voices of those who faced issues that we, as human beings, still struggle with today. (It also diminishes the achievements of those who actually succeeded in bettering their lives, since, if gangs were "nothing like today," in relation to the seriousness of their conflicts, then of course, those who successfully left gang life had nothing of significance to struggle against.)
Nostalgia, unintentionally, diminishes the importance of 1950's youth culture. And if that sounds as if I am actually agreeing with the kids who teased me about my '50's passion in high school, I guess I am (damn it!)
I ask, through this blog, if there is anything from our past that can give us insight as to who and where we are today.
Maybe we won’t have all of the answers.
But perhaps, we can start asking the right questions.
A bit of my non-delinquent, vintage rock n' roll and "clean teen" 1950's and early 1960's collection of vintage vinyl LPs and teen magazines.
Of course, there were good kids in the 1950's and early 1960's. (But, even they are inaccurately portrayed by "nostalgia." )
Dressed in appropriately 1950's/early '60's clothing for a dance demo at a senior center in Berkeley, CA in 2013. And no, I'm not dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, but the clothing is 1950's!
The young lady dancing with me was one of my former teenage swing dance students.
There is a subculture of young people who research and express their passion for the popular culture of the 1950's and early 1960's. Many of them collect memorabilia of that time, such as vintage clothing, vinyl LPs, and movies. Many of the girls get into pinup photography and vintage hairdressing, while many of the boys get into custom car restoration.
A good number of these young fans study swing dancing (which is how I became acquainted with them), and some are musicians who play vintage jump blues, jazz, western swing, or rockabilly. However, these modern fans are not into "nostalgic memories," nor the aesthetics that accompany the "Fifties Nostalgia" narrative. (In other words, you'll never see these young fans go to a costume shop to buy either a "Fonzie" or cheap plastic poodle-skirt costume for their '50's clothing.)
These young fans want the actual history, which embraces both the glamour, as well as the tragedy.
They want the complete story of 1950's youth culture, not the partial, incomplete, half-truths of "Fifties Nostalgia" embraced by the mainstream.
A word on the the structure of this "blog:" Most blogs are really online articles. This "blog" (and I deliberately put that term in quotes) is really more like a book, in regards to the amount of information, via text and pictures.
I've tried my best to divide sections into chapters, but unfortunately, Wix does not have the option of sectioning off or selecting individual chapters for blogs.
Therefore, readers who wish to reference or skip various chapters will have to do so by manually scrolling.
Individual chapters are separated by full lines.
Individual sections within chapters are separated by smaller lines.
Photos have their own captions, which are separate from the main text, and are also separated by smaller lines.
The captions underneath the pictures are distinct from the main text. To visually distinguish these captions from the main text, the captions will all be in italics. (Hopefully, this practice won't confuse readers, since, from time to time, some words in the main text, such as the names of periodicals, will also be italicized.)
I've also opted to create collages for some of the photos.
For those collages, the use of italics may not necessarily apply, but hopefully, readers will still be able to distinguish the text captions used in the collages from the main text, as the fonts will be different. Finally, in regards to legalities, I've done my best to ensure that the information is true to historical fact.
One thing that is different from today's news reporting, is that during this time period, the names of minors who were arrested for crimes were often printed. Obviously, we don't do that today. That said, with names printed, it was "easier" to confirm whether or not the articles themselves were reasonably accurate via California, Illinois, and New York archival court and police documents. (And those documents, which are available to the general public, do come with a fee, which I shouldered out of pocket!)
Those articles that did not have exact names listed for the accused will not be included here, since the validity of the articles cannot be verified.
Since this is a FREE read, intended for historical purposes for use by general readers, as well as specifically vintage lifestyle enthusiasts and historians (as well as any high school or college students who have to do a history report assignment), I invoke the "copyright disclaimer fair use" notice below, for the inclusion of historical newspaper and magazine articles: "Copyright Disclaimer under Section 107 of the copyright act 1976, allowance is made for fair use for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing."
"Diddly Bops and Jive Studs:"
There is confusion as to what defines “a gang” from the 1950‘s.
In the modern narrative, almost any group of 1950‘s-era teenagers that sported leather jackets or embroidered windbreakers belonged to a “gang.” This has added to the confusion, as well as the perpetuation of the “harmless and innocent” (or “quaint”) myth of some of the youth cultures of that time, when mistakenly describing actual 1950‘s street gangs.
Even people who would have been teenagers during the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s often use the term loosely to describe groups of teenagers from that time, that actually were distinct from what a “real” gang actually was.
As previously mentioned, statements such as the following, are quite common. “Gangs back then, at least the ones that I knew, never hurt anyone. They just liked wearing their gang jackets and working on their cars.” (I personally was told this on several occasions. When I showed issues of Life and The San Francisco Chronicle that contradicted that recollection, then the response was, “Oh, well I never heard about that. I didn’t hang around gangs. But, I was there.”)
A social club of teens, who organized dances and athletic events for their fellow teens in their community, and who wore windbreaker jackets with their club name embroidered on the back, are remembered under that term, and yet, this example clearly pertains to a non-violent and non-fighting “social club.”
Often, a person within the 70s to 80s age range, looking back to their pre-teen and teen years, can (and do) remember these “gangs” as “harmless kids.”
They’d be right in remembering them as harmless, but, mistaken in assuming (or “remembering”) that all, or most, “gangs” of “their time” behaved as benignly as these (mislabeled and miscategorized) teen social jacket clubs.
One example of a 1950’s teen social club would be “The Social Lions” (pictured below), a former fighting gang that, as their name obviously states, “went social,” thanks in part to the gang outreach organization The New York City Youth Board.
Prior to the intervention of that organization, “The Social Lions” had been a “real” fighting gang during their early history, under the name “The Knifers.” (That name should tell something about what they used to be like. Subtlety wasn’t exactly high on this particular groups’ list of priorities when they first chose their name.)
Source: Reaching The Fighting Gang, The New York City Youth Board, 1959.
Another type of jacket wearing organization of young people that existed during the 1950‘s were the car clubs, the “hot rod clubs,” that were popular throughout the U.S., but were especially prominent in Southern California, where dry lake beds and abandoned runways helped that subculture to grow.
These car clubs, which were also distinct from the fighting gang or “bopping club” (more on that term in a bit) sometimes dressed in an outwardly similar manner to the Hollywood stereotype of a “juvenile delinquent.”
Car clubs of the 1950‘s often consisted of young members, though, not exclusively teenagers. (Hot rodding had been around for decades, but the specific clubs that flourished in Southern California in the 1950‘s were actually started by returning World War Two veterans in the later half of the 1940‘s.)
Self-identified “hot rodders” also, occasionally, had run-ins with the law, due to the practice of street racing.
Hot rod club organizers however, sought to “clean up” the image of hot rodding in the public mind, and would work with law enforcement to curb illegal street racing. The National Hot Rod Association, for example, cooperated with law enforcement towards that end.
However, hot rodders, whether they were actually members of the car clubs, or not, were often perceived by the general public, at that time, to also be “juvenile delinquents,” due to street racing fatalities and the resulting, unwanted, police attention from rogue members, acting in defiance of the official policies of the clubs.
Unlike the fighting street gangs that existed at the same time, legitimate car clubs (such as The Aces Car Club of Bellflower, California, with their club jacket pictured below, as being one example) were generally benign, generally law abiding, youth hobbyist organizations, at least when compared to the "bopping clubs" (street gangs who fought over turf) of the inner cities.
Source: The Bellflower Aces Car Club website at http://acescarclub.com (Picture is used with permission.)
Adding to the confusion for the mainstream (adult) public of that time, was the younger members’ of the car clubs use of the same, or at least comparable, slang colloquialisms, which were based on the slang of African-American Jazz musicians. (In short, they “talked” like gang members.)
Obviously, car clubs were concerned about the artistic aesthetics of their cars (if they were custom clubs) or how much initial speed they can get out of a specialty car that was worked on (if they were involved in hot rodding and drag racing.)
Was there occasional “crossing over,” as in an individual being a part of both car culture and fighting street gang culture? Yes. I interviewed one gentleman who was a part of both. However, that gentleman made it clear that he was a part of both subcultures, and that the two were distinct.
I’ve yet to find any evidence in my research that a Southern California custom or hot rod club, as a formally organized group, engaged in “rumbles” over “turf,” though I have found evidence of drive-by shootings by actual 1950's Los Angeles gangs who used fast cars. (But of course, their cars weren’t exactly hot rods used for drag racing. They were used for “getting away.”)
That acquaintance who looked back with vague fondness for the Southern California car club that she remembered as “a gang” was (sort of) “correct” in assuming that the “gang” she remembered was “harmless.”
However, this blog is not about “social clubs” nor “car clubs.”
Our specific focus is on the “bopping clubs,” the fighting gangs that formed the real-life basis for the fictional “juvenile-delinquent” of Hollywood movies, such as “West Side Story” or “Blackboard Jungle.” (The latter movie, though a personal favorite, does have a street racing scene where hot rodders knock over another car, nearly injuring Glenn Ford and Ann Francis. The movie itself was about youth gangs terrorizing teachers in an inner-city high school, and the implication was that hot rodders and genuine gang members were practically indistinguishable.)
Before we define what a gang is however, we should briefly touch on why certain kids, in certain areas of the U.S. during the period immediately following the end of World War Two, joined or formed fighting street gangs.
Once we understand that, then it’s easier to define what a gang exactly “is.”
“When I look back on the days that I was with the gangs, I remember those young men who cared about how they looked and who had a great deal of honor and ethnic pride.” -
Nestor Llamas, former member of The Simpson Street Boys in an interview for the History Channel documentary “Gangs: A Secret History.”
Source: The San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1959.
1956 Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency. The hearings from two years earlier are covered later in this blog. However, the 1956 hearing, and it's results, are referenced in a blog from The Center On Juvenile And Criminal Justice's website.
Click on the picture of the hearings' report above to access that blog (after you finish reading mine, of course!) *On a personal note, this 1956 report is much more reasonable and "sobering" than the one from two years earlier. That 1954 report will be covered later.
School has always been hard for certain kids. It was true then, and it’s true now.
A child or teen could be a highly intelligent person, with a genuine desire to learn. But if he or she has a learning disability, it’s difficult to keep up in a group class setting, where learning is often tailored to the group, as opposed to the individual.
If a student is a recent arrival, and struggles with the English language, that student could also be highly intelligent, but still have a hard time keeping up.
In the 1950‘s, recognition of certain learning disabilities in the public school system was non-existent.
If a child or teen had dyslexia, he or she was out of luck, because the condition simply wasn’t recognized at that time. I personally worked with a senior citizen who had dyslexia. Relating his high school years between 1959 to 1962, he stated, “It was hell. They put me in with the retarded kids!”
Bilingual education was not in place until 1958.
Prior to that year, if a student was newly arrived from Puerto Rico, he or she was also out of luck. (I should add that Puerto Rico has been an American commonwealth since 1898. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and have been since 1917. Arguments about “Go back to your own country if you don’t speak the language,” which were directed at Puerto Rican migrants by some bigoted individuals during this time period, is absurd, in my opinion.)
Teachers in Northern cities were not supposed to act discriminatory towards students based on ethnicity. But often, during the 1950‘s, some teachers behaved in ways that would be referred to today as “culturally insensitive.” (And honestly, some were just outright bigoted.)
One African American youth gang leader, who actually scored high on i.q. tests, related in an interview with Lewis Yablonsky (author of "The Violent Gang") that his home room teacher often singled him out for assignments that were beneath him. This would be an example where individualized attention in a group class setting was actually not wanted. With a feeling of being “talked down to,” he found another outlet for his high intelligence, by becoming a leader or “president” of a youth gang.
Kids who joined inner-city gangs in the 1950‘s came from working class families. Usually, they were the descendants of either immigrants (examples being Irish or Italians, who also faced bigotry upon their arrival a generation before), or the children of migrant, working class families who were recent arrivals from one part of the U.S., into another, and were seeking employment.
Some were the children of the previously mentioned Puerto Rican migrant families. “The Great Migration” of Puerto Rican working class families occurred in the late 1940‘s and early 1950‘s.
Puerto Rican workers sought mainland employment, after the economy on the island switched from agriculture based on sugar production to factory-made exported goods and high-end tourism.
Jobs on the island became severely limited during that shift. A growing population didn’t help. Puerto Rican workers were encouraged to migrate to New York by certain mainland politicians as a “source of cheap labor.”
For close ups, click on each picture.
The August 25, 1947 issue of Life covered the influx of Puerto Rican migrants into New York City, in the wake of "Operation Bootstrap," the shifting of the island's economy from sugar-based agriculture to manufactured exported goods and tourism.
Puerto Rico itself is an unincorporated territory of the United States. So, as noted, Puerto Ricans were, and are, American citizens. The title of the article correctly avoided the use of the word "immigrant," as that would be inaccurate.
Many African-American families, leaving the Jim Crow segregated South, migrated to Northern cities such as New York, Chicago, and Oakland to work in the munitions factories during World War Two.
Of course, they ended up staying in those cities when war production ended. They continued to seek employment, often with frustration, with the hope of a better life than what they previously experienced in the segregated South.
Segregation may not have been “legal” in New York, at least, not in the same way that it was in places like Birmingham, Alabama, but, as pointed out in the June 26, 1956 issue of Look magazine (pictured below), segregation and discrimination were very common in the North in actual practice, if not on paper.
Look magazine covered unofficial segregation in Northern cities with this article, "Jim Crow Northern Style." Segregation in the North may not have expressed itself in the form of signs stating "colored only" or "white only" as displayed in the South, but as shown in the article, in actual practice, many qualified African-American professionals were denied access to jobs and homes that they would have had, if they were of European descent. Denial of service to African-Americans in restaurants, hotels, and other service areas was also common, if technically "illegal," in the North.
* In addition to the story on Northern racial discrimination, this issue of Look, cover dated June 26, 1956, also carried a story on the then-"controversial” teenage fad for rock n’ roll music. (That separate article addressed concerns about the music’s possible “influence” on juvenile delinquency, a subject that will be explored later in this blog.)
Puerto Rican and African-American working class families found themselves “hemmed in” in the inner-cities, and often in competition for jobs, living space, and resources, both with each other and with Irish and Italian-Americans, who themselves had also faced bigotry.
Irish and Italians may have been “white,” but they (generally) were also Catholic, with distinct cultures that often separated “them” from mainstream society.
For close ups, click on each picture.
The marginalized of American society: Separated and excluded from opportunities in the "legitimate" world of the mainstream, their children were susceptible to joining, or forming, street gangs in the years following the end of World War Two, and into the 1950's. Top, left to right:
Anti-Irish propaganda by the Ku Klux Klan, 1926.
Ku Klux Klan Anti-Italian and Anti-Catholic propaganda, circa 1920's.
Americans of Irish and Italian descent may have been European, but they were often treated as second-class citizens, and viewed with suspicion (due to their practice of the Catholic faith) by the American mainstream. Bottom, left to right: 1943 debate over the repealing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
1955 coverage of the previous year's (1954) "Operation Wetback," in which approximately 1,074,277 Mexican migrants, many of whom were actually U.S. citizens, were "deported" back to Mexico.
As an example of this “difference,” when John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, in addition to his youth, another aspect that many Americans found “unique” or even “novel” (and for some, “offensive”) was that he was an Irish Catholic American president.
On the East Coast, the primary, though certainly not exclusive, ethnic makeup of the teenage street gang was Italian, Puerto Rican, African American, and Irish.
Their ages generally ranged from 14 to 18.
The Fordham Daggers and The East Harlem Red Wings (Italian), The Mau Maus and The Egyptian Kings (Puerto Rican), The Chaplains and The Sportsmen (African-American), and The Jesters and The Norsemen (primarily, though later, not exclusively, Irish) would have been examples of 1950‘s teen gangs from New York.
The violent, and often fatal, conflicts of these specific gangs would garner national attention in the pages of The New York Times, The New York Daily News, and Life magazine. United Press International would also cover their stories, which would be reprinted in various local newspapers around the country.
Sources: UPI/San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, and Life, September 7. Both articles are from 1959.
On the West Coast, along with Italian, Irish, and African American, the ethnic composition of teen gangs also included both the children of Mexican immigrants and the children of Chinese-American working-class families.
Los Bandidos, Los Gavilanes, and The Latin Quarters would have been examples of primarily Mexican-American youth gangs during that time, with the first two from San Francisco, and the last from Los Angeles.
Los Gavilanes, a mixed Mexican-American/Puerto Rican gang of teens, would figure prominently in local headlines in The San Francisco Chronicle, both for “rumbles” with other teens, as well as a December 7, 1958 robbery and assault of a 63-year-old retired army sergeant in the Fillmore District, allegedly committed by four of their members. (And, in all fairness, when Las Gavilanes decided to "go social" and renounce violence, they also explained to both The San Francisco Chronicle, and the youth outreach program "Youth For Service," about the motivations and reasons for the rivalries of the various gangs, including their own.)
The Latin Quarters gained both local, and national, notoriety in the pages of The Los Angeles Times, and The United Press International, in 1957. Their feud with The Florence Gang (also Chicano) resulted in several deaths, including a confirmed, "accidental," drive-by shooting of an 18-year-old girl.
The Lonely Ones were an example of a primarily, though not exclusively, Chinese American gang out of San Francisco, many members coming out of Galileo High School, where they apparently had a skirmish with The Junior Jokers, a mixed working class youth gang, sometime between 1958 and 1959. The Lonely Ones are mentioned in several issues of The San Francisco Chronicle. Like Los Gavilanes, they are featured both for alleged violent crime, as well as for working with Youth For Service.
The Savoys would be an example of a 1950‘s African-American teen gang out of San Francisco, specifically Hunter’s Point, where their confirmed, violent encounters with other youth gangs, such as The War Demons, gained local attention in several issues of The San Francisco Chronicle between 1958 to 1961. Another 1950's-era African-American teen gang out of the Bay Area would include The Sheiks, who's club jacket is pictured below, in the gallery of West Coast youth gangs of the 1950's and early 1960's.
For close ups, click on each picture.
West Coast Mobs...'50's Style:
California, particularly San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, had it's own teen gang culture that was comparable to, though also distinct from, that of New York. San Francisco street gangs, however, garnered more local, rather than national attention, though the Bay Area had it's own share of shootings, stabbings, beatings, and robberies committed by minors, as reported in The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. (And I should add, backed by existing court documents provided by The California Archive.) Los Angeles, however, did receive national coverage in late 1957, with the drive-by shooting death of 18-year-old Emily Guzman (see both the chapter on "Weapons," as well as the end chapter on "Barts and White Shoes" for more in-depth information on both California street gangs, and teen gun violence, in the 1950's, respectively.)
A teenager in an inner city, who generally didn’t do well in school (for a variety of reasons), and came from a working-class family, could be a likely candidate for gang membership.
An inner-city teen whose family was not only financially struggling, but also had to deal with racial discrimination, could also, potentially, consider joining a gang.
A boy who lived in a single parent household in the inner city, because his father had been killed during World War Two or The Korean War, or had abandoned the family due to financial struggles, could also find a sense of “meaning” and “belonging” in a street gang.
And of course, a kid who simply needed protection from bullying by a gang in a crowded and impoverished inner-city neighborhood would find protection by joining a rival gang.
These were rough kids in a rough environment.
If school couldn’t, or wouldn’t, allow these kids to feel a sense of accomplishment, or belonging, the gang could.
The gang also represented a way for these impoverished kids to gain prestige.
In an environment where financial prospects were few and far between, a sense of self-importance by displays of courage during violent conflicts was one way for a young man to prove his “manhood,” to display that he had “heart.”
Nestor Llamas, who had been a member of a 1950's-era Puerto Rican youth gang known as "The Simpson Street Boys," related these feelings for the History Channel’s documentary on gangs.
Llamas stated, “I felt that I was a part of something bigger.”
In the end, a lot of these kids joined gangs because they were poor, and gang fighting, at that specific time in their lives, was a way for them to show that they mattered.
In the introduction, I mentioned the 1962 book, “The Violent Gang,” based on studies with New York youth gangs. I am bringing it up again, because of it's title.
Though an excellent resource, I think a more accurate title could have been “The Prestige Gang.”
Prestige, their “rep,” along with a sense of belonging, were the main reasons why these kids joined the gangs.
“Rep” and proving that they had “heart” (courage and loyalty) for their “brothers” (fellow gang members) were what these kids fought for. And they fought for the protection of their “turf,” the few square blocks of their neighborhood that was “their” territory to “protect” from “invasions” from other gangs. Sometimes, those invasions were real, as when kids from other neighborhoods would come in to physically assault the local kids either for “kicks” (fun) or to steal from them.
They were all poor kids who had to literally fight for what little resources were available.
To them, “turf” and “rep” were all that they had, and they often died in defense of both.
This map, detailing the "turf" of various New York gangs, appeared in the June 15, 1954 issue of The New York Daily News. The map was actually incomplete, as there were many more gangs in the area that were not listed here.
Walking The Walk And Talking The Talk -
(The quote was derived from a line in a June 1921 Ohio newspaper describing a watchmaker who gave the impression of being a brave hero.)
Glossary of New York gang slang, from the 1959 handbook "Reaching The Fighting Gang," by The New York City Youth Board, a gang outreach organization.
Youth gangs of the 1950‘s, like any teen subculture, had their own language, style, rituals, and even mindset.
The language of 1950‘s youth gangs was a combination of phrases inspired by African-American based Jazz and Rock n’ Roll music colloquialisms, as illustrated above.
These were mixed in with World War Two-era inspired terminology. (Perhaps “bastardization” or “corruption” might be a more accurate description for the colloquialisms used by these gangs.)
From African-American music culture, the terms “bopping” or “bop,” as well as “swinging,” “swing,” and “jitterbugging,” all terms that originally referred to partnered swing dancing based on the Lindy Hop, became terms used in inner-city gang culture to signify “fighting” (and various forms of fighting, at that.)
One thing that we should get out of the way now is the term “gang.”
During this time period, “gang” or “gangs” was a term used by the adult mainstream (the press, teachers, parents, religious leaders, politicians) as well as “straight” teens who were not a part of gang culture.
The gangs themselves hardly ever used the term “gang.”
They usually referred to themselves, and each other, as “clubs.” (As related earlier, this has led to confusion between these gangs and the similarly attired teen social clubs and car or hot rod clubs.)
To signify their distinction from clubs that had gone “social,” the fighting gangs referred to themselves as “bopping clubs.” For our purposes, and for most of the remainder of this blog, the New York inner city youth gangs that engaged in intergang conflict for the “protection” of their “turf” (area that the gang members claimed as “theirs”) shall now be referred to as “bopping clubs.”
Alternatively, San Francisco-based fighting gangs shall usually be referred to as “jacket clubs.” These distinct terms are locally based.
New York gangs of the 1950's often referred to each other in press interviews as “bopping clubs,” but I have not found that term used in interviews with San Francisco-based youth gangs of the same time period. I have found instances where San Francisco gang members, interviewed by the gang outreach program “Youth For Service,” referred to each other as “jacket clubs," though another term that they often used was "Barts."
That term, along with "White Shoes," both of which referred to distinct sub-cultures of Bay Area 1950's teens, is explored in depth in the chapter on "Barts and White Shoes," near the end of this blog. A third subculture of 1950's teen street culture from San Francisco, "Muns," is also mentioned in interviews, but further information was unavailable at the time of this writing. Pachucos, a sub-culture of Latino teens, left over from the 1940's "Zoot Suit Riots" era, did continue in both Los Angeles and San Francisco into the 1950's, and that is also explored further in the end chapter on San Francisco gangs.
The slang terms sampled above from The New York City Youth Board’s handbook are primarily examples from the influence of African-American music culture.
The military-influenced terms used by the bopping clubs include the notorious (and racially inspired) “jap,” which refers to a surprise raid by a few members of one club into another clubs turf. The idea was to get in quickly, cause as much physical damage to a rival club’s members in ambush fashion, then get out of the turf quickly before getting caught. The term is obviously a reference to the raid by Imperial Japanese air and naval forces upon the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, which propelled America’s entry into World War Two.
The term is confirmed by Nestor Llamas in a History Channel interview for the documentary “Gangs: A Secret History,” and is included in the excerpt below from Harrison Salisbury's 1957 non-fiction book "The Shook Up Generation" (and to add authenticity, it was later used in Evan Hunter's fictional "A Matter Of Conviction," published in 1959.)
Source: "The Shook Up Generation," Harrison Salisbury, 1957.
Other military influenced terms used by the “bopping clubs” included references to “squads” of different distinctions (“suicide squads,” “garrison belt squads”) and “divisions.”
Structure of the New York-based bopping clubs were along pseudo-militaristic fashion, with grandiose sounding titles that elevated the status of these working class adolescents. “President,” “vice president,” “war lord,” “war counselor,” and “emissaries” were just some of the examples that can be found in the press, court documents, and gang outreach notes. It was very common for these kids to introduce both themselves, and each other, to adult authorities by their titles in the clubs.
These “official” titled introductions would both amuse, and shock, law enforcement, the press, and local officials when these kids’ names were given in official contexts. (Judge Irwin Davidson, presiding over the Michael Farmer murder case in 1957, was taken aback when 16-year-old murder suspect Louis Alvarez, under oath, referred to himself as the “warlord” of the allied Egyptian Kings and Dragons clubs.)
The "Look," Street-Wise "Fashion Sense" in the 1950's Gang World
Click on each photo below for close ups.
Garrison belt ad, 1957, part of a "Mess Sergeant Play Set."
Bottom, left to right:
Bates shoes ad, 1959.
Chino tapered-style pants ad, 1957.
Boy's hat ad, 1959. Source: Newspapers.com.
The “uniforms” of the gangs gave unity and furthered their sense of belonging, both to the bopping club, and to the street culture.
Of course, there was the Hollywood stereotype of the leather jacket, blue jeans, t-shirt, and motorcycle boots, made famous by Marlon Brando in 1953‘s “The Wild One,” and also worn by the fictional “Wheels” gang led by Corey Allen in the James Dean vehicle “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955.)
Some boppers certainly did dress in that manner.
Angel Luis Velez, the teenage “author” of the threatening letter, sent to the Spanish-language New York newspaper El Diario, promising a gang "war" on the New York Police Department if members of The Egyptian Kings and Dragons were prosecuted (and executed) in the Michael Farmer case, is seen wearing that style in the 1958 photograph pictured below in the gallery.
However, like most “nostalgic” recollections of the 1950‘s, the popular stereotype of the leather jacket and blue jeans overshadows a much more diverse and varied reality. The Marlon Brando Hollywood-inspired look was simply one, of many varied ways that members of bopping clubs dressed.
Some boppers dressed very “stylishly,” with tapered slacks (such as Chinos, pictured below), dress shirts, thin ties, and overcoats. Central Harlem African-American bopping clubs of the mid-1950‘s even took to wearing grey flannel dress suits, in imitation of the similarly dressed “Madison Avenue Mad-Men” (as featured in that AMC historical drama.)
A fedora or stingy brim hat, with sunglasses, finished that “high classed gangster” look.
Bopping clubs who sported a “high class” fashion sense (that was completely the opposite of the Hollywood jeans and leather jacket stereotype) included The Viceroys, The Robins, The Young Stars, The Beavers, The Tiny Tims, and The Brownsville Black Hats.
There actually were two Hollywood movies from this time period that accurately portrayed this alternative “sharp” fashion sense. The first was 1959's "Cry Tough," starring the late John Saxon and Linda Cristal, and the second was 1961‘s “The Young Savages,” both of which will be covered in the later chapter on "JD" movies and novels.
Garrison belts were a popular, and functional, fashion accessory. The buckles were often sharpened and used as weapons when swung. (Hence the term “garrison squad,” which were “units” of club members specifically armed with these belts.)
Chino pants were (and still are) a straight leg trouser that are pegged at the bottom. They were popular with teenage boys of that time, both by members of the bopping clubs, as well as by the "civilian" non-gang teens. Boppers liked the tapered or "pegged" slacks and trousers for their “stylish” look. Other boppers took to the (cheaper) slim Levis for the same reason.
Big Ben trousers were also a favorite brand of pants in the 1950's, particularly in San Francisco. Members of the embroidered jacket wearing gang culture of San Francisco that most resembled the Hollywood stereotype of the "juvenile-delinquent" were referred to as “barts” during this time, and the wearing of Big Ben trousers was one way that they were identified by that term.
Bates floaters also emphasized a fancy “sharp” look, in regards to footwear, which contrasts to the stereotypical motorcycle boots (which some boppers did indeed wear, especially for "stomping," kicking an opponent when he's down.) Bates floaters, on the other hand, were made of soft leather. According to Ed Bielcik, a former member of The Sinners, they were "Lousy for stomping...great for running like hell!"
Bopping fashions served a psychological and a practical function.
As the children of the working class, dressing stylishly announced to the world that they “made it” and that they were important (at least within the context of the gang world.)
Also, in some cases, sharpened articles of clothing, such as the garrison belt, were actually used as weapons.
Even the stereotypical leather jacket served a functional use for the bopping club, a use that was lost on the upper-middle class teens who later, as a fad, imitated and appropriated the look as a mild form of “rebellion” against the adult world.
Apparently, these black leather motorcycle jackets deflected knife cuts.
The Hollywood stereotype of "The Juvenile Delinquent." Marlon Brando popularized the look of the leather jacket, jeans, and motorcycle boots in 1953's "The Wild One." Actually, he played a young adult leader of a biker gang, loosely based on an incident, blown out of proportion in the press, that occurred in Hollister, California in 1947. Though the character of "Johnny" wasn't a teenager, teens quickly adopted the "uniform" of the leather jacket and jeans in imitation of the film as a sign of "rebelliousness." This included both middle class teens who wanted to "look tough" (but weren't really "gang members") as well as, occasionally, members of real "bopping clubs." (From my personal collection.)
The fad by 1950's-era middle-class teens for dressing up like a juvenile delinquent "rebel" in order to "look cool" was nothing new, or even exclusive, to the 1950's. (There are upper-middle class teens today, who both dress up, and affect the speech pattern, of inner-city hip-hop culture.)
However, as we'll see later, this "posing" and appropriation by the youth of the middle class often confused, and even frightened(!), many adults, particularly authority figures, during the 1950's. The black leather jacket and blue jeans worn by Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and James Dean’s opponents in “Rebel Without A Cause” were also, occasionally, worn by middle class teenagers, as a fad inspired by the movies.
These were teens who never formerly belonged to a true bopping club (i.e., a teen organization that patrolled their “turf” and engaged in “rumbles.”)
However, since these were what mainstream adults, at that time, perceived to be the clothing of the bopping club, many adults in positions of authority were convinced that “juvenile delinquency” was a threat, seeping out of the inner-city, and into their middle-class suburban neighborhoods.
Simultaneously, those upper middle-class, non-gang teens (who appropriated one aspect of clothing worn by bopping clubs) experienced their parents’ or teachers’ “paranoid” fears, and, into their adulthood, “remembered” the “irrational hysteria” of juvenile-delinquency of the 1950‘s, especially in connection to rock music culture.
In other words, both the adults and teenagers of the upper middle-class mistook, and overestimated, the significance of the surface aesthetics of gang culture, in their own ways.
This is one reason why, if talking to most individuals in their 70‘s or 80‘s today, assuming that they grew up in either affluent neighborhoods, or at least, away from inner city “slum” areas, will often say, with moral authority, that the “juvenile delinquent hysteria” of the 1950‘s was “all hype.” They are essentially remembering the then-adult world’s reaction to their own mild form of “rebellion” in music and clothing.
However, that still doesn’t explain how they can forget the actual inner-city gang tragedies that captured national headlines at that time.
One senior citizen in my fitness class who I spoke to stated that “we didn’t read the news back then.”
However, a quick glance at the letters section of teen magazines of that time period (‘Teen, 16, Hepcats, Seventeen, etc.) show that the middle-class teen readers of those magazines, at least, certainly were familiar with the gang conflicts from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that garnered national headlines.
As previously mentioned, boppers took much of their slang from African American jazz and rock n’ roll music culture.
They also took much of that “cool,” “hip,” (or "bad") attitude as well.
That mindset was reflected in "The Bop Walk,” a way of walking that displayed bravado, a “hip” attitude. "The Bop Walk" showed how "bad" a bopper was, while also saying “I don’t give a fuck.” (Exact quote.)
The modern mainstream “nostalgia” approach to the 1950‘s looks back, vaguely, at “cool” with a fond, “innocent” remembrance. That sanitized look at “Fifties cool” forgets, or intentionally leaves out, the cold, aggressive mindset that always implied a threat, a promise of physical assault, without hesitation, at the slightest insult to a gang bopper’s “manhood.”
That threat was not always limited to fists, as some nostalgics assert.
Ramon Serra, a leader in The Egyptian Kings, shot 17-year-old Michael "Pee Wee" Ramos, one of the witnesses called by the state in the Michael Farmer killing.
It was discovered, however, that the killing was based on Ramos’ having given a "disrespectful,“ dirty look to Serra, and had nothing to do with the case.
As for "The Bop Walk” itself, it was an expression of that “cool” mindset that took no disrespect, whether real or imagined (and to the unfortunate and fatal "lesson" for Michael Ramos.)
"The Bop Walk" was done slowly, chest out, hands down and slowly swaying back, with the chin up, eyes in an almost half closed “sleepy” look, and sometimes accompanied with a slow, grinding or chewing action with the teeth.
While walking slowly, the feet moved in a steady, almost musical rhythm.
Some modern day “gang bangers” affect this walk today, though they no longer have a name for it.
In a way, “The Bop Walk” is similar to the “chest puffing” that some young men do when challenging each other. Perhaps, “The Bop Walk” was a way of challenging the entire world inhabited by the bopping club.
He was a "bad dude."
20-year-old Ramon Serra (mistakenly printed in the UPI article above as being a "16-year-old triggerman") is hauled away after shooting 17-year-old gang rival Michael "Pee Wee" Ramos with a shotgun for giving him "a dirty look." Apparently, Serra's 14-year-old girlfriend aided the police in his capture. (Perhaps he was a little too "bad" for her taste!)
One thing that can be said for Serra, he kept his "cool" in front of the cameras as he was being charged. (He even managed to smile for the press.)
To say that "juvenile-delinquents" of the 1950‘s did not engage in the types of mass shootings as today’s disturbed and violently criminal among the young would be “correct,” but it should be noted that public access to assault weapons was not yet in existence in the 1950‘s. (For example, the AR-15 was developed in the late 1950‘s, but civilian manufacture and use wouldn’t come until 1964, past the timeline of our focus.)
Bopping clubs of the 1950‘s did engage in shootings, both of the “drive-by” type, as well as “up close and personal.” Ramon Serra's 1958 shooting of Michael Ramos was only one example of a relatively common occurrence.
18-year-old Emily Guzman was shot down during the Quarters/Florence gang war in East Los Angeles in 1957. (That incident is included in the earlier gallery a few chapters before this one, titled "West Coast Mobs...1950's Style.")
Like Guzman, 15-year-old Theresa Gee was also "accidentally" gunned down during the Sportsmen/Forsyth Street Boys gang war that occurred in New York's Lower East Side in the summer of 1959.
17-year-old Raul Baruchi of The Untouchables gang was shot down during a 1959 three-way gang war between The Untouchables, The Latin Gents, and The Viceroys.
An example of a teenage gang shooter who garnered local notoriety in the press of his area would be 14-year-old Clement Macis of Chicago, Illinois. Upon his arrest, he admitted to firing a shotgun at his gang rivals from a speeding car during the summer of 1955.
Clippings and articles of those incidents, via Newsbank, are included in the gallery below (click on each image to enlarge.)
David Van Pelt, author of "Brooklyn Rumble", notes that the article above is in error regarding the weapon used in the shooting. Rather than being an altered toy rifle, it was in fact, a Remington Nylon 66 .22 caliber rifle. These details are according to Assistant D.A. Reynolds, identified by NYPD property clerk voucher No. 59419394.
Visit David's site (and buy his excellent book!) at http://newyorkcitygangs.com/?page_id=2481.
However, the most "famous" (or infamous) of specifically youth gang members who engaged in gun violence would probably be 19-year-old Robert Arthur Ranson, 1952's "San Francisco Civic Center Shooter" (as some headlines dubbed him) for wounding three and killing two members of a rival gang with a .45 Colt automatic, following an annual dance in San Francisco's Civic Center. Sentenced to life at San Quentin after the state initially asked for the death penalty, Mr. Ranson bears the dubious distinction of being the only San Francisco Bay Area "juvenile-delinquent" to gain national "recognition," as he was included in a January 27, 1953 article in Look magazine titled "Teenage Killers...Who's To Blame?"
Below are samples of the articles on Ranson's case. Samples include two local San Francisco Bay Area articles from the summer of 1952, featured in The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner respectively, as well as the issue of Look magazine, the following year.
"(As a kid) I remember crouching behind the hedges that bordered the plaza at that time. And I think I remember a .45 auto being found about 50 feet from where we were. Several ambulances arrived pretty quick. They only had to go about a half block to Central Emergency. Happened so fast. We got out of there pronto. I always remember those two girls going to the action. Even at our early age, I was scared for them. But....it was typical of them. Not sure either made it to my age." -
The statement above was by Phil Ward, former San Francisco police officer, who, as a teenager, attended the 1952 Butcher's Ball, the scene of the shooting incident committed by Robert Arthur Ranson.
Firearms that were favored by the bopping clubs included shotguns and hunting rifles, .22 caliber pistols (often obtained at nearby military surplus or munitions dumps, either through back alley deals or theft), as well as the infamous “zip gun,” homemade or machine shop-made contraptions which utilized car aerials or door bolts, and were often as deadly to the shooter, as well as to the intended target, due to the inferior materials and lack of rifling. (The picture below is from a 1959 article in The Boston Globe.)
Other improvised weapons that were used included home-made knuckle dusters fashioned from garbage can handles, various sticks and pipes, baseball bats, and chains.
According to Patrick Coonen, president of The Junior Jokers club out of Candlestick Cove in San Francisco, a “Sunday bar” was a popular weapon among Bay Area clubs. It was a round cylinder made of steel, manufactured, like the zip gun, at school machine shops (when the teacher wasn’t looking.) It was an impact weapon that had the same effect as brass knuckles.
As previously mentioned, sharpened Garrison belt buckles, swung from the belt, made for a whip-like, cutting weapon. Garrison belts were also used, in some clubs, as part of the initiation into the clubs. This was related to Lewis Yablonsky in interviews with members, under testimony during the Michael Farmer murder trial, and is separately mentioned in Harlan Ellison’s semi-autobiographical work “Memos From Purgatory.”
Close up on each article below for close ups.
Stylish And Practical (Practically Deadly), The Garrison Belt:
The garrison belt, previously mentioned and pictured in the chapter on gang style, also served as a weapon. The buckles would be sharpened to razor's edge and swung from the belt. The sharpened belts were so effective as weapons, that New York City officials and law enforcement sought to ban them.
Source: The New York Daily News, August 26 and 27, 1957.
One exceptionally frightening weapon that the boppers of New York used was a molotov cocktail, a lighted piece of cloth embedded into the opening of a bottle of vodka or some other alcoholic drink, or a bottle filled with some sort of flammable liquid. Some boppers would throw these and other crude incendiary “devices” at each other, such as during the Assassins/Sinners gang war of late summer 1959.
However, the one weapon that has become identified with 1950's-era street gangs is the switchblade knife. The switchblade became iconic, and it's association with the 1950's "juvenile delinquent" was made famous in Hollywood “JD” films such as 1955‘s “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without A Cause,” as well as the 1957 Broadway play (and 1961 movie adaptation) “West Side Story." The switchblade, however, was not the only edged weapon utilized by the gang bopper.
Other edged weapons that they used included the gravity knife (the blade coming out with a snapping-down-of-the-wrist motion), bayonets (again, obtained from nearby military surplus and munitions dumps), machetes, and bread knives. (15-year-old Michael Farmer was actually stabbed with a bread knife during that 1957 murder, while being hacked with both sharpened garrison belts and chains.)
Since teenagers who joined or formed 1950's bopping clubs were from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, their weapons reflected the improvised nature of their arsenals.
Unlike the adult gangster of 1920's Prohibition-era Chicago, who obtained automatic weapons (the Thompon's sub-machine gun) via bribed or blackmailed government contacts, teen gang members of the 1950's, lacking those resources, had to make do with whatever they could get their hands on.
In a lot of ways, their weapons are comparable to what modern day prisoners create while incarcerated.
The Iconic Weapon of The '50's "Juvenile Delinquent," The Switchblade Knife:
Dating back to the 19th Century as a utility knife, it was adopted by inner-city gangs due to the fact that they were relatively cheap to purchase, widely available at the time, and can be easily concealed and drawn quickly.
Newspapers, such as the above excerpt of an article from the March 28, 1954 issue of The Brooklyn Eagle, covered New York state laws that were enacted to prevent the sale and distribution of switchblades.
A “fair one” was an agreed-upon, one-on-one, bare-fisted encounter, with one member from each club specifically chosen to represent each side.
To this end, bopping club members often had some sort of hand-to-hand fight training.
In the 1950‘s, martial-arts instruction books, such as Josh Cosneck’s “American Combat Judo” could be purchased via mail order from comic book ads.
Frank Smith, a 1960‘s American tournament karate champion and contemporary of Chuck Norris, stated in the January 1984 issue of Black Belt magazine that as a teenager in the 1950‘s, he started learning karate to give him an edge during gang fights with rival Los Angeles-area Latino gangs.
Rusty Kanokogi (born Rena Glickman), a pioneer in women’s judo, had been exposed to the martial art and combat sport while leading the debs auxiliary to The Apaches out of Coney Island. However, the favorite combat sport of the 1950's bopping club member who wished to gain proficiency in fighting skill was, undoubtedly, boxing.
Boxing lessons were a popular attraction for boppers who (ironically) participated in “anti-gang” athletic activities provided by YMCA-sponsored outreach programs, which are pictured in the gallery below. Boxing champion Floyd Patterson, who ran with a bopping club in the early 1950‘s, gained his initial training via such a program.
Combat sports were popular in the 1950's and '60's, though the existence of strip mall, chain studios for martial-arts instruction was still in it's infancy.
For close-ups, click on the articles below.
Training For A "Fair One": Various news articles between 1956 and 1957 regarding inner city boxing and general sports programs (with boxing included) for teens. Also included in the gallery is a YMCA inner city judo program for teens, as well as a comic book ad for Josh Cosneck's "American Combat Judo," authored in 1944, but still available for mail-order purchase well into the 1950's. (Martial-arts based book instruction via comic books were aimed specifically at pre-teen and teenage boys.)
Sources: Newspapers.com and comicbookplus.com.
Lewis Yablonsky, author of 1962‘s “The Violent Gang” (as mentioned earlier, a reference source for much of the New York gang information), relates that when he ran his gang outreach program in the mid-1950‘s, one of the major attractions for The Balkans and the rival Villains was the weight lifting program.
Weight lifting as an activity for members of a club was also mentioned by author Harlan Ellison in his semi-biographical work “Memos From Purgatory.”
Boppers often had no compunction about using numbers to take down a victim, but to assume that they were “cowardly” as the main reason for the tactic would be incorrect.
Also, though it would be absurd to assume that all boppers had formal fight training, to assume that they were all “ill trained hoods” is also a mistake, as the training was there, and often free of charge. Though certainly, many of them did not take advantage of the services offered by a qualified boxing or judo coach, a number of them (with Floyd Patterson and Rena Glickman being the most notable) did.
Boppers were “brave” in the physical sense, and often, they had the physicality to “back it up.”
The following definitions of the different types of gang fighting is repeated from an interview with “Duke,” leader of The Balkans, as told to Lewis Yablonsky during an interview conducted sometime between 1954 to 1955, and printed in his 1962 book, "The Violent Gang."
Additional information is outlined from issues of The New York Daily News, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and interviews with former members of individual Bay Area clubs.
Interested readers should also read Eric C. Schenider’s “Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings (pictured below, next to "The Violent Gang") and David Van Pelt’s “Brooklyn Rumble” (which can be purchased by clicking on the title.)
Stomping: A spontaneous attack by a small group of members, 3 or 4, on one person. What makes this type of attack unsettling (well, all physical attacks by their nature are unsettling to begin with) is that the victim doesn’t have to be from a rival gang. He (or she) could be an innocent bystander, such as 23-year-old Julio Ramos, who was beaten to death in New York’s Jefferson Park by the Red Wings in 1958. Sometimes, the victim of a “stomping” could even be a member of the same gang, presumably, one who was at the bottom of the pecking order.
Japping: As previously mentioned, to “jap” was to launch a quick, surprise, raid into enemy “turf” (territory) conducted by a small number of members, again, either 3 or 4 at most. The idea was to get in and out quickly, and to inflict as much damage, without getting caught. The word itself is a racially derived euphemism, referencing the Pearl Harbor attack by Imperial Japanese air and naval forces on December 7, 1941.
Bopping: A skirmish, or spontaneous clash between two gangs who may not necessarily be “at war” with each other. The numbers can be small or large. An analogy from the mainstream, “straight” world would be an armed military border skirmish between two countries that aren’t necessarily at war with each other. "Bopping" is an example of a slang term appropriated by the gangs from then-contemporaneous music culture, since the term itself was used by mainstream teenagers (the ones who had no connection to street-gangs whatsoever) to signify dancing to Rock n' Roll music.
Rumble: The most famous of all 1950‘s-era gang conflicts, made famous in “West Side Story.” This is a formal battle, with as many members of each club present. Prior to the rumble, rules of engagement would be formally outlined and negotiated between leaders of each club, usually by the “warlords,” under supervision of the “presidents” and “vice presidents” or “second in command.” The formal battle could be with or without weapons, and usually took place at parks (Prospect Park in New York was a “popular” site) or any place that was least likely to attract attention by the authorities, such as under highway overpasses or alleys. Summer was when the occurrence of rumbles seemed to increase in New York. (According to Patrick Coonen, Sundays were favored days for rumbles in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
* Additional term, not sourced from Lewis Yablonsky's "The Violent Gang," but rather, sourced from an interview with Percy Pinkney, president of the San Francisco fighting gang The Aces (not to be confused with the Southern California hot rod club from the same time period), as quoted from the November 21, 1959 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle -
Rat Packing: "When a group of youths from one gang 'jump' one or two members from another 'club.'" (Exact quote. That article is included in it's entirety in the chapter on gang motivations and origins, "Ratpacking," earlier in this blog.)
In regards to the terminology listed above, and the slang mentioned throughout the blog, it is important to remember that much of it is regional.
"Rat packing" is a term that was used by 1950's gangs in San Francisco, but in all likelihood, was not used in New York.
Conversely, "japping" was a term used by members of New York "bopping clubs" in the 1950's, but that term would have been unfamiliar to San Francisco "bart" and "white shoe" street teens of the same time period.
"A Matter Of Conviction":
Front and back covers to the 1961 reissue of Evan Hunter's (Salvatore Lombino's) 1959 novel "A Matter Of Conviction." This reissue was a tie-in to the movie adaptation, "The Young Savages," released as a "test" by United Artists to gauge movie audience's interest in teen-crime themes for films, as that company's adaptation of "West Side Story" was due out later in the year.
See the chapter on the Hollywood image of street gangs, later in this blog, for more information. (I will also be doing a retrospective on "The Young Savages" on my You Tube channel. Updates on that upcoming project can be found on that channel, by clicking on the picture of the novel above.)
From my personal collection.
In Evan Hunter’s 1959 crime novel, “A Matter Of Conviction,” when referring to a time before official conflict with a rival Puerto Rican gang, an Italian-American gang leader tells the investigating district attorney, “What, do you think, we fight all the time? Man, don’t you think we got anything better to do?”
Members of bopping clubs certainly didn’t fight all the time.
Lewis Yablonski mentioned one gang member who would come to the club hangout of The Balkans (located in a small abandoned tenement cellar) just to get some sleep. Apparently, this teenager would be “hassled” at home by his abusive father, and would get kicked out of hallways and parks when simply trying to rest. The club hangout actually gave him a chance to lie down, undisturbed.
Bopping club members joined to release anger and to “prove” themselves in high stress, physical confrontations. Gang outreach workers knew this, and attempted to channel the member’s varying degrees of physical prowess into athletics. Baseball, basketball, and (of course) boxing were popular sports activities among bopping club members.
One personal annoyance that I have with the 1978 movie “Grease” (and I have many annoyances with that particular show) is that it implies that bopping clubs were not only opposed to athletics, but were even incompetent at them. (For instance, John Travolta’s “Danny Zucko” is completely unfamiliar with baseball, which is absurd, considering that baseball was a personal favorite sport among inner-city gang members of the 1950's.)
In reality, athletics were generally a very familiar and popular past time among boppers.
Patrick Coonen, who I interviewed for insight into San Francisco jacket clubs, had set the city’s 440 relay track record in 1958 at Kezar Stadium. This was during the time that he was also the acting club president of The Junior Jokers.
David Van Pelt noted that members of The Mau Maus also excelled at both baseball and boxing.
As boppers were often (though not exclusively) run along ethnic lines, athletic superstars of the time period, of specific ethnic backgrounds, were often “heroes” to the boys.
“Sugar” Ray Robinson was an example of a boxing hero to African-American boppers, while Rocky Marciano had the same role model function to Italian-American boppers. The same would have been true of baseball stars of the time, such as Willie Mays and Yogi Berra.
The exploits of all four athletes are pictured and briefly described below, in the gallery.
Sports Heroes Of The 1950's: Top, left to right: Rocky Marciano and his victory over Archie Moore, Willie Mays, "Sugar" Ray Robinson and his victory over Gene Fullmer, Bottom, left to right: Yogi Berra, Boxing champions Lauro Salas, "Sugar" Ray Robinson, and Floyd Robinson featured in the October 1957 issue of 'Teen Magazine in the article "Unheralded Sports Heroes," about professional athletes, particularly boxers, who began their training as teenagers.
Of course, "regular" teenagers of the 1950's who had no association with street gangs whatsoever, admired sports stars. (So did many adults!) However, male professional athletes, especially from boxing and baseball, were particularly admired by members of the bopping clubs. Many gang members came from broken homes, and so the professional male athlete became a role model, a surrogate father figure, even if from a distance. Baseball (in the form of "stickball") was a popular past time among street kids, and boxing, a combat sport of course, asserted male dominance and ideals of masculinity. Success in athletics was also one of the three ways to escape the slums and "hit it big." (The other two were show business, which will be touched upon in a bit, and of course, and unfortunately, crime, for which being a part of a gang was a sort of "junior training.")
It was only natural that when youth outreach programs sought to attract inner-city teens away from gangs, one of the biggest draws that they had were sports programs, including those that focused on baseball and boxing.
There was one curious side effect of athletic activities, sponsored by community gang outreach programs meant to curb gang violence. Members of clubs who may have been initially low along the social hierarchy in their club could elevate their club status, within the context of athletics.
Conversely, if a leader was terrible at a game (if he couldn’t play baseball or basketball very well), he could lose status among his own members, at least, within the context of an athletic gaming event.
Besides athletics, music culture was popular among boppers, as it was among most teenagers of this (or any) time period.
Rock n’ Roll particularly the subgenre of “doo-wop,” the vocal group harmony sound epitomized by falsettos and base vocalizations with choruses of syllables that were, admittedly, “nonsense” (hence the term), had a particularly close relationship to the bopping clubs.
Whether on the East Coast or West Coast, street corner doo-wop singing was a popular past time. (Patrick Coonen related how his Junior Jokers of San Francisco's Candlestick Cove would engage in street corner harmony at their hangout, a cafe called Gus and Mary’s.)
It was in New York, however, where doo-wop was first developed, and refined, to an art form.
Ben E. King, of the latter iteration of The Drifters, once related that in his neighborhood, "kids either fought or sang."
There are two particularly famous examples of bopping club members who turned street corner doo-wop singing into successful professional careers.
The first would be Anthony Gourdine, “Little” Anthony of The Imperials, who’s hits included “Tears On My Pillow” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop.” His prior gang affiliation was with The Chaplains.
The second was Dion DiMucci, who’s group hits with The Belmonts included “I Wonder Why” and “Teenager In Love.” When he went “solo” (backed up by The Del-Satins), he continued his musical success with “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” “Donna The Prima Donna,” and many others. Prior to his musical success, he was a member of The Fordham Daggers.
Anthony Gourdine, former member of The Chaplains street gang, escaped gang life and found success as the lead singer of one of the most iconic doo-wop groups of the early Rock n' Roll Era.
Initially, Gourdine's singing career was as a member of The Duponts. However, he found his greatest success not long after leaving The Duponts, as the lead singer of Little Anthony And The Imperials.
Their 1950's hits included "Tears On My Pillow," "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop," and "Two People In The World." In the mid 1960's, at the height of "The British Invasion," when most former teen singing stars of the 1950's and early '60's were bumped off the charts by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks, Little Anthony And The Imperials, after having broken up and reformed, charted again with "Goin' Out Of My Head," "I'm On The Outside Looking In" and "Hurt So Bad."
For close ups and info, click on each photo.
Arguably, the most successful former gang member, turned singer, of the early Rock n' Roll era would be Dion.
Dion Dimucci is a rock n' roll icon.
His hits include "I Wonder Why" and "A Teenager In Love" (with The Belmonts) as well as "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue," "Love Came To Me," "Lovers Who Wander," "My Lonely World," "Lonely Teenager," "Little Diane," and many others as a "solo" artist (actually, backed by the excellent Del-Satins.) In the autobiography above, he described his friendship with Buddy Holly, and his subsequent survivor's guilt over not being in the same plane as his friend during the February 3, 1959 tragedy that took the lives of Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
His struggles with drug addiction (heroin), for which he was introduced, at the age of 14, while also running with The Fordham Baldies, and later, The Fordham Daggers street gangs (the "Baldies" being the younger, "junior division" of the Daggers) is also discussed in his autobiography. (He also mentioned how many of his friends in The Fordham Daggers, tragically, did not live past their teens. Such was the reality of inner city gang life.) The book is currently out of print, but it is (in my opinion) an excellent read, and is available used on various purchasing sites.
All of the above are from my personal collection.
Rock n’ Roll also figures importantly in this history, due to the confusion from certain, highly vocal, elements of the mainstream adult world regarding the causes of "juvenile delinquency."
Gang culture, the culture of the boppers, took elements from African-American music culture, for which rock n’ roll, originally based on jazz and blues, is a part of.
The slang, and the modes of dress and hairstyles, of law-abiding rock n’ roll performers (well, reasonably law abiding when compared to gang members, anyway) and their fans (mostly law abiding) was, on the surface at least, similar in appearance to the gang bopper.
In other words, not only did "good" (upper middle class) teens and "bad" (inner city teens who belonged to street gangs) often "look the same," but, because of the rock n' roll/African-American influenced "style" (the slang, the fashions) they often "talked the same.” For an adult, who by design was an outsider to the teenage world, yet, in a position of authority, it was often difficult to distinguish between what made a "good" and "bad" teen.
That is not to excuse authority figures of that time from their over-reactive behavior (such as the Boston police's harassment of teens and performers at the 1958 Boston Arena concert put on by Alan Freed.) But it does at least, partly explain the 1950's adult world's panic and hysteria over "juvenile delinquency" and the (vague) connection to Rock n' Roll music.
Part of an article from the May 6, 1958 issue of The Boston Globe, covering the incident at the Alan Freed "Big Beat" rock n' roll concert.
* Refer to the chapter later in this blog "Seduction of The Innocent and The Devil's Music" for further details on the concert, as well as the anti-rock controversy, based on fears of juvenile-delinquency.
There were other non-fighting, every day activities that occurred when boppers “hung out.”
One non-fighting activity that boppers engaged in was actually a series of verbal sparring games known as “ranking” or “capping,” as well as “playing the dozens.”
As previously stated, the majority of the slang that these gang kids, the bopping clubs, used was taken from, or based on, aspects of African-American culture.
Whether, Puerto Rican or Chinese, these kids engaged in these verbal “games” as a way to show how clever they can think on their feet, without losing their temper. These verbal games also helped establish a subconscious hierarchy, dominance in a verbal fashion, that was irrespective of physical dominance. A kid who could rank could think faster and gain respect, even if he wasn’t necessarily a physically adept fighter.
And it all came from African-American culture.
For example, it wasn’t unusual for an Irish-American bopper, who’s club might even have been engaged in rivalry with an African-American gang, to engage in “capping” with a “brother” member. This would involve humorous attacks at each other’s appearance or clothing, or some peculiar habit that an individual had.
Clever ranking would often involve rhyming one’s insults. If this sounds suspiciously like rap music, it should be pointed out that the roots of rap and hip hop culture go back decades, long before it’s mainstream popularity in the 1980‘s. (On the subject of 1950‘s youth culture, the East Coast disc-jockey and emcee Douglas "Jocko" Henderson, the self-proclaimed “Ace From Outer Space” would rhyme his intros, without insults of course, to Rock n’ Roll concert acts that he hosted.)
“Playing The Dozens” was more specifically African-American (less common in the white, Latino, or Asian clubs) and it survives to this day by the mainstream term “yo mama jokes.” Obviously, these were humorous jokes meant to insult another’s mother. The stated sexual practices or physical appearance of the verbal opponent’s mother were common themes. Though keeping one’s temper in check was assumed, often, that aspect would be breached, and a fight between two members of the same club would ensue if the kid on the receiving end of the dozens had a mother who was terminally ill, abusive, promiscuous, struggled with substance abuse, or was negligent.
Graffiti marked a bopper’s territory or turf, while also giving a (sort of) artistic everyday activity.
The everyday activities of boppers were, like fighting, designed to assert dominance and to establish “rep,” the very reasons for joining a bopping club.
The Name Game...
Club names reflected these working class kids’ desire for status elevation.
Names with “royal,” “knights,” or titles such as “barons” or “dukes” were common.
Some names were taken directly from history. One example of a gang that followed this pattern for naming themselves would be The Balkans.
This club didn’t even have a formal name when they were arrested in June of 1955 for attempting to engage in a rumble with the rival Villains on the grounds of Columbia University.
At the station, they were asked to give the name of their club. They couldn’t give one, since none existed, yet. (They weren't even a formal club!) The reporting officer informed them that they “had” to have a club name to write down in his report. One member then shouted out “The Balkans!” That member told Lewis Yablonsky that he had thought of it on the spot. To him, the name was appropriate, because the kids in his neighborhood, constantly bullied and harassed by the invading (and numerically superior) Villains, were similar to The Balkan States of the early Twentieth Century, fighting the numerically superior Ottoman Empire. (Ironically, the reporting officer's demand for a formal name of this previously loose alliance of neighborhood teens may have actually contributed to their organizing into a group that was even more prone to illegal and violent activity.)
Popular culture also supplied names for clubs.
The 1960 western remake of Kurosawa’s 1954 chambara “Seven Samurai,” “The Magnificent Seven,” provided inspiration for a Hunter’s Point club out of San Francisco, who took the name as their own, when they were engaged in a 1961 feud with the rival Savoys club, covered in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Nicknames, meant to subconsciously elevate status, were also common. “Little King” (Jose Ramos), “Little Magician” (Edward Henry Jones Jr.), and “Count” (Ervin Cotten) are examples. These were the names, and nicknames, of the boys who were arrested for The Michael Farmer Murder in 1957.
Proving one’s “manhood” and male identity was the main reason for joining a bopping club.
Gary Jensen, who grew up in San Francisco in the late 1950‘s, recalled in a phone interview, “It seemed that every guy wanted to test each other out and prove how tough he was.”
To this end, defending not only "turf" (territory), but one’s own sense of "manhood" manifested itself in physically violent ways.
Prior to the late 1960‘s, homosexuality was considered a form of deviancy, a sign of mental illness. That view wasn’t exclusive to the professional psychological community. It was a view shared by the whole of society.
“Fag bashing” was a common practice by New York and Chicago bopping clubs. One former Chicago gang member, now an expat living in Vietnam who teaches English, had told me of his regret at the practice.
One way to “bash” was for one physically attractive member to lure known homosexuals with the practice of a sexual encounter. Once brought to the destination, the other members would ambush the victim and beat him mercilessly. Sometimes forced penetration with a stick would be used.
David Van Pelt related in his book how members of The Mau Maus once forced a homosexual “to blow” them. Afterwards, they, in their own words “beat that fag bastard within an inch of his life.”
One story related by Lewis Yablonsky involved a member of The Villains nicknamed “Frenchy,” who used to enjoy bullying members of his own club by wrestling them to the floor and beating on them. He enjoyed physically dominating them. He would then remark about how those boys were “faggots” and how they “would eat it.” Years later, after Yablonsky had lost contact with The Villains, one of them actually approached Yablonsky while the former was waiting for his train at the subway. The latter turned out to be "Frenchy," the boy who years before, enjoyed bullying his fellow Villains while accusing them of being “faggots.” Apparently, "Frenchy," now a young man, had become a male homosexual prostitute.
Defending masculinity also manifested itself with an outwardly stoic appearance. Showing emotional vulnerability was “weakness.” Weakness was something to be destroyed or weeded out.
Ironically, many boppers were so concerned about not appearing to be afraid, that they actually were afraid of showing fear to their peers. Some members of the group that attacked Michael Farmer and Roger McShane testified that they went along, so that no one would think that they were “punking out.”
Obviously, an emotionally vulnerable member could be a potential liability in a harsh environment, especially if arrested.
Initiation into the bopping club, the fighting gang, was often a way to weed out such “weakness.” Running through two rows of boys armed with sharpened garrison belts was one such initiation, related by both Harlan Ellison and Lewis Yablonsky.
Dion, the early ‘60‘s hitmaker of “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” fame, related the initiation of The Fordham Daggers in his autobiography. “I had to take punches to my gut from the whole club and not wince.”
A “squealer” was someone to be despised, or even killed. If one was wronged, he was expected to handle it by himself, without intervention, or aid, from the authorities. If he was attacked by a group from another club, however, that was different. He could call on his own club for backup.
But he could never turn to the authorities.
Roger McShane, who survived the attack at Highbridge Park, faced daily threats in order to prevent his testimony for the Michael Farmer case. To the members of The Egyptian Kings and Dragons, McShane, who was not a gang member, was unworthy of living. He was a “squealer” and if he talked, he deserved to die, because he wasn’t “a man.” (His testimony of course, was also a practical threat to the club.)
McShane, after weeks of daily threats told his mother, “If I die now, it would be worth it, so that other people can live here.”
After the bullying and death threats, McShane proved himself to have courage, of a different sort.
It wasn’t the physical courage that the clubs aspired to.
It was the kind of courage that most members of the clubs themselves, following a strict adherence to a narrowly defined code of masculinity, and "honor," frowned upon, and looked at with disdain.
Source: Life Magazine, February 24, 1958 (From personal collection.)
“Manliness,” or at least the peculiar expression of masculine identity embraced (and fiercely protected) by the bopping clubs defined how a bopper related to the girls in their social circle.
New York fighting gangs had a sort of girls’ auxiliary, referred to as “debs,” a corruption of the word “debutante.”
Sometimes they hid and carried the weapons the boys used in fight. The reasoning was that the police would be less inclined to suspect young women of carrying weapons. However, as related in the June 16, 1959 issue of The New York Daily News (pictured below), the authorities eventually caught on to the ruse.
Often times, the debs had to provide sex to the boys, which was included as part of the initiation rituals of some clubs.
Harlan Ellison related that the second part of his initiation for joining The Barons was to engage in sex with his assigned deb. (The first part of the initiation was running through two lines of boys armed with sharpened garrison belts.)
Ellison, though young at the time of his research, was already an adult when he went undercover, while his deb was still a minor. In his book, Ellison leaves it vague as to whether or not intercourse actually occurred.
Usually, debs were assigned by the club president, as to who they were to be with. An accompanying mock “wedding” followed, which was officiated by the club president, and witnessed by the rest of the members.
The subculture of the bopping club had very strict rules that both mocked, and mirrored adult mainstream society. The codes of conduct expected of the debs were often very rigid and unforgiving. A deb who failed to live up to her “obligations” to the club could suffer physical assault, gang rape, and even permanent maiming, if she “stepped out” on “her man.” Again, “her” man was chosen for her by the club. In a supreme case of irony, usually these girls adhered to these "rules," even if they despised the boy assigned to them, since it gave them a sense of belonging and familial structure that they often lacked at home.
Females were often seen in terms of “good angels” or “whores” by the males of the bopping clubs, with a young woman’s individuality as a human being rarely taken into account.
There were exceptions, of course, but Eric Schneider related a story of boppers who bullied a girl who they considered to be “easy,” because she became pregnant after having had sex with one of the boys. Daily taunts and rhyming insults were what this girl endured at school and in the neighborhood.
One of the bullies was the father of her child.
The Golden Spike...
Source: September 29, 1956, San Francisco Chronicle.
The relationship between drug use and 1950‘s-era youth gangs will be briefly explored in this chapter.
I’ve heard and read many remarks from individuals, who were teenagers during that time, that “Drugs didn’t exist when we were growing up. We never even heard of drugs until the late 1960‘s and the hippies!”
Of course, these are the same individuals who also stated (with moral authority) that "gangs of the 1950's never seriously hurt anyone" or perhaps, didn’t even “exist” during "their" time. These are people who, upon closer inspection, later admitted that they were sheltered from much of the street culture during their adolescence. There are of course, other individuals of the same age group who have taken me aside, and have quietly told me, “There definitely were drugs back then, Mike, but some folks tend to get really upset when we admit that.”
The reality is that drugs did “exist” in the 1950‘s, long before use by the hippies, a decade later. (Habitual and recreational narcotics use goes back centuries, but that’s beyond the focus of this blog.)
However, when comparing the relationship between drugs and 1950‘s-era youth gangs with today’s gangs, and their relationship with drugs, in most examples, there are some differences.
Modern gangs fight over drug sales, as a violent form of marketplace competition.
Inner city 1950‘s-era youth gangs, generally, fought over “turf,” or territory. Their conflicts were more about “protecting” what was “theirs” from rivals. (I hope readers don't interpret that motivation as supposedly being "more gentle than today.” After all, some 1950's gang members were willing to kill for their territory.)
Their relationship to drugs was less a business, than a sign of “decline.” (This of course, is minus the sale of marijuana by some individual members, decades before legalization.)
Gang members of this time period (or more accurately, former gang members) got into drugs, specifically heroin, as they “grew out” of the “need” to “prove” themselves by fighting, but, were unable to prove themselves in the “straight” adult worlds of the job market, the military, or in professional athletic or artistic endeavors. (Those who found career success in the last two categories would have been the rare individuals who “made it” in sports or entertainment, such as boxer Floyd Patterson for the former, or singer Dion DiMucci for the latter.)
In the same inner city neighborhoods where bopping clubs/fighting gangs flourished, there existed a distinct, separate street culture of drug use where heroin was prevalent.
The 1950‘s inner city drug culture took much of it’s affectations from African-American jazz, in almost identical ways that gang culture did.
The famed be-bop jazz musician, Charlie Parker, “Bird” to his fans, was a particular role model, and "hero," for this subculture. “Bird’s” death in 1955, from a heart attack, was due to his decades of alcoholism...and an addiction to heroin.
There was indeed some overlapping between the subculture of the “junkies” or “hop heads” (postwar drug addicts) and the bopping clubs (the fighting gangs.)
Dion Dimucci, the rock n’ roll doo-wop teen idol of “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” fame was an example. In his autobiography, he related how he had been introduced to heroin at the age of 14. And as previously mentioned, he had also been a member of The Fordham Daggers during this same time period, which was prior to his musical success with The Belmonts.
However, as already stated, the “junkie” and “the bopper” were from two distinct subcultures, and often, in opposition to each other.
A curious phenomenon occurred as gang outreach programs often succeeded in eventually putting an end to gang violence, while unfortunately, failing to address the underlying issues that caused inner city gang violence in the first place.
Gang boppers who grew older usually “grew out” of the “need” to “prove” their manhood by fighting. Those that didn’t, or couldn’t, get jobs (usually low paying menial labor) ended up getting involved in the “junkie” drug culture.
The thinking of the “junkie” was that gang fighting was “kid stuff.”
On the other hand, boppers, though occasionally indulging in “weed” or “reefer” (marijuana, of course), generally stayed away from heroin. Someone like Dion was the exception, not the rule.
And this is a generalization.
There is evidence of at least one youth gang from this time period who did have a street drug operation that dealt in the sale of heroin. (Whether or not this club's individual members indulged in the actual use of their product is a separate matter.) This bopping club, later identified as The Hawks out of the Red Hook District of New York, are pictured below, in the March 20, 1952 issue of The Brooklyn Eagle.
If the depiction of (most) gang boppers seems “heroic” for "keeping junk off of their streets," keep in mind that a heroin addict was unreliable in a gang fight.
Not only was he physically weaker than an athlete, the “junkie” was more likely to spend his time seeking out the source of his next “fix,” rather than showing up for a prearranged rumble. His "loyalties" were to his addiction, and not to the club.
It’s ironic that the two subcultures, within close-proximity to each other, and sharing a mutual distrust, were actually “related.”
As stated, former boppers who couldn’t make it in the “straight” adult world often became junkies.
The junkie subculture, with it’s affectation for jazz, sometimes merged with the growing Beat Generation, the subculture of young adults who were artists, poets, and jazz musicians in the postwar period.
The Beat Generation, derisively referred to in the San Francisco press as “beatniks” were the precursors to “the hippies” of the late 1960‘s.
Drug addiction, of course, is not a viable solution towards gang violence (any more than gang violence would be a cure for drug abuse!)
But considering that were some gangs, such as the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the African-American Vice Lords (both of whom were from Chicago), who evolved from being turf fighting "bopping" gangs to activist organizations that addressed community social issues, it is interesting to see how some members of ‘50‘s-era street gangs became involved in the despised drug culture.
That '50's-era drug culture became absorbed by The Beat Generation.
In turn, "The Beats" influenced the "hippie" culture of the late 1960‘s, which of course, is the youth subculture that is remembered today for the use of "mind expanding" drugs (specifically LSD.)
Ironically, one of the goals of the hippies was to bring attention to the very social conditions of poverty and racial intolerance that spawned the street gangs of the 1950‘s in the first place.
The recreational use of marijuana, by teens, was a subject that was frequently explored in the news, in novels, and in certain "juvenile-delinquent"-themed movies from the 1950's. (The 1958 teen exploitation cult-classic "High School Confidential!" is an example of the latter. Movies of that subgenre are covered in the later chapter in this blog on the Hollywood image of juvenile-delinquency on film.)
Unlike heroin (which actually is a highly addictive and destructive drug), the ill effects of "The Devil's Lettuce" was greatly exaggerated by Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Most historians agree that his anti-"weed" campaigns during the 1930's were primarily based upon issues of race and economics, rather than any genuine threat that cannabis posed. Those issues go beyond the scope of this study (and this study is already pretty long!)
However, it should be noted that the exaggerated effects of "weed," established during the Great Depression, continued to be portrayed for decades, and well into the 1950's, with "the message" specifically aimed at teenagers.
The 1953 article shown above, involving Asian-American teens who "puffed away," reeks of sensationalism (and laughably so!)
However, it is an example of the changing perceptions of marijuana throughout history. It is of particular interest, as it concerned a drug raid that occurred in California, where, decades later, it's use would become legalized.
Above: Musical star John Raitt, a supporter of the San Francisco gang outreach program "Youth For Service," volunteered his time to have lunch with the presidents of The Warlords and Los Gavilanes (along with other clubs in attendance.)
The event was covered in the February 7, 1959 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle.
The reactions of the “straight” mainstream adult world towards inner city gang violence were polarizing, and at opposite ends. They often were in heated opposition to each other.
Local politicians and city officials both contended with, and conversely, worked alongside with, local community gang outreach programs. (Politicians' responses were often dictated by public opinion, especially around voting time.)
Both the officials and the outreach workers acknowledged that poverty, mental health, and issues of race relations were causes of “delinquency,” while they also focused on curbing the immediate symptoms of gang violence, by either providing sponsored youth activities (sports instruction and competitions, as well as social dance events), as well as gang mediation or “peace talks”...or completely cutting off funding to the aforementioned activities in favor of a “get tough” policy of mass arrests and stiffer court punishments.
The gang outreach programs obviously favored the former, “positive” approach.
Examples, as covered in the press, were the Quaker-sponsored Youth For Service program out of the San Francisco Bay Area, the gang outreach program on Manhattan’s Lower East Side independently run by The Reverend C. Kilmer Myers, and The New York City Youth Board, who were so active in their gang outreach programs, that they were even referenced in a line of dialogue from the 1957 stage play (and 1961 movie) “West Side Story.”
The 1958 editorial pictured above was inspired by, and makes reference to, the murder of a 26-year-old South Korean student, In-Hoh Oh, by members of a teen street gang, at The University of Pennsylvania on April 28, 1958, the night before. The tragedy was punctuated by the family of the victim actually requesting the South Korean government to lobby the U.S. government for leniency of those accused, due to the family's Christian beliefs. (In that regard, their reaction was similar to Robert Young Sr., the father of one of the victims of Salvador Agron the next year, who also asked for leniency for the murder of his son.)
One of the relatives of In-Hoh Oh, David Oh, a member of the Philadelphia City Council, has kept the story alive, as one of forgiveness.
Note the cartoon's reference to "molly coddling," a derogatory term used by those who opposed gang outreach, and favored a more harsher or "get tough" policy towards dealing with street gangs. Click on the picture of the editorial to read one of many online articles on the tragedy.
City officials, the police, and some church officials tended to go “back and forth” in their support of such outreach programs, and when funds were cut in favor of mass arrests and stiffer sentences, they, of course, were the ones who either favored, or were responsible for such approaches. (Curiously, youth gangs tended to look upon gang outreach programs’ interest in street activity as a sign of “honor.” To have The New York City Youth Board or San Francisco’s Youth For Service mediate in inner city gang conflicts displayed to the mainstream, and the gang world, that the clubs had “made it.” They were “important” enough to warrant attention.)
Above: February 1, 1959 article from The San Francisco Chronicle, written by Tom Benet. The interviews were conducted with members of Los Gavilanes, as well as with Carl May, the head of Youth For Service. Youth For Service's outreach work with the various San Francisco street clubs, specifically with Los Gavilanes, is outlined. (Of additional interest is the descriptions of the "Bart" and "White Shoe" subcultures. Those two subcultures will be explored in detail in the chapter, towards the end of this blog, on San Francisco youth gang culture, which includes interviews with former Bay Area club presidents.)
Both approaches had their various levels of “success” and “failures.”
However, as a result of the “Fifties Nostalgia” craze of the 1970‘s, which has now colored how the majority of Americans today “remember” the 1950‘s, both approaches listed above, as well as the specific gang outreach agencies listed (Youth For Service, The New York City Youth Board, etc.) have been largely forgotten, except within the context of historical inner city youth crime research.
Instead, it is the reactions of certain high profile politicians, whose focus was on popular media’s influence on juvenile delinquency that was remembered by the mainstream during the “nostalgia craze” and, for the most part, what is primarily remembered today.
By far, the most famous of the gang outreach community activists would be David Wilkerson, the young country preacher who traveled to New York after reading about the murder of Michael Farmer in the pages of Life magazine. His experiences served as the basis for the book "The Cross and The Switchblade" (pictured below) which in turn was made into both a stage play and a movie, starring Pat Boone as Wilkerson and a pre-"Chips" Erik Estrada(!) as an updated leader of The Mau Maus.
Sources: Star Gazette, August 1, 1958 (news item) and personal collection (novel.)
The Shook Up Generation or The Luckiest Generation?
At the beginning of this blog, World War Two’s effects on both the American economy and society were touched on. The war had signaled the end of the Depression and the beginning of an economic postwar boom for the middle-class, the majority of Americans, while also disenfranchising, and even breaking up the family unit, for low-income families.
The children of the postwar middle-class, enjoying the boom, were featured in the January 4, 1954 issue of Life (pictured below), and were referred to as “The Luckiest Generation.”
At around the same time that Life and similar publications reported on that “Luckiest Generation,” growing crime rates among youth in New York and other urban areas garnered attention.
These of course, were the bopping clubs, the fighting gangs that are our focus here.
The press, as well as congress were concerned with the reports of the gang fights, and the resulting stabbings and shootings among inner city youth.
Genuine humanitarian concerns (such as those by the aforementioned New York City Youth Board and Youth For Service) were combined with bewilderment, and political embarrassment.
This was the height of The Cold War.
The United States and Russia were embroiled in a bitter rivalry, played out on the world stage.
America was, supposedly, the leader of the free world, and the world’s richest country. How could slum conditions still exist in this supposed “time of prosperity?” Why were young people killing each other in the streets?
Russian propagandists and political figures asked if this was the price of capitalism. They also pointed out that many of the children of the poor, who were dying, were people of color. It wasn’t lost on the Russians that children of color were also being kept out of high schools in the South, despite The Supreme Court’s decision ruling segregation as unconstitutional. On the world stage, during the ideological “Cold War” between Russia and The United States, it seemed, at least to some nations, that American democratic ideals smacked of hypocrisy.
Above, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), Russian premier from 1958 to 1964 (our Cold War opponent on the world stage!), visits the US, and sees, and says, all that (he felt) was "wrong" with capitalism, as covered in this 1959 issue of Life magazine.
Below, The September 17, 1956 issue of Life magazine was just one, of several issues, that covered high school desegregation in the Deep South.
The most well remembered example occurred in 1957, at Little Rock Arkansas' Central High.
After much violent unrest from mobs (including physical assaults upon reporters covering the story), as well as from interference by Governor Faubus, President Eisenhower ordered the 101 Airborne Division to escort, and protect, the civil rights of nine black teenagers, in enforcement of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board Of Education ruling.
Dubbed "The Second Civil War," Central High was placed under martial law on September 25, 1957.
Life magazine samples are from my personal collection.
For credibility within the international community, as well as for altruistic reasons, American leaders felt that quick, immediate solutions had to be found. (Here in the U.S., the fear of communism, “The Red Menace,” was the one national phobia that superseded the fear of juvenile-delinquency.)
The press of course, jumped on the crisis, bringing attention to rising inner city crime rates, because violence and tragedy made for great copy. (And to be fair, if they didn’t pay so much attention, this blog wouldn’t have the sources listed and posted here!)
There were reporters and editors who did seem to genuinely care about the disaffected youth, and reported fairly. (In my opinion, Life magazine was one of those responsible periodicals.)
There were also (middle-class) parents who read the reports and were fearful that what was happening in the inner cities would affect their children.
Those parents of course, were also voters.
Certain well-meaning, if ambitious, politicians, as well as equally well-meaning and ambitious, if misguided, well known mental health professionals, specializing in children, were ready to address (or play on) parents’ fears.
Seduction Of The Innocent and The Devil’s Music
From personal collection.
Senator Estes Kefauver and the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham are often remembered today in comic book fan circles as alarmists and homophobes who nearly destroyed the comic book industry, while searching for connections between juvenile-delinquency and popular media.
And those fans are right.
However, to balance out this (correct) view, it should also be remembered that both men were actually progressive in their thinking, when it came to minorities.
As a southerner, Senator Kefauver of Tennessee faced criticism for refusing to sign the so-called “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” of 1956. Also known as “The Southern Manifesto," this “document” was the former Confederate states' opposition to school integration following the ruling of the Brown vs. Board of Education case. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that “legally” imposed “separate but equal” learning facilities for black and white children was unconstitutional. (From a practical standpoint, the previously exclusively white schools tended to have better facilities, so the schools, though “separate,” were certainly not “equal.”) It should also be noted that Senator Kefauver also had a very laudable reputation for his investigations of organized crime and government corruption.
Dr. Frederic Wertham was also staunchly opposed to racial segregation and held the same progressive stance, at least in regards to race relations, as Senator Kefauver. At a time when African-Americans were often denied mental health care, Dr. Wertham provided his services to low-income black patients at his New York clinic.
Still, despite these progressive views, both Senator Kefauver and Dr. Wertham seemed to focus on popular entertainment’s effects on juvenile-delinquency.
Certainly, both professionals also investigated environment and poverty.
However, Kefauver’s main focus seemed to be on the symptoms of gang violence, with the root causes taking a second place in his agenda.
On April 21, 1954, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the causes of juvenile-delinquency. Issues of race and poverty took a back seat to the influence of comic books(!) on youth crime.
The Republican senator from New Jersey, Robert Hendrickson was the creator of the subcommittee (mentioned below from this snippet of a March 3, 1954 article in The Bergen Evening Record), but Senator Kefauver soon replaced him as head of the chair.
Under Kefauver’s direction, William Gaines and his line of EC Comics were used as “evidence” of the possible influence upon rising incidents of youth crime. (To quote from the findings of the hearings, “Excessive reading of crime and horror comics is considered symptomatic of emotional pathology.”)
What influenced the subcommittee's focus, was the popularity of one book, Frederick Wertham’s “Seduction Of The Innocent,” published earlier that year.
“Seduction Of The Innocent” was the result of Dr. Wertham’s crusade against "comic book’s deviant influence upon the youth," which he began in 1949.
This personal crusade was based on Wertham’s own interviews with gang members and other troubled teens under his care. When asked if they read comic books, many of them answered that they did. (Of course, had he bothered to ask law abiding, well-adjusted teens, particularly straight-A bookish “nerds,” he would have found that even more of them read comic books!)
Because some gang members occasionally read comics, Wertham’s educated logic concluded that comic books “caused” juvenile-delinquency!
The “evidence” provided by Estes Kefauver during the senate subcommittee hearings, inspired by Dr. Wertham’s “Seduction Of The Innocent” (a “popular” book by hysteria-minded religious and educational groups, as well as parents), nearly destroyed the comic book industry.
Some publishers closed their houses for good, while others, in order to survive, created the self-censoring body, “The Comics Code Authority.”
Under the authority, comic books stories involving real-world crime (such as drugs) were not allowed. (That rule would be broken with the 1968 issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” where hero Peter Parker has to deal with his friend Harry Osborn’s addiction to pills. The story was carried without the Comics Code seal, and ironically, this anti-drug story was suggested by a government sponsored educational agency.)
Senator Kefauver didn’t limit his investigations into comic books. All forms of popular media, including movies that were favored by teenagers, were also under fire. (The effects of on-screen violence were investigated, a subject that is still with us today.)
This set the stage for the anti-rock n’ roll music furor a few years later....
Source: April 22, 1954 New York Daily News.
The Brooklyn Thrill Killers:
The idea that comic books somehow "cause" juvenile-delinquency, at first glance, seems laughably absurd.
After all, the vast majority of young comic book fans are more often than not, bookish, sensitive, and at times, socially awkward, and non-aggressive (at least, in the physical sense.)
I should know. I was (and still am) one of them!
However, what often gets lost when looking back at the anti-comic book hysteria of the early 1950's is that it is essentially the study of the media's effects on young (and admittedly impressionable) minds.
Of course, Wertham's work was a study with predetermined conclusions based on a personal bias.
Those conclusions were blown out of proportion in the national press.
But perhaps, that "hysteria" is somewhat understandable (if unjustified), if taken within the context of it's time, and with certain events also taken into consideration.
The study of the media's effects on the young does go back decades.
Depictions of on-screen crime were already garnering controversy during the silent film era.
And of course, psychologists and teachers still study, and debate, those effects today.
Frederick Wertham's own research did predate the 1954 Senate Subcommittee On Juvenile-Delinquency, going back to the 1940's, when he was working out of The Lafargue Mental Health Clinic in Harlem. (His clinic did indeed provide low-cost mental health for patients who otherwise would not have been able to afford such services.)
However, a series of incidents occurred during the same year that the senate subcommittee was launched that perhaps, gave Dr. Wertham the justification for his preconceived (and biased) theories.
The article shown above is dated August 19, 1954.
It covered the story of the so-called "Thrill Kill Gang."
Leader Jack Koslow, 18-years-old at the time, 15-year-old Robert Trachtenberg, and two 17-year-olds, Melvin Mittman and Jerome Lieberman, were not a "gang" in the sense that The Egyptian Kings or Fordham Daggers were (they neither fought for "turf" nor even had a formal name, with "Thrill Kill Gang" being bestowed upon them by the press.)
However, these young, upper-middle class psychopaths spent the summer of 1954 beating, torturing, and murdering the homeless, rightly sparking outrage in the national press. (At the behest of Koslow, one homeless victim, 63-year-old Felix Jakubowski, was actually set on fire. Having miraculously survived the ordeal, he gave his story to the press in the article above. In another comic book reference, the press referred to Jakubowski as "The Human Torch," after the World War Two-era comic book character created by Carl Burgos for Timely Comics, the 1940's iteration of Marvel Comics.)
Jack Koslow himself was apparently "inspired" by the crackdown conducted by Commissioner Francis Adams on "social undesirables" in Manhattan. Those "undesirables" listed by Adams included drug addicts, known homosexuals, and the homeless. (The latter, at the time, were officially referred to as "vagrants," and sadly, were colloquially referred to as "bums.")
Koslow was a mental defective. Though Jewish, his classmates and teachers noted his odd admiration for Adolf Hitler. (Perhaps there was also a bit of self-hate in his psyche.)
Koslow also read comic books.
During interviews after his arrest, he stated that he saw himself as a "superhero," fighting for "justice" by helping to "clean up" the city of "evil doers."
In his mind, the homeless were his own, particular definition of "evil."
Never mind that one of his victims, 34-year-old Willard Mentor, was in fact employed, working at a bag-making factory, to eventually get off the streets after his divorce.
Mentor was burned, and then drowned by Koslow's "gang." The discovery of Mentor's body is what eventually led to the group's arrest.
Koslow's statements to justify his acts certainly would have provided validation for Frederick Wertham's assertions, outlined in "Seduction Of The Innocent," as well as Senator Estes Kefauver's campaign against comic books.
Of course, one could also make the argument that individuals capable of cruel acts will always find justification somewhere.
The domestic terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan frequently quoted (or misquoted) The Bible as they conducted their campaigns of terror.
Yet, we generally don't think of banning The Bible (or any religious text for that matter), simply because certain individuals who are prone to committing acts of violence, choose to deliberately misinterpret those texts in whatever manner that justifies their own personal agenda.
The case of "The Thrill Kill Gang" was one of the major subjects covered in Benjamin Fine's "100,000,000 Delinquents" (pictured below), and the reports of their heinous acts were one of the first instances of 1950's juvenile-delinquency that gained national press, pre-dating the nationwide coverage of many of the incidents of genuine street gang violence previously covered in this blog.
The actions of Koslow and his cronies hit the national press just after the article in Look magazine brought attention to the (unrelated) 1953 shooting murders committed by 19-year-old San Francisco street gang leader Robert Arthur Ranson.
Ranson and the unrelated "Thrill Kill Gang" would actually share page space in national articles, courtesy of UPI, (also pictured below.)
In actuality, Koslow's group of thugs had more in common with teen serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (who are mentioned later in this blog), than they did to any true, actual, inner city teen street gang.
Sources: Brooklyn Eagle via Newsbank and personal collection.
"The Queen of The Marimba," Gloria Parker, featured in this clipping from the April 18, 1957 issue of The New York Daily News, was intent on her one-person anti-rock music picketing campaign. Why was the Big Band-era musician and now (in the 1950's) tv host and RCA Records stockholder so anti-rock n' roll? Her message against the music's (supposed) effects on "juvenile delinquency" were outlined in her statements to the press, above.
Of course, in the same article, it's also mentioned that she was suing Columbia for barring her music.
Perhaps her "protest" at her own label was to make sure that she wasn't pushed out, in favor of the then-growing popularity of rock n' roll.
Under scrutiny, it seemed that her cries of "juvenile delinquency" were less about the perceived threat to the well-being of teens, and more about a then-genuine "threat" to her living as a Tin Pan Alley and Big Band songwriter.
Keep in mind that RCA Records, for which Ms. Parker held one-share, was also (and still is!) the post-Sun Records label of Elvis Presley.
The controversial link between rock music and juvenile crime, as expressed (somewhat humorously, even if the humor is unintended) in the above editorial from The New York Daily News, dated May 18, 1958.
Anti-rock activists, such as The Reverend Jimmy Snow (who ironically, was a country musician himself and even, initially, friends with certain rockabilly singers), and Gloria Parker (pictured above) echoed the anti-comics sentiments of Senator Estes Kefauver and Dr. Frederick Wertham 2 years earlier, with their attacks on double-entendre rhythm and blues and rock n’ roll records’ lyrics.
Essentially, popular "low brow" media was to blame for all of society's ills, particularly youth crime, aka "juvenile delinquency."
Some anti-rock music activists at that time, such as Asa Carter of The White Citizens Council of Birmingham, Alabama, made very clear their reasons for their anti-rock music activism. Opposed to racial integration and the growing Civil Rights Movement, these white supremacist groups saw rock music as a threat, due to it's African-American origins. (It was not unusual for segregated concert halls hosting rock n’ roll shows to have white and black teens deliberately ignore the segregation policies by dancing with each other, a breach of racial protocols at the time.)
Above: Race-based anti-rock n' roll/rhythm and blues leaflet out of New Orleans, identical to the propaganda coming out of Birmingham, circa 1955.
Other highly vocal and prominent anti-rock music critics, such as Mitch Miller and Frank Sinatra, were those songwriters and musicians who were of the earlier “Tin Pan Alley crooners” genre. Their stated reasons regarding rock music’s “lewdness,” “vulgarity,” and (for our interests here) “contributing factors towards juvenile delinquency,” masked their actual reasons.
Rock music was a threat to their previous domination of the music market.
Despite reasons of racial bigotry or even an attempt at outright monopoly, the critique of rock n’ roll music’s relationship to gang violence, though certainly not justified, may have been at least, understandable.
The occasional raucous behavior at rock n’ roll concerts by some of the teens in attendance was, depending on the concert, a valid cause of concern for parents worried about their children’s safety.
In at least one case, the famous May 3, 1958 Boston Arena concert hosted by Alan Freed, gang violence did play a part in the show’s collapse.
Source: Akron Beacon Journal, May 8, 1958
Mayor John B. Hynes had placed severe restrictions on Freed’s show, which would be attended by 5,000 teenage fans.
The days leading up to the show saw Mayor Hynes publicly state, both in the press and on local tv, that any disturbances resulting from the show would be met with harsh reprisals from the local government.
As contracts were signed, tickets pre-sold, and the hall reserved, cancelling the show on Freed’s part was not an option, despite a very unwelcoming attitude from the local government.
The press played up the issue and the coming show was a source of a highly publicized, and polarizing, local controversy.
On the night of the show, the 20 man police force repeatedly harassed Freed and the concert hall staff. The Boston police interrupted the acts, constantly turning the lights on during the performances of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
Dancing in the aisles, a common and harmless show of affection for the music, was interpreted by the police as “rowdiness,” and an excuse by the city officials to bear down on Freed. In order that the show be allowed to continue, Freed, reluctantly, asked the teens to stay seated. This of course, elicited boos and made for a tense situation. (It was also very difficult from a practical standpoint. At that time in the music's history, rock n’ roll was a form of dance music. For energetic teens, being told to sit down at a rock n’ roll concert would be comparable to placing a plate of food in front of a starving pet, and ordering it not to eat!)
In this volatile situation came members of the Boston street gang, Band Of Angels.
They and their rivals had decided to use the concert as the place to settle their rivalry. They knew that the environment would be volatile, due to the preceding debates between Freed and Mayor Hynes, which the local media had covered extensively.
The concert would be a perfect distraction.
According to eye witness George Moonoogian, who was seated next to these gang members, The Band Of Angels had snuck in wine to the concert. They began drinking, possibly to give themselves the “courage” for the coming conflict that they had planned.
During the fracas over the house lights (which had been instigated by the Boston police), the gang members began donning their speckled bandanas as a signal for their fight to begin.
When Freed, frustrated at the police harassment, told the concert attendees, “It looks like the police in Boston don’t want you kids to have any fun,” the Band Of Angels threw their chairs, and a fight broke out.
The other teens in attendance, frustrated and angry over the police harassment, then began their own melee.
An actual riot ensued, which was reported in the press for several days after the incident.
The concert marked the end of Alan Freed’s reign as rock music’s leading promoter, which would climax the following year with his indictment during the Payola Hearings of 1959 and 1960. (Payola involved various high profile dee-jays receiving “gifts,” bribes, from record companies for the playing of artists’ records on the air.)
The concert is also remembered today as an example of unfair harassment by the adult world of the 1950‘s against "innocent" teens of that time. (Most of them were, but one would be hard pressed to believe that the trouble-making Band Of Angels street gang, who had no business being there, were "innocent.")
The May 3, 1958 Boston concert has been reproduced in 1970‘s nostalgia-fad movies, such as 1978‘s “American Hot Wax” and mentioned repeatedly in many rock music documentaries. (The 1978 movie, “American Hot Wax” did reproduce the concert riot. However, no mention or showing of any gangs in attendance were depicted in that movie.)
While it’s true that the Boston officials are actually responsible for the majority of the troubles that occurred at that show, and that rock music’s most outspoken critics of the 1950‘s were motivated by either bigotry (The White Citizens Council) or greed (rivalry between the big record companies and their “crooner” roster vs. the independent labels with their rock and rhythm and blues rosters), what is often lost, or left out, in these remembrances, is that Boston area gangs actually did infiltrate the show in order to violently settle their rivalry, using the concert’s controversy as a distraction.
Rock n’ roll might have reflected the attitudes shared by gang members (and for that matter, most young people) and as previously stated, there were some symbiotic relationships between rock music culture and gang culture in the way of slang, and even some artists, such as Dion and Little Anthony.
And in the aforementioned Boston concert, gang members, in one instance, used a rock n’ roll show as a place to engage in physical altercations amidst a larger distraction (ironically, provided by, and instigated by, city officials.)
However, though rock music culture and street gang culture often reflected each other, the actual causes of gang violence were (and still are) comparative poverty, over crowding in inner cities, dysfunctional familial relationships, mental and emotional health, and racial intolerance.
Those issues, oddly, took a “back seat” to the influence of popular media, particularly comic books and rock n’ roll music.
It is this “adult” response that is remembered today by the mainstream, when looking back “nostalgically” at “the care free” 1950‘s.
One of the great ironies of history is that the very media that was attacked by Senator Kefauver, tended to actually address the main causes of gang violence.
Movies such as “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Young Savages” primarily addressed themes of poverty and racism.
Neil Burstyn’s character in 1961‘s “The Young Savages,” (loosely inspired by 16-year-old gang killer Salvador Agron) did “read” Batman comics and referred to himself as “Batman Aposto” (“Anthony Aposto” being the name of the character in the movie.)
That same year saw Elvis Presley in one of his last non-singing, dramatic roles before making a string of musical comedy travelogues. The movie was “Wild In The Country,” where Elvis played a troubled teen, a “juvenile delinquent,” albeit, one that isn’t necessarily a gang member. (Elvis Presley was also up for the role of “Tony” in the 1961 United Artists screen adaptation of the 1957 gang musical “West Side Story.” However, Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s famous, or infamous, manager, nixed the deal, due to Elvis’ having to take second billing to Natalie Wood. Richard Beymer was then given the role.)
Back on the subject of "Wild In The Country," during a scene that takes place at a hearing, it is revealed that Elvis’ character actually has a high i.q. and loves to read. Hope Lange, as a court-appointed psychiatrist, then asks, “Does the boy read comic books?”
In 1955‘s “Blackboard Jungle,” pictured below, Glenn Ford does tell a fellow school teacher, “If we can just get their minds out of comic books!”
The otherwise excellent film is also notable for being the first mainstream movie to feature rock n' roll music over the soundtrack (that other form of popular media accused of causing juvenile delinquency!)
Just before the opening credits, a public service announcement regarding awareness of inner city juvenile delinquency slowly scrolls over a military drum roll. Then, Bill Haley and The Comet's version of Sonny Dae And The Knight's "Rock Around The Clock" blares over the opening credits as "Blackboard Jungle!" (the exclamation point being a part of the title) flashes on the screen.
With that one use of that one song in this one movie, rock n' roll would be linked to gang violence for the remainder of the 1950's, in much the same way that rap music would be linked to the same social condition over 30 years later. Perhaps, that then-"scary" image of rock n ' roll music was a part of it's appeal for teenagers. (Those same teenagers however, as adults, would have an entirely different agenda 20 years later, following the tragedies of the 1960's. That will be covered in the chapter on the 1970's fad for 1950's "nostalgia," later in the blog.)
Well, at least the movies' main focus was on real-world slum conditions, even if blaming popular media also found it's way, in passing, in these “socially conscious” films.
The poster is from my personal collection.
Additional information on the movie image of 1950's teen gangs will be covered in the chapter on the popular image of "the juvenile delinquent," one chapter over from the next.
"Humans create life, and senselessly cause death. For nothing." -
The sources for the May 1955 and August 1958 articles pictured above are The New York Daily News and The San Francisco Examiner via United Press International, respectively.
The press of the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s covered gang “wars” on a regular basis.
The coverage of gang conflicts in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, Life magazine, and other local and national publications is not only numerous, but highly detailed.
The clippings covered locations, names of gangs, and outcomes that oddly, read like sports coverage.
For example, on June 11, 1955, The New York Daily News covered a proposed rumble between what would become The Balkans and their allies vs. The Villains and their allies. That conflict was to occur on the grounds of Columbia University. It was averted, due to local citizens alerting the police. It was alleged to have involved as many as 200 gang members. The number of participants garnered attention with both the reading public and with local gang outreach programs, including the one run by the future author of “The Violent Gang,” sociologist and criminologist Lewis Yablonsky. That article is pictured below.
The August 24, 1959 issue of The New York Daily News covered the Sportsmen vs. Forsyth Boys conflict, resulting in the drive-by shooting death of 15-year old Theresa Gee, with the headline, and complete article, below.
The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner regularly reported gang conflicts.
Two examples of articles from each paper, from 1954 and 1961 respectively, are below.
Coverage of conflicts involving The Egyptian Kings and Dragons vs. The Jesters and The Norsemen between the years 1957 to 1959 were almost on a daily basis, such as this one below from The Post-Standard, dated August 31, 1959.
When gang outreach programs were perceived to be “weak,” police crackdowns occurred. As one example, San Francisco police chief Frank Ahern initiated a “gang busting task force” during the summer of 1956. The new force would patrol Bay Area neighborhoods, in his words, "to protect the law abiding teens from the gangs" (and in fairness to Ahern, he did state his belief that gang members among the city’s teens were in the minority.)
This June 23, 1956 article in The San Francisco Examiner, pictured below, is one example of the coverage given to his efforts.
There were many more programs inaugurated, some novel, some desperate. They all made headlines, as the families in inner cities grieved and lived in fear, while the majority of America, the upper middle class who's children were profiled in Life magazine's 1954 article, "The Luckiest Generation," looked on with morbid fascination. Across the bay from San Francisco, in Oakland, California, the formation of a dramatically named “shotgun armed anti-gang police task force” was formed in 1956. (Apparently, the officials over there intended to, literally, “fight fire with fire.”)
In New York, a “judo trained police anti-gang task force” was reportedly formed in 1961.
Source: The New York Daily News
Never mind that both shotguns, and judo training, were standard, and had been in use for decades. Proclaiming these "new" methods reassured the adult reading public that something was being done, even if what was being done was simply calling attention to standard police equipment and training.
A combination of genuine and valid concerns, some overwrought hysteria, and admittedly press sensationalism brought the concerns of “juvenile delinquency” into the public consciousness, and neurosis, of the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s. (President Eisenhower himself, during his 1960 farewell address, which included of course, The Cold War, had to also bring up the subject of “juvenile delinquency.”)
“Juvenile delinquency” is a catch all phrase to describe crimes committed by minors. It isn’t exclusively related to gang activity, though gang activity figures heavily in the narrative.
Three examples of non-gang related juvenile crimes that garnered 1950‘s and early '60's international press coverage were, in chronological order, the 1956 Maryland Junior High school shootings committed by 14-year-old Billy Ray Prevatte, the 1957 to 1958 serial killing spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in Nebraska and Wyoming, and the 1961 beating and murder of 15-year-old Edna Doreen Harris, committed by her ex-boyfriend, Dean Ross, also 15-years-old, of Santa Rosa, California.
Pulp novels with themes of juvenile delinquency were highly popular throughout the postwar period.
One of the first was Irving Shulman’s “The Amboy Dukes," published in 1949. It sold five million copies. In the wake of that success, novels with teen crime themes, usually with inner city gang problems as the main plot point, flooded the paperback market with as many as 300 titles authored by Shulman, as well as (among many other authors) Wenzell Brown, Evan Hunter (born Salvatore Lombino), Edward Ronns, Hal Ellson, and (future award-winning science fiction writer) Harlan Ellison.
The amount of realism varied from book to book, depending on the author’s firsthand experience with real-life “delinquents.” (Evan Hunter, for example, actually had worked as a school teacher at a New York high school, similar to the fictional one portrayed in his “Blackboard Jungle,” while William Cox, author of the enjoyable, but totally fanciful “Hell To Pay,” was a career pulp novelist who had no connection or experience whatsoever with juvenile gangs.)
The popularity of these “JD” (juvenile delinquent) pulp novels gave way to movies, some being direct adaptations of the novels (“Blackboard Jungle” for instance) while others being completely original, and popular, movies in their own right.
“The Wild One,” (1953 and very loosely inspired by an actual motorcycle club incident in 1947 that occurred in Hollister, California), “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without A Cause” (both 1955) are the most well-remembered of this film genre.
There were other, numerous examples of popular “juvenile-delinquent” movies, often double-billed with “giant insect” movies such as 1955‘s “Tarantula” or 1957‘s “Beginning Of The End,” another popular movie genre for teens at the drive-in and grindhouse movie circuit.
1955‘s “Running Wild,” 1957‘s “Reform School Girl,” “The Delinquents,” “Untamed Youth,” and “Crime In The Streets,” 1958‘s “High School Hellcats,” “The Cool and The Crazy,” and “High School Confidential!” (the latter two being examples of gangs with drugs being the plot points), and 1959‘s “Riot In Juvenile Prison,” “High School Ceasar,” “High School Big Shot,” “Girls Town,” and “Cry Tough” (the last one based on an Irving Shulman novel) are just a few of the, literally, hundreds, of “JD” movies made and released to theaters between 1955 to 1962.
The 1957 Broadway play “West Side Story,” an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but with the “Capulets” and “Montagues” being replaced with the white teen gang “The Jets” and the Puerto-Rican teen gang “The Sharks” became a hit, spawning an international tour and the 1961 Academy Award winning movie adaptation, stills of which are pictured above.
Even comedian Jerry Lewis got in on the “juvenile delinquent movie” bandwagon. His first solo film upon the dissolution of his comedy duo partnership with Dean Martin was a lampoon of JD movies, 1956‘s “The Delicate Delinquent.” (And ironically, "The Delicate Delinquent" is actually more accurate than most supposedly "serious" JD films, minus Lewis' slapstick antics, of course.)
Upper middle class teens, who usually came from reasonably stable families and economic privilege (and hence, no actual reason to form bopping clubs to protect their turf) emulated the outward appearance of these Hollywood representations of street gangs.
Leather jackets, t-shirts, rolled up jeans, and motorcycle boots, in the mold of Marlon Brando’s “Johnny” character in “The Wild One” became a brief fad for upper class teenage boys.
Some upper class teenage girls emulated the tight pencil skirts, tight sweaters, and high heels of Mamie Van Doren, the third-in-line of Hollywood's “blonde bombshells” after Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
Van Doren (born Joan Lucille Olander on February 3, 1931) made a career out of playing on-screen “bad girls” in JD films, despite her pushing 30 years of age at the time. Her starring role in 1959's "Girl's Town," for example, is pictured above.
Mainstream adults saw this emulation of the Hollywood “juvenile delinquent” as evidence that real-life inner city gang violence was slowly creeping its way into the mainstream of upper middle class, suburban, teen life.
Just like with the related anti-rock music hysteria that occurred at the same time, mainstream adult’s concerns over the causes of gang violence was often, unfortunately, misplaced. And it's that misplaced focus on behalf of some, highly prominent, adult authority figures, that is remembered today. But what of the bopping clubs, the real-life fighting gangs that inspired the novels, inspired the movies, and even, by default, inspired the upper class teens, who had no direct connection to the bopping clubs whatsoever, but who often imitated some of their mannerisms and clothing (as shown by Hollywood) as a mild form of youthful "rebellion?" In a very real sense, the boppers died several "deaths."
There is of course real, actual physical death of some individuals, as a result of gang activity.
There was also the more mundane, and less sensational, emotional and spiritual "death" of most of these individuals. Admittedly, the majority of the boppers did live through teen gang life, only to grow up, and become the very thing that they wanted to avoid becoming, blue collar workers with low paying jobs, long hours, and little prospects. There was also the death of their subculture.
The 1950's gang culture, though analogous to youth gang cultures of other time periods (including our own), had specifics that were unique. For all intents and purposes, that subculture, with it's specifics, practically "died" around 1964. Then there is the erasing of the fighting gangs of the 1950's from collective memory. Not only was this the "death" of their existence, that collective amnesia also, unintentionally, denies the existence of the innocent victims of 1950's gang violence. Before we get into the eventual fate of the bopping clubs, the next two chapters will explore how their very existence was, practically, erased from American collective memory.
As we shall see, it was, ironically, former teenagers themselves, the children of the upper middle class, the ones who often copied the surface aesthetics of inner city gang culture in their youth, who were responsible for this collective amnesia.
The reasons why, are rooted in the tragic events of the decade that followed.
The quintessential, and most memorable, of all JD flicks is 1955's "Rebel Without A Cause," which starred the iconic (and by the time the movie was released, tragically dead) James Dean. Pictured with Dean in these stills is his co-star, the equally iconic, and tragic, Natalie Wood, who would later get top billing in the 1961 adaptation of "West Side Story."
Ironically, "Rebel Without A Cause" depicted upper middle class, if neurotic and dysfunctional, suburban "delinquents," rather than inner city boppers.
Still, for many viewers and fans, "Rebel Without A Cause" is the iconic film of 1950's juvenile delinquency.
Source: James Dean, American Icon, St. Martin's Press.
“Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam.” -
Marshall McLuhan, Montreal Gazette, May 16, 1975
“Listen and be transported back to a time when the biggest problem we had was getting a date for Saturday night.” -
Tagline for the “Old Time Rock n Roll Oldies Podcast”
“It just looks good now, but it was miserable when you were in it.” - Elisabeth Moss as “Peggy Olson” in the final season of “Mad Men.”
“Nostalgia” for the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s was a hugely popular fad during the 1970‘s.
That “Fifties Nostalgia Craze” of the 1970‘s, examples of which would include the play and movie “Grease,” as well as George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (set in 1962), and the tv show “Happy Days,” were all designed to “soften” the serious issues of the 1950‘s (such as The Red Scare and of course, our topic, juvenile delinquency), while promoting an idealized vision of 1950‘s American culture.
The 1950’s were a “problem free” time that Americans, traumatized by the events of the 1960’s, can look back and retreat to, “in safety and comfort.”
“The Fifties Nostalgia Craze” of the 1970‘s has affected how we look back at the 1950‘s, even today.
“The innocent days of the 1950‘s where we didn’t have any problems” is so ingrained in our culture that many Americans, admittedly of a certain age (sorry!), are emotionally invested in protecting that image.
(If any reader wishes to test that idea, post one of the many vintage news articles concerning teen gang tragedies, included in this blog, to one of the many 1950‘s nostalgia groups on Facebook. You’ll be met with angry responses, even if the post is more “on topic” than any of the posts about aging or gripes about how "everyone" today is “immoral.” Posting such articles will also put you in touch with fellow history buffs who can point you towards resource materials, but do expect a lot of resistance, negativity, and anger from other, very vocal members. Curiously, if you post such articles to a “vintage” or “rockabilly lifestyle” group, you’ll actually open up positive discussions about ‘50‘s youth. Most “vintage lifestyle” enthusiasts, however, tend to be younger, and have no emotional investment in “protecting” the “innocent days” narrative. Also, Britishers who are of the same age as the older Americans who might, potentially, take “offense” at 1950’s juvenile delinquent posts, curiously, are generally, also open to learning and sharing information on 1950’s juvenile delinquency and, generally, neither take offense at such information, nor feel a need to downplay the subject.)
The craze for “the bygone, innocent 1950‘s” was actually a response to the tragedies and social changes of the turbulent 1960‘s and early 1970‘s.
Near the beginning of this blog, I stated that history is the study of people. It’s the study of the reality of how we as human beings actually are. The good, the bad, the carefree, and the troubled are the reality of what it is to be human.
What makes us human is the conflicts that define us. We are born of pain.
However, as “necessary” as conflict is for our growth, both individually and collectively, we all need a break.
In the 1960‘s, “we” never got that break.
Those who were able to survive and eventually leave the gang life of their teenage 1950's years, along with those who just copied the way they looked, were soon to encounter more tragedy, as their lives as young adults of the 1960's, began.
In November of 1963, the youngest president to be elected to the United States, the beloved John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Days later, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of the shooting, was himself, shot down, on live tv, by Jack Ruby.
Television also brought The Civil Rights Movement, both it’s sacrifices and the ugliness of institutionalized (and "legal") racial segregation in the Deep South, into American living rooms.
The murder of teenager Emmet Till and the standoff between National Guardsmen and federal troops over school desegregation at Little Rock Arkansas’ Central High School were the beginnings of the fight for racial equality, in the 1950‘s.
However, television viewers of the 1960‘s witnessed violent attacks on students staging peaceful sit-ins and marches, while police attack dogs and high pressure fire hoses were turned on those same, young, protestors.
The bombings of Southern black churches, resulting in the deaths of children, and the murder of civil rights volunteers, were also in the news during the 1960‘s.
America’s involvement in Vietnam was a major, polarizing, dividing issue at that time.
The political right looked at North Vietnam’s communist leanings as a threat to democracy. The thinking was that if South Vietnam fell, then all of southeast Asia, and perhaps the entire Pacific would fall to Communism, a “Domino Effect.” The political left saw the conflict in Vietnam as a civil war, for which the United States had no business, nor interest, in being involved in.
The war in Vietnam became a political “war” in the United States. The actual armed conflict, with American soldiers both killing, and being killed, were aired daily on 1960‘s tv.
As a result of both The Civil Rights Movement and The Vietnam War dividing the nation, the youth of 1960‘s America began questioning the middle class values that had defined the way mainstream America lived and conducted itself during the 1950‘s.
That dissatisfaction by the young of the 1960‘s began as an evolution of an anti-establishment subculture of the 1950‘s.
The 1950‘s begat The Beat Generation, a movement of bohemian writers and artists who rejected 1950‘s American conformity.
Beat writers such as Alan Ginsburg, Neil Cassady, William Burroughs, and ironically, the politically conservative, Jack Kerouac (his most famous work pictured above) embraced sexual experimentation, individualism, and mind altering drugs. 1950‘s middle class conformist America referred to The Beats as “beatniks,” a derisive term (coined by San Francisco Chronicle writer Herb Caen in 1958) that implied a connection to the despised communists, by applying the suffix “nik,” a reference to “Sputnik.” (Sputnik was the 1957 Russian satellite that “beat” the United States to outer space.)
By the late 1950‘s, mainstream upper middle class teenagers and college students appropriated the exaggerated aesthetic of The Beats, with “beatnik” costumes, much as they had appropriated the leather jacket and rolled blue jeans stereotype of the bopping club gangs a few years earlier.
Torn jeans, sandals, berets, unkempt hair, and beards became a fad at “beatnik parties” between 1959 to 1962.
The irony was that most of the leaders of the actual Beat Generation rarely dressed in that manner.
"Beatnik" slang, similar to that used by bopping clubs, due to it's jazz music origins, also became a fad of sorts, as pictured above from a satirical March 2, 1959 article in The Lincoln Journal Star.
The philosophy of the 1950‘s Beat Generation, appropriated by the early 1960‘s middle class young as “the beatnik” fad, grew into a genuine social movement by the middle to late 1960‘s.
By 1966 and 1967, many upper middle class college students, in opposition to the war in Vietnam, while also voicing support for The Civil Rights Movement, completely rejected the values of the “older generation.”
Their rallying cry was “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty.”
The older generation, their parents, were well groomed, well mannered, and kept their feelings to themselves. They usually went to church on Sundays (most stores were actually closed on Sundays, anyway, due to the “blue laws.”) The young noted, sarcastically, that if some of these parents engaged in extra-marital affairs, at least they were "politely discreet.” Many members of the older generation also “smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish.” Outwardly, the older generation proclaimed that they “never used drugs,” which the young found to be hypocritical.
Appearances were everything to the older generation.
This new younger generation of the 1960‘s let their hair grow long and said whatever they wished in public, even if society disapproved. They let their feelings be known. And when it came to sex, they espoused “free love.”
Promiscuous sex was “the norm” with these kids.
By March of 1965, the United States committed 3,500 ground troops to Vietnam. Anyone male, within the 18 to 31 age range, was subject to the draft. Unlike World War Two, however, which most Americans were overwhelmingly in support of, America was sharply divided on the Vietnam issue. (It should also be noted that like The Korean War of the early 1950‘s, Vietnam was an undeclared war. There was no official declaration of war by congress.)
Violent protests in the streets and on campus over Vietnam happened more or less around the same time that Civil Rights marches were met with violent opposition from local Southern law enforcement. The lines between the two movements occasionally became blurred. Those young people who were rejecting their parents’ values were the ones who led the college campus protests.
Referencing the war in Vietnam, which they opposed, as well as the sexual practices that they professed were “spiritual,” these “radical” young of the late 1960‘s had another rallying cry, “Make Love, Not War.”
As for drugs, like the bopping clubs of the previous decade, marijuana was widely used. However, unlike the working class boppers, these 1960‘s disaffected middle class youth favored a different drug from the damaging heroin...Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, also known as "LSD."
Originally synthesized in the 1930s, it’s mind altering properties weren’t discovered until World War Two. (The CIA experimented with the drug for use in interrogation techniques in the 1950‘s.)
By the 1960‘s, however, LSD was touted by college professors (such as Timothy Leary) and self-help gurus as “mind expanding” and “self actualizing.”
The late 1960‘s disaffected youth embraced the drug, taken in sugar cube form, while also embracing Eastern philosophies, which were again, in direct opposition to their parent’s conservative Christian views.
Reveling in alternative sexual practices and mind altering drug use, while rejecting their parent’s ideas of propriety, race relations, and (especially) the war in Vietnam, these 1960's “descendants” of the Beat Generation of the 1950‘s became known by another name.
They were The Hippies.
The mass rejection by The Hippies of middle class values, the war in Vietnam, and violent opposition of The Civil Rights Movement by Southern politicians, Southern law enforcement, and hate groups (such as The Ku Klux Klan) fractured the nation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, the Nobel prize-winning leader of The Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated in 1968. Riots ensued, primarily in urban black neighborhoods, resulting in clashes between rioters and the police.
That same year, Senator Robert Kennedy, who seemed to connect with the young of America, was also assassinated, much as his brother, President John Kennedy had been five years earlier.
A career criminal, masquerading as a “hippie” leader of a Bay Area, then later, Southern California “family” of discontented runaways, sought to ignite a race war between militant blacks and the white establishment, by ordering his followers to commit a series of grisly murders in Los Angeles. Grocery store chain owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and more famously, actress Sharon Tate and her socialite friends, were murdered in their respective neighborhoods.
The leader of this murderous “family” of runaways-turned-killers was Charles Manson.
People were scared in their own homes, particularly since “The Manson Family” were equated, at least in the public mind, with The Hippies.
The Hippies might have been initially despised by the mainstream, but they were also supposed to be “peaceful.” Members of The Manson Family were cold blooded killers.
The 1960‘s rolled into the early 1970‘s with more tragedy, broadcast daily, on American television.
Protestors of the Vietnam War at Kent State University were fired upon by The National Guard.
And last, but not least, there was President Richard M. Nixon.
The former vice president of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950‘s (the same president who addressed the crisis of teen violence by the bopping gang clubs in a speech in 1960), had negotiated the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, as well as opening official relations with communist, mainland China, after more than a decade of official non-recognition.
There now seemed to be hope amidst the tragedies.
However, on June 17, 1972, five men were arrested during a failed break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
Monies found on the men were traced to President Nixon’s administration.
"The Watergate Scandal," as it would come to be called, involved wiretapping, bribery, obstruction of justice, and other practices that amounted to espionage committed against a rival American political party.
The full details and reasons are still being debated today, but Watergate was the final “straw.” The American psyche had already been disillusioned after the war in Vietnam, the riots, and the assassinations. Watergate ruptured it.
Faith in the American ideal was lost.
Every two decades or so, the middle-aged generation that had been “young” two decades prior, looks back with fondness for “lost youth.” The 1950‘s had a fad for “The Roaring Twenties,” even though that was the decade of organized crime. (The 1950‘s tv series “The Untouchables” actually made the FBI’s fight against mobsters seem downright fun and exciting!)
The 1970‘s was already primed for “looking back.”
However, after the tragedies of the 1960‘s, an argument can be made that Americans needed to “look back fondly,” with “rose-colored glasses” of course, at a sanitized and idealized version of the 1950‘s.
In order to do so, the very real problems and social issues of the 1950‘s (which, ironically, actually laid the groundwork for what happened in the 1960‘s), needed to be toned down, and in some cases, even erased.
The best way to do that was through the mediums of music, movies, and tv, the very things that Senator Estes Kefauver had focused on during the 1954 senate investigations into juvenile delinquency.
Let The Good Times Roll....
“Sha-na-na” is the repetitive, non-sensical chorus of The Silhouettes' 1958 doo-wop hit “Get A Job.” (If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. Quoting many a 1950‘s tv teen dance show, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”)
Sha-Na-Na is also the name of a 12-member band out of Columbia University who became a sensation, starting in the late 1960‘s. By the 1970‘s, Sha Na Na took America by storm by performing (and lampooning) Top 40 rock and roll hits of the mid to late 1950‘s.
Part of Sha-Na-Na’s gimmick at the time was to dress in an exaggerated version of “the juvenile delinquent,” making the aesthetic of a youth subculture that had previously been looked upon with fear by both adults and fellow teenagers in the 1950‘s, now seem “fun” in a cartoonish sort of way, in the 1970‘s.
That benign view of the 1950's juvenile delinquent aesthetic, which is still with us today, can be attributed to the success of Sha Na Na.
Sha-Na-Na’s concerts drew large crowds of middle-aged Americans who wanted to “go back” to the 1950‘s, “to a time before drugs and war.” (That’s an exact quote from the June 16, 1972 issue of Life magazine, covering the nostalgia fad.)
Sha-Na-Na’s concert success begat both their hit comedy musical variety tv show, as well as similar “nostalgia” bands, who rode on the success of Sha-Na-Na.
Another similarly-themed band, Flash Cadillac And The Continental Kids, who’s “Did You Boogie With Your Baby In The Back Row Of The Movie Show” reached number 26 of the Hot 100 in 1976.
The song's popularity was helped by “oldies” dee-jay “Wolfman Jack’s” reminiscing verbal introduction.
On the song, "Wolfman Jack" (born Robert Weston Smith) asked listeners to remember the first time that they “made out” with their girlfriends at the movies.
Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 musical play “Grease” seemed to capture a bit of the reality, in a satirical form, of 1950‘s working class teens.
However, when “Grease” was adapted into a highly successful movie in 1978, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the leads, all of the allusions to teen violence were removed.
Possibly, because the subject matter was the 1970's idealized version of “The Fifties,” that toning down of the original play’s themes may have contributed to the film version’s success. (Some changes, of course, had to be made to accomodate Olivia Newton-John, an Australian singer. "Grease's" original stage version of “Sandy” is a Chicago-born teen.)
However, it is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” previously mentioned at the opening of this blog, that might rival the film version of “Grease” as far as reshaping the way we now view “The Fifties."
“American Graffiti” is set in 1962, which, culturally speaking, was a continuation of the later 1950‘s.
However, rather than relying on the “Twist-era” songs by artists that were contemporary for the actual early 1960‘s (Chubby Checker, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene McDaniels, The Shirelles, Dion, etc.), most of the music that was constantly played in the background of the movie’s scenes were “oldies” hits from the mid-1950‘s.
(The movie opens with Bill Haley And The Comet’s cover of Sonny Dae and The Knight’s 1954 recording of “Rock Around The Clock.” Ironically, the inclusion of the Bill Haley version in the 1955 urban crime drama “Blackboard Jungle” associated rock n’ roll with juvenile delinquency and youth street culture. In “American Graffiti,” the song is used to evoke feelings of a bygone, idealized past. “American Graffiti” used other “old” songs by 1962 standards, such as 1954‘s “Goodnight Sweetheart” by The Spaniels and 1956‘s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers.)
As previously mentioned, there was a youth gang included in the movie, led by Bo Hopkins. But, again, any real hint of danger was carefully played down to fit the “nostalgic” narrative.
Many of the actors in “American Graffiti” became stars (one of whom was Harrison Ford, who would co-star in Lucas’ “Star Wars”), but two who directly relate to the “Nostalgia Craze” were Ron Howard and Cindy Williams.
Both would go on to star in essentially, tv versions of “American Graffiti.”
A 1972 episode of the romantic comedy anthology “Love American Style” was the catalyst for what would become “Happy Days,” a show set in an idealized 1950‘s Milwaukee.
Creator and producer Gary Marshall cast “American Graffiti” star Ron Howard in the lead.
However, it would be Henry Winkler’s “Fonzie” character that would be the breakout role.
“Fonzie” was a loveable version of “the juvenile delinquent,” a “greaser” with a heart of gold.
Unlike real 1950s gang boppers, "Fonzie" had no psychological issues.
He had no feelings of being marginalized and no feelings of anger. He had no need to make improvised weapons (such as zip guns to shoot rival gang members or Molotov cocktails to throw at police cars) because all "Fonzie" wanted to do was work on his car and date girls, who usually threw themselves at him, willingly. (That is a far cry from the real life female "debs" of the bopping clubs, who often were threatened and intimidated into sexual acts.)
The “Fonzie” character was so popular that leather jacket and jeans costumes based on Henry Winkler's tv image were marketed and sold to pre-teen boys, something that would never have happened during the actual 1950‘s. (The idea of young boys dressing up like a “juvenile delinquent,” or gang bopper for Halloween would have horrified 1950‘s-era parents.)
Source: E-Bay. Unlike the other items pictured in this blog, this is definitely not from my collection. (Do you seriously think I would have this thing in my collection?!)
“Happy Days” became a runaway hit for ABC, spawning several spin-offs, including “Laverne And Shirley” (which co-starred “American Graffiti’s” Cindy Williams) and lasted for ten seasons.
And because of Henry Winkler’s “Fonzie” character, the show changed the way middle class Americans viewed and “remembered” the “juvenile delinquent” of the 1950‘s.
Sha-Na-Na, “Grease,” “American Graffiti,” and “Happy Days” all contributed towards changing how Americans viewed and “remembered” 1950‘s youth culture, including how youth gangs of that time were "remembered."
Previously feared and pitied, 1950‘s youth gangs, or rather, “the greaser” of the 1970‘s “Fifties Nostalgia Craze,” was now a beloved, and benign figure, who could be simultaneously “loved” and laughed at.
For the most part, that view of 1950’s youth culture is still the way that we “look back” at the youth subcultures of that time.
After the trauma of the 1960‘s, the popular media of the 1970‘s erased the reality of the bopping clubs.
"The Fifties Nostalgia Craze" of the 1970's was a media driven form of collective emotional healing. Nostalgia for a (cleaned up and sanitized) 1950's was a direct response to the many tragedies of the 1960's, which themselves, had been brought into American living rooms, daily, by television.
Estes Kevauver, the senator who investigated, and blamed, popular media’s effect on juvenile delinquency in the 1950’s, ended up being “right,” after all.
The Consequences of The "Fifties Nostalgia Craze" of the 1970's:
“There was no gang violence when we grew up. We just dressed like the movies, and parents and teachers assumed that we were like those fictional movies. Our ‘gangs’ certainly didn’t kill each other like today.” -
A quote that I personally have heard, repeatedly, almost on a daily basis, in 15 years of teaching seniors' fitness!
Statements like the above are very common from former teenagers of the 1950's, now in their 70's and 80's at the time of this writing.
At least, when in a group setting. (The ones who are more honest about that time, which includes individuals who were kind enough to grant interviews, know that they will often be shouted down if they voice their recollections!)
The 1970's "Fifties Nostalgia Craze," pictured above, is primarily responsible for that "quaint" view of the 1950's, and sometimes, it's even brought up as "evidence" of how "quaint" 1950's youth culture (supposedly) was. As cartoonish and fake as the above images are (and I make no attempts to disguise how I personally really feel about 1950's "nostalgia"), this benign approach to '50's youth culture ultimately makes the events, and even the popular art of that time seem "trivial" and "unimportant."
By eliminating the reality of the human conflicts of the 1950's, including street gangs, nostalgia didn't "save" 1950's culture.
Nostalgia, unintentionally, denigrated it.
As a personal note, after sitting through all of the sickly sweet depictions of "greaser gangs" in these particular movies and shows in order to write this chapter, I welcome being scared out of my wits by the hoods in "Blackboard Jungle!"
Towards the end of the "Nostalgia Craze," NBC aired the movie pictured above. "Death Penalty," broadcast on January 22, 1980, was a fictionalized tv drama, based on the life, and murder trial, of Salvador "The Capeman" Agron. Names and locations were changed from the actual events, but the movie, for the most part, followed Agron's life story and trial. The main narrative of the film is the relationship with the Agron character (renamed "Carlos Rivera," and portrayed by David Labiosa) and the social worker played by Colleen Dewhurst (and based on the real-life Stella Davis, who Agron seemed to maintain a sort of love-hate relationship, which is portrayed uncomfortably, and brilliantly, on the small screen.) Much of the background of the "Rivera" character appears to be based off of the letters that Agron sent to Richard Jacoby, which became the basis for Jacoby's book "Conversations With The Capeman," published 20 years later (2000.) The tv movie, in a way, was a throw back to the social-consciousness juvenile delinquent films of the 1950's, and one of the characters even references "The Young Savages" in a line read from a news article, regarding teen gang violence. Issues of poverty, mental health, drug addiction, sexuality, street crime and violence, police procedures and practices, punishment and rehabilitation, political agendas, and racism are referenced and explored in "Death Penalty."
Perhaps it's fitting that this NBC tv movie came at the very end of the "Nostalgia Craze." It ended that fad on a note of realism and authenticity. Though it is largely forgotten today (as of this writing, it's not even listed in the Wikipedia article on Salvador Agron), it is a well-made, thought provoking drama.
A Closing...Sort Of...
The majority of the specific postwar “1950‘s” bopping clubs or fighting turf gangs that are covered here, by coincidence, or by design, roughly ended between 1963 and ‘64. (I had to say “majority.” There are a few 1950’s-era gangs that are actually still with us, even today, albeit with significant changes from their years as teen gangs fighting over turf. The most notable would be The Latin Kings, which began in 1954 out of Humboldt Park, Chicago, Illinois. They are known today as The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.)
Those transitional years saw one phase of rock n’ roll popular culture end, the “Fifties”-era of teen idols. The “new” era of The British Invasion began when The Beatles arrived at Idlewild Airport in February of 1964. Almost simultaneously, the optimism of the youthful Kennedy years died, literally, in Dallas on November of 1963.
Members of New York bopping clubs that weren’t jailed, strung out on heroin, dead (or in Dion or Little Anthony’s case, in music), went into the military. A few years later, they would find themselves in warfare again, but not in a New York park or alleyway, but rather, in the jungles of Vietnam.
Some former boppers moved from one youth subculture into another. A few former boppers who later grew to realize that the social conditions that contributed to the environment of gang fighting was something to be questioned. They sought questions in The Beat Generation movement of bohemian artists and writers that would, years later, influence the counter culture of The Hippies of the late 1960‘s.
And some, simply grew out of it.
Many of them found work in the working class job market of their fathers which they dreaded and resisted, that grim outlook being one of the reasons for joining gangs in the first place.
A few however, turned their lives around completely.
Author David Van Pelt related in his “Brooklyn Rumble” a story of a member of The Mau Maus who, upon release from prison for the 1959 shooting of a member of a rival gang, became a model citizen, working in the medical field.
My friend David Van Pelt authored this meticulously researched work on two highly publicized gangs of 1950's-era New York. I highly recommend it, and purchasing it can be done by clicking on the picture of it's cover above.
The late Claude Brown, celebrated writer and lecturer, authored a brutally realistic account of 1950's Harlem gang life in Harlem. The book, “Manchild In The Promised Land” is an American classic. Released during The Civil Rights Movement, it’s realism, and realistic language, was both celebrated by critics, and a reason to be banned by the “protectors of morality” in certain sectors. If you haven’t already guessed, his authorship’s reality was based on his own gang experiences as a teenager.
The same fates fell upon the former members of the various San Francisco jacket clubs, who were referred to as being a part of the “Bart” subculture.
(So far, my interviews with former members have not revealed why that designation came to be. By coincidence, if one were to mention “Bart” to current San Francisco residents, Bay Area Rapid Transit would come to their mind. However, that branch of public transportation, analogous, though not identical, to New York’s subways, wasn’t in operation until the early 1970‘s, long past the era of the jacket clubs in our study.)
The leader of The Junior Jokers, Patrick Coonen, would later go on to become a Bay Area poet laureate. (The history of his club, along with a look at the unique San Francisco Bay Area street youth culture history is included as an additional chapter at the end of this blog.)
Gang outreach programs also did their part in “stamping out” many of the bopping clubs.
Outreach sponsored social activities, mediation between rival gangs, and individual psychiatric sessions with club leaders combined to turn some gangs who fought for “turf” into purely social clubs for neighborhood teens.
And for some specific turf gangs, particularly two out of Chicago, the self-realization for the need for change helped both The Young Lords and The Vice Lords to evolve from gangs engaged in street violence, into social activist groups engaged in the betterment for their communities.
The bopping clubs and their equivalents “died” out, for the most part, roughly in the mid-1960‘s, but obviously, that wasn’t the end for street gangs in general.
New gangs evolved in the mid 1960‘s that replaced the ‘50‘s-era turf gangs.
The fight over “turf” in the 1950‘s was a fight over territory, which by extension, was over resources, albeit, vaguely defined resources.
By the mid 1960‘s, those resources would be more clearly defined. In Chinatown, those resources would be illegal fireworks. In South Central Los Angeles, with the introduction of cocaine in the 1970‘s, and later, in it’s more addictive form, “crack,” one gang, originally formed as a protective group among teens in the late 1960‘s, to protect its members from gang violence, devolved into a violent drug business-based gang, The CRIPS.
And with automatic weapons then (and now) being made available to the general public, these new gangs engaged in gun violence that made the use of homemade, and comparatively primitive, weapons by the bopping clubs obsolete, and with even more tragic results.
The new gangs were not the direct descendants of the bopping clubs, but they were the inheritors, just like that fellow Filipino boy I tutored back in 1984.
Maybe that’s why I wanted to research the actual history of the 1950‘s-era gangs.
I didn’t want to “nostalgically escape" to the past.
I wanted to learn about our present and maybe, a little bit more about our possible future.
Boppers, Barts, White Shoes, etc. may have "died out" (for the most part, anyway) by the mid-1960's, but that certainly wasn't the end of inner-city street gangs. New gang cultures emerged, distinct from those of the 1950's, but certainly no less dangerous. The article above, one year after the incident it covers, describes the trial of "The Joe Boys," and their highly publicized shooting raid at San Francisco's Golden Dragon Restaurant, in Chinatown. 11 people were injured and five were killed in what is now remembered today as "The Golden Dragon Massacre." The incident occurred on the night of September 4, 1977.
Source: September 2, 1978 issue of The San Francisco Examiner.
Addendum: The Gangs Of The Golden Gate
San Francisco, like any inner city, had the conditions that made street gangs possible. (It also had great art. Suffering and art really do go hand in hand.) The Bay Area’s youth gang street culture had both many similarities, and differences, with it’s New York contemporaries of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Looking through articles from The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner, covering a nine year period between 1952 to 1961, numerous gangs, already mentioned at the start of this article, come up. However, another subject comes up when looking for teenage gangs in that time span in San Francisco articles. The subject of two distinct youth cultures are mentioned in many of these articles. The terms “Barts” and “White Shoes” repeatedly come up. Those two designations refer to two distinct street subcultures of teenagers unique to San Francisco. (You’ll never see “Barts” or “White Shoes” as descriptions for New York “bopping clubs” from the 1950’s.) As an addendum to this blog, I’ve decided to dedicate two sections on the “Barts” and the “White Shoes” of 1950’s San Francisco. Fifties-era street gang culture was a significant part of San Francisco, and the local press of the time covered the phenomenon on an almost weekly basis. However, San Francisco teen-gang culture somehow, never became the subject of novels or the movies. Their New York “cousins” were the subject of many a pulp novel and drive-in movie, with “West Side Story,” “Blackboard Jungle,” ‘Crime In The Streets,” “Cry Tough,” and “The Young Savages” being just a few examples Los Angeles youth gang activity and delinquency became the subject of the films “Rebel Without A Cause,” “Key Witness,” “This Rebel Breed,” and "13 West Street."
However, to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t many (or any) juvenile delinquent movies set in San Francisco made between 1955-1962. (I personally find that odd, considering the numerous movies with San Francisco as a setting.)
Perhaps it was because press coverage of Bay Area teen gang activity remained on the local level, as opposed to the national level. United Press International never picked up on the many local stories of San Francisco teen gang activity they way they did for New York. Even The San Francisco Chronicle had several issues containing local gang activity, that would be eclipsed by a UPI story out of New York, often on the same page. Much of how San Francisco teens who were involved in the local street subcultures was not seen anywhere else in the country.
This section is dedicated to these two subcultures, unique to San Francisco of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, The Barts and The White Shoes.
The White Shoes
The “White Shoe” teen subculture of the 1950‘s, in the specific form that it took, was a uniquely San Francisco phenomenon.
(Barry Goubler, one of the members at the Hepcats Hangout Facebook group did relate to me that a similar subculture did exist in New Orleans known as “frats.”)
Throughout the rest of the United States, during the 1950‘s and early 1960‘s, the wearing of tapered (tight at the ankles) dress slacks, button down shirts, short hair (usually with a “flat top” cut), and of course, white buckskin or white saddle shoes by teenage boys was a style that defined what Barson and Heller described as “Kleen Teen” culture (the letter “k” was deliberate.)
The teenage boys who dressed in this manner were, usually, the “Ivy League,” upper middle class kids of privilege, who oftentimes (though not exclusively) went to private schools and were destined to go to colleges like Stanford, Cornell, or Harvard.
This was not necessarily the case in San Francisco, however.
According to San Francisco native and Mission High School alumni Ben Choate, the White Shoe subculture was started around 1950 by a person named Ron Stone (not to be confused with the NFL player of that name.)
These were inner city teens who affected the “Kleen Teen” look, but who fought both with members of the San Francisco jacket clubs, and with other self-identified members of White Shoe subculture.
The White Shoe subculture of 1950‘s/early 1960‘s San Francisco defies our current perceptions of ‘50‘s-era youth gangs and “good” kids.
Ben Choate noted that White Shoe kids did indeed carry switchblades, much like the Hollywood “juvenile delinquent.”
The territories claimed by the individual and autonomous groupings of White Shoes were the Lower 24th, Eureka Valley, Day Street, Noe Valley, the area west of Twin Peaks, and the Sunset. They also were in the North Beach area, which they shared with The Beat Generation subculture.
Each grouping of White Shoes had their own area, and of course, outsiders were not welcome. Invaders (or kids who were perceived to be "invaders") were susceptible to physical attacks by local, resident White Shoes in the "defense" of the inhabitant’s own neighborhood.
Like the bopping clubs of New York, San Francisco White Shoe kids fought for reputation and to test themselves, and each other, for strengths, weaknesses, and domination.
Unlike the jacket clubs, who were more similar in outward appearance to both the Hollywood “juvenile delinquent” and the various New York bopping clubs, White Shoe teens had no formal gang or club names.
Ben Choate stated that his group were known by their neighborhood (the Lower 24th), but if one wasn’t from the neighborhood, their was no way for that outsider to tell who belonged to what specific White Shoe “group.”
In other words, one could tell who belonged to which San Francisco Bart jacket club, such as The Junior Jokers, The Equires, or The Warlords, by the embroidered names of their clubs on their jackets. No such outwardly physical designation existed for individual White Shoe groupings. (Ben Choate recalls, however, that the wearing of street club jackets at San Francisco high schools was often prohibited.)
You knew if a kid was a White Shoe by the way he dressed and cut his hair, but again, you couldn’t tell which specific White Shoe group that he belonged to.
But they knew.
Unlike the “Kleen Teen,” but very much like their Bart jacket club opposites (and their New York bopping club contemporaries), the White Shoe kids, at least according to Ben Choate and another former White Shoe that I interviewed, Gary Jensen, favored the harder edged Rock n’ Roll. They weren’t necessarily fans of Pat Boone’s style of soft pop music, even if their fashion sense was similar to his and other “boy-next-door” Philadelphia “American Bandstand” and Hollywood teen idols. (Imagine Bobby Rydell or Pat Boone, but with a switchblade and engaging in street rumbles!)
In addition to switchblades, when weapons were used, pipes and bricks were also utilized. Gary Jensen remembered zip guns, but Ben Choate remembered them being used more by the earlier pachuco culture, which was popular in the Mission district.
Mr. Choate stated that his sister was a member of the pachuco subculture. When I asked him if he remembered the tattoos that pachucos had between their thumb and index finger, his exact words were, “Yes. I hadn’t thought of that in decades, but yes.” He also noted that, as a White Shoe with a pachuco sister, the clothing styles worn by both subcultures were distinct. White Shoe kids wore their trousers pegged and tighter, while pachucos favored baggier, pleated dress slacks.
Ben Choate also recalls, however, that due to the “let’s find out who’s the toughest mindset,” leaders of different groups would often engage in (what a New York bopper would call) “fair ones,” one-on-one fights without weapons, but also without rules beyond that.
Another aspect that separates the San Francisco White Shoe subculture from the Hollywood stereotype of the “Kleen Teen” was that these were indeed working class teens.
According to Ben Choate, many of them came from broken homes.
In his words, their being out on the streets was the direct result of a disrupted family life. (This motivation towards turning to street culture was shared by the New York bopping clubs.)
Perhaps, this might have been a motivation for their psychological “need” to engage in street fights.
Gary Jensen noted that most of the White Shoe kids that he personally knew (and for that matter, most of the kids in San Francisco, period!) seemed to always get into fights. (One lady of appropriate age, commenting on a post I did on 1950‘s youth street culture in the “San Francisco Remembered” Facebook group stated, “It seemed to me that guys were fighting all the time. Every party or dance would end up with guys punching each other out, in all the neighborhoods. It was so annoying.”
Both Gary Jensen and Patrick Coonen of the Bart jacket club Junior Jokers confirmed that jacket clubs and hot rod clubs were two, distinct, teen subcultures.
However, Mr. Jensen stated that there was some “crossing over” between White Shoe subculture and hot rod culture.
Gary Jensen noted aspects of Bay Area hot rod culture that he, and some of his White Shoe friends were also a part of.
Popular spots for Bay Area drag racing included The Great Highway, as well as Ocean Beach.