the battle of claremont park

And indeed, the historian can only view with awe the valor of those who fought and the devotion of those who led. For a few brief moments in that fabled time a troubled world long accustomed to petty strife knew once more the glory of a bygone age….”

 

by fred russell

 

Of the immediate causes of the war that raged through the streets of the city in the summer of that distant year, little is known. That there were long-standing territorial disputes between the warring parties, that a threatening alliance had recently been forged, that wanton acts of indiscriminate violence were being perpetrated daily by both camps, there is no denying. But beyond these well-known circumstances we cannot proceed with confidence. It must be left to historians of future generations to uncover the spark that ignited the conflagration that inflamed men’s hearts and drove them headlong into furious battle on the fields of Mars, for in the words of the Poet:

Hae ducibus causae; suberant sed publica belli
Semina, quae populos semper mersere potentes

And indeed, the historian can only view with awe the valor of those who fought and the devotion of those who led. For a few brief moments in that fabled time a troubled world long accustomed to petty strife knew once more the glory of a bygone age.

The Napoli Boys were a small, isolated power of obscure origin. It is most likely that the few great families whose sons ultimately banded together to defend themselves were driven from their ancient homeland in the East Bronx by the relentless onslaught of barbaric dark-skinned peoples in the late Forties of the previous century. They settled finally to the west of Claremont Park, bringing with them their language, their institutions and a unique culture which the original inhabitants of the region soon adopted. They lived there in relative peace and harmony for half a decade, penetrating as far west as the Grand Concourse and even beyond. The community prospered under their benign rule and the Napoli Boys grew accordingly in number as eager warriors joined their ranks, finally striking north from 170th Street beyond Mt. Eden Parkway. But here their expansion came to an abrupt halt in the face of spirited resistance on the part of the Concourse Dukes and behind them the Fordham Baldies. Wherever they turned now they found hostile forces arrayed against them. To the east the fierce Brookies contested their control of Claremont Park and from the western reaches of the borough the mighty Highbridge Dukes made periodic incursions into their territory.1 By the spring of 1954 the situation had grown critical. Clashes were frequent and casualties grew. When finally the Brookies made an alliance with the Highbridge Dukes, a move long feared by cooler heads, it was clear that all-out war was inevitable, for the Napoli Boys, squeezed to the limits of endurance, were now threatened with coordinated action on both their flanks. What is worse, it soon became apparent that in the event of war they would be compelled to stand virtually alone.

For the Brownie Boys, upon whose support the Napoli Boys had desperately counted, voiced so many reservations that Big John Brody, the valiant leader of the Napoli Boys, could only conclude that they were reluctant to take sides in the coming conflict. He had invited their leader, Billy McGuire, and his redoubtable warlord, Jimmy the Turk, to a council of war. Present on behalf of the Napoli Boys, in addition to Brody himself, were Napoli Boy warlord Tommy Murphy, Stevie De Pontis and Leroy Tucker.2 McGuire temporized. After the traditional toasts he launched into an incoherent recital of his plan to invade Harlem with a thousand men. It was apparently his idea to commandeer a fleet of barges, sail up the Hudson River in the dead of night and establish a beachhead at Washington Heights. Brody feigned surprise, exchanging amused looks with Murphy, for they had indeed heard rumors of this preposterous scheme. Reflecting for a moment, he pointed out to McGuire that the Napoli Boys were affiliated with the Harlem Red Wings and therefore Napoli Boy participation in such a campaign would constitute a grave breach of trust. The impetuous Turk, who had been brooding silently all this while, hotly countered that the Red Wings themselves would not hesitate to betray that trust, as they had recently shown by machinegunning four members of the Little Lords in broad daylight on Amsterdam Avenue. This, Brody pointed out, was entirely irrelevant, as the Red Wings were at war with the Little Lords. But were not the Little Lords, said the Turk complacently, affiliated with the Brownie Boys? Sensing Brody’s discomfiture, Murphy made haste to change the subject. The immediate question, he argued, was whether the Brownie Boys were prepared to support the Napoli Boys against the Brookies and the Highbridge Dukes. McGuire made little effort to disguise his displeasure. The Brownie Boys, he stated emphatically, did not consider themselves a western power. They did not wish to become embroiled in a conflict that did not threaten their vital interests. If, on the other hand, the Fordham Baldies were to join the fray, then the Brownie Boys would not hesitate to go to war. Under the present circumstances, he concluded, the Brownie Boys could do no more than dispatch a token force.

Despite the unsatisfactory outcome of these negotiations, Brody did not stint in fulfilling his obligations as host and called in a camp follower known as the Twister to entertain his guests, bowing his head gracefully and retiring with his men. Once outside he is reported to have turned to Murphy and said heatedly, “Those cocksucking motherfuckers.” Murphy nodded, as if to concur.

Later that evening the Napoli Boys assembled in their subterranean headquarters on College Avenue, proudly wearing their forest green jerseys like members of a fraternity. It was a hot June night. The men sat in a circle smoking. Some of the women were there as well, entirely at ease in that fierce and raucous assembly. As always, the men engaged in the ancient sport of “mothersounding.”3 Brucie Brown said to Mickey Hoffman, “Hey, wasn’t that your mother I saw my dog fucking in the alley last night?” “No, man,” Mickey Hoffman retorted, “that was your mother crawling in the gutter with her tits in my mouth.” “Yeah?” Brucie Brown said. “I hear your mother got busted with a telephone pole up her cunt.” “Yeah?” Mickey Hoffman parried. “I hear the city put a stop sign in your mother’s ass to slow the traffic down.”

This spirited exchange was accompanied by much laughter and cries of encouragement. So too the company was entertained by various recitations of recent adventures and exploits. Big John Brody sat silently and patiently in his accustomed place, letting his fellow warriors let off steam, for he knew what lay ahead. Barely 17 at the time, he was a battle-scarred veteran of numerous campaigns, a man given a wide berth wherever he tread. Of middle height but with powerful limbs and a massive head and chest, utterly fearless and decisive in speech and actions, he commanded the respect of even his bitterest enemies. All eyes turned to him now as he stood up to address the men. Immediately there was total silence in the crowded room.

“Those motherfucking Brookies are gonna get their asses kicked,” he said. “We gonna stomp their motherfucking asses. We gonna take ’em in the park when they come up tomorrow night. We gonna meet at eight in the clubroom. How many guns we got?”

“Six,” Murphy replied.

“You bring chains, you bring pipes, you bring butcher knives. We gonna kick their fucking asses.”

“Yo,” Murphy said.

“I want everyone here. No motherfucking excuses. We go full strength.”

“Yo,” Murphy said.

“We gonna stomp their asses,” Brody said. “They’ll never come to the park again. It’s our fucking park. Aint no fucking Brookies gonna come to our fucking park.”

“What about the Brownie Boys?” Mickey Hoffman asked. “Are they coming up?”

“Fuck the Brownie Boys,” Brody said. “We don’t need no fucking Brownie Boys to kick their fucking asses.”

“We’ll kick their fucking asses without the fucking Brownie Boys,” Murphy added.

“When we finish with the Brookies, maybe we’ll kick their fucking asses too,” Brodie said.

“We kill them all,” Murphy said

The discussion continued far into the night, after which the men retired to prepare themselves, each in his own way, for the fateful day that lay ahead. Brody himself found a mattress in the corner of the room and lay down for a few brief hours of rest, joined there by his faithful consort, the comely Mary Anne Schultz. They slept till noon and then rose together and had a modest meal. The men were already arriving and stood off to the side, not wishing to disturb their leader while he ate. They spoke in quiet voices. When Brody rose from his place they came to attention and then followed him up to the street. It was another hot day. School was not yet out and there were few people in the street. Many of the Napoli Boys were in fact still in school so Brody led the men to the schoolyard and they waited there for the others to join them, throwing around a rubber ball. At three o’clock the great throngs of students burst through the door and flooded the streets. Seeing him, the remaining Napoli Boys joined their comrades on the corner. Brody immediately spotted Little Les, a turncoat who had taken to consorting with the Brookies and was suspected of spying.

“Get over here, you little prick,” Brody called to him.

Little Les looked around nervously and made his way through the crowd. “What you want, man?” he said.

“I want your fucking ass in a sling,” Brody said.

“I didn’t do nuthin to you,” Little Les said.

Murphy grabbed him by the shirt. “Tell your fucking friends to stay out of our park. They come to our park we gonna bust their fucking asses.”

“What friends?” Little Les said, feigning innocence.

“You know what friends,” Brody said. “You tell them. Make sure they understand. And if I ever see you in that fucking park I’ll bust your ass too.”

Somewhat chastened, Little Les slunk away. Brody lit a cigarette and, pushing through the crowd, made his way toward 170th Street with the rest of the men on his heels. After spending the remainder of the afternoon in the local poolroom they returned to headquarters to make final preparations. Murphy had indeed amassed a formidable arsenal of weapons – the six aforementioned guns, zip guns constructed of car antennas and firing .22 caliber ammunition, furtively manufactured in the metalworking shop of the local junior high school, as well an assortment of lead pipes, bicycle chains and knives. Brody nodded in approval while the men armed themselves. They then went upstairs for a breath of air. It was not yet dark. The women joined them and the men clustered in little groups up and down the street. Filipino Joe produced a bullwhip and cracked it at passing cars, causing considerable confusion among the drivers. A patrol car came slowly down the street, causing the men to disperse quickly and quietly as they had been trained to do. At around seven a lone figure appeared on a bicycle at the corner of College Avenue and 170th Street and after taking a long look raced away in the direction of Clay Avenue, Brookie territory. “Head him off!” Brody cried. Murphy took a few of the men through the parking lot that came out on Teller Avenue but after a few moments returned out of breath. “He got away,” he said. Brody quickly gathered the men, then took each to the side and spoke to him at length. The women he sent to headquarters, there to await the outcome of the battle, speaking tender words to Mary Anne and squeezing her breast. Again a patrol car came down the street and again the men dispersed. It was clear to Brody that word was out. He led the men through the parking lot and into the park over the low retaining wall that ran along Teller Avenue, then up the grassy knoll that led to the main pedestrian walk traversing the length of the park all the way across to Mt. Eden Parkway and the playground overlooking the street (see map). Not a word was spoken as they moved in single file up to the walk and past the park benches where couples cringed as they approached. At one bench they stopped to supply themselves with cigarettes, extended to them with a shaking hand. Brody stopped the men beneath the bigger playground in the southern sector of the park. Here youngsters under the protection of the Napoli Boys came to disport themselves. Now the men moved off the walk and across the fields stretching north, fanning out in a broad arc. It was dark now. They could see no one up ahead. Brody and Murphy conferred under a tree while the others waited.

“They hang out by the playground,” Murphy said.

“Whaddya wanna do?”

“I’ll come around the playground and flank them on their left.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Hold them in the center.” He made a little motion with his hand to make it clear what he meant and Brody nodded.

“How many men do you need?” Brody said.

“I can only leave you a few.”

Brody nodded again. He had complete confidence in Murphy and was prepared to bear the brunt of the Brookie attack until Murphy came up on the flank.

Murphy now assembled his force while Brody kneeled and smoked a cigarette. It was clear to him that the Brookies would be fully prepared to meet a frontal assault. The question was what they had done to forestall a flanking movement. He therefore sent out a scout, Brucie Brown, who was instructed to move stealthily across the fields that separated the two forces and try to ascertain the disposition of the enemy. Brown moved off in the night while Brody paced restlessly and waited for his report. Murphy had in the meanwhile made his final dispositions and was ready to commence his movement. The two waited together for Brown to return. At a little before nine o’clock they caught sight of him hastening up the pedestrian walk. The enemy was assembled just west of the playground, he reported, with not even a token force on their left flank. Brody looked Murphy in the eyes and nodded his head.

Murphy set out in two parallel columns, making a wide arc in the direction of the playground while Brody moved forward slowly and cautiously with the remaining force. In the distance he could hear a portable radio playing loudly and low laughter. Soon he could make out the enemy ranged along the walk running parallel to Mt. Eden Parkway, sprawled on benches, lying in the grass, their women there too. He waited out of sight, giving Murphy time to complete his movement. Murphy too moved cautiously though at a faster clip. His men crouched slightly as they traversed the open fields beneath the enormous elm trees scattered throughout the park. When they saw the playground Murphy motioned to the men to make another wide circuit and come up behind it, on the eastern side. Brody in the meanwhile showed himself and began moving toward the enemy lines with his small force spread out behind him. He was spotted immediately. He had a lead pipe in his hand but was otherwise unarmed. This brilliant ploy caught the Brookies entirely off guard. Thinking they completely outnumbered their bitterest enemy and in effect had him at their mercy, they deployed unhurriedly and began advancing in an almost casual manner, with something of a swagger in their walk and a smirk on their faces. The ensuing dialogue between Brody and Brookie leader Frankie Gambucci has been diligently transcribed by Hutchinson 4:

Gambucci: Lookin’ for someone, motherfucker?

Brody: Yeah, I’m lookin’ for you.

Gambucci: Here’s my dick. Start suckin’.

Brody: First get it out of your mother’s ass.

Gambucci: You gonna die, motherfucker.

Brody: I’m gonna die laughin’ when your fuckin’ balls are hangin’ from a tree.

Gambucci: You aint gonna be laughin when I cut your prick off an’ feed it my dog.

Brody: Better stick it in your mother’s cunt. That where I been keepin’ it.

 

 

All this while, as the two forces edged almost imperceptibly toward one another, poised for violent action, though somewhat distracted by the brilliant repartee, Brody kept shifting his eyes surreptitiously to the right, looking for a sign of Murphy’s arrival. At last he saw him coming around the playground and as previously agreed raised his arm as a signal to advance. With a great shout Murphy’s men poured out of the bushes alongside the playground fence and bore down on the Brookie left, which was unsuspectingly still facing south. At the same time Brody raised his lead pipe over his head and moved swiftly forward toward the Brookies in his immediate front, making a beeline for their hated leader. Brody’s men followed suit and the two lines crashed together just as Murphy hit the Brookie flank, causing great confusion in their ranks. Brody struck the Brookie leader over the head and swung the pipe savagely in every direction. The Brookie women, somewhat to the rear, were screaming hysterically as fighting spread along the line. Murphy’s men quickly rolled up the Brookie flank, firing at prostrate figures or flailing at them with pipes and chains. In the midst of all this the powerful figure of Big John Brody stood out. Targeted by the enemy, he withstood numerous assaults, striking the attackers with mighty blows. The ground was littered now with bleeding bodies. Some of the Brookies tried to escape but were caught and beaten savagely. Crazy Ivan shot one in the head and kicked the prostrate figure over and over again until his face was an unrecognizable pulp. Seeing how the battle was going the Brookie women fled into the street still screaming. Now police sirens could be heard and Brody issued the command to withdraw. The men scattered in every direction, heading for the southern sector of the park and then down across its slopes and jumping from the wall that separated it from Teller Avenue. The sirens drew nearer. Now the men spilled into the parking lot that led to College Avenue and dispersed between the buildings there. Brody found refuge behind a garbage can. Murphy climbed into one and secured the lid. The police were everywhere, picking up stragglers and making arrests. Most of the Napoli Boys, however, managed to escape. One by one they made their way to headquarters, where their women were waiting to minister to their wounds. Brody called the roll. Five men were missing, fallen or apprehended. The night was passed without further incident. Two policemen patrolled the block and Murphy even came out after changing his shirt and innocently engaged them in conversation. In the morning they eagerly purchased a copy of the Daily News to read about the battle.

The Battle of Claremont Park is perceived as a turning point in the wars that raged through the city in that troubled era. Never again would the Brookies constitute a threat. The Napoli Boys now ruled their territory in relative security. In the following decade gang warfare would decline and an era of tranquility would reign until again the storied bands reared their heads in the 1970s and returned to the scene of their greatest triumphs.

Notes:

1 See Register of New York City Bopping Gangs, New York Daily News Archives.
2 This and much of what follows is based on the riveting account in Kenneth J. Hutchinson’s bestselling I Was a Bronx Warlord (1982).
3 Herbie Wiggins, The Lost Art of Mothersounding (2006).
4 Ibid., p. 463.

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Nine
July 2014

 

(illustrations: fred russell)


Fred Russell recently published a novel called Rafi’s World (Fomite Press) as well as stories and essays in Polluto, Fear of Monkeys, Citizens for Decent Literature, Ontologica, Fiction on the Web and Wilderness House LIterary Review.

 

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