Bronx Struggle: Angels on the Subway

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In 1978, a night manager in a McDonald’s on Fordham Rd. in the Bronx thought his neighborhood needed a good street cleaning. It was turning into a dump. A civic-minded youth, he decided to recruit a squad of volunteers to sweep the streets and clean up the place. This gang of broom pushers became known as the Rock Brigade–"Rock" being the night manager’s street name.

The Bronx was spiraling toward disaster in those years, and this teenaged cleaning crew wanted to make it better. This touched people in the Bronx, because their borough was fast becoming a punch line for urban ruin. As the Yankees battled the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series, fires broke out on the Bronx skyline. Howard Cosell’s plaintive wail of, "The Bronx is burning, the Bronx is burning," pretty much summed up where things were.

But arson and dirty streets weren’t the only problems. The NYPD faced severe budget cuts, and the remaining cops were a dispirited bunch. A lot of the cops were just doing time until they could get their 20 years and retire, so they seemed happy to sit on their asses and let muggers freely work their trade on the subways and the streets. Most of the cops, after all, lived in Rockland and didn’t care about us animals.

Back then, few Bronxites even bothered to dial 911 when trouble jumped off. We took care of it on our own. Unfortunately, a lot of times that backfired, and it was common to hear about working stiffs being gunned down for their paychecks. If you weren’t young, strong or crazy, you just didn’t go out after dark.

To combat this, Rock and his 12 biggest street sweepers formed a civilian patrol group to fight crime in the streets and subways. They called themselves the Magnificent 13, and on Feb. 13, 1979, they boarded the 4 train–then known as the Mugger Express–to begin their own patrol. Cleaning streets was one thing, but a vigilante patrol didn’t play as well, and the group was looked upon with suspicion.

When these cats started their subway forays, me and my friends–a mixed bag of whites, blacks and Latinos–thought Rock and his merry band were a bunch of well-intentioned boneheads. These 13 do-gooders were seen as a bunch of wannabe cops–squares not to be taken seriously.

In those days, the last car of the 4 train was reserved for potheads and drunks. The transit cops and the heads had an unspoken agreement that they wouldn’t patrol the rear car if the mayhem would stay back there. (In a city where you can no longer smoke a cigarette in a bar, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a designated pot-smoking car on the subway.) The only problem was that no one told Rock or the Magnificent 13 about the deal. They’d come into the last car, cough from the fumes and shoot you a hard look. In return, we’d goof on them. No one put out the pot.

Who the hell were these fools in their t-shirts and berets?

By 1980, the Magnificent 13 had morphed into the Guardian Angels, and Curtis Sliwa, aka Rock, became a media sensation. We still thought they were a bunch of squares, but deep down even the biggest Bronx pothead admired the Angels’ courage for riding subways unarmed and having the balls to confront the criminals of New York.

The Bronx of 1978 is gone now, and good riddance, but the Guardian Angels are still around. Now a radio-show host, Curtis Sliwa has ridden that red beret for all it’s worth.

The Guardian Angels office on 8th Ave. is in a walk-up in the middle of the block. On the door, a sign warns visitors that it’s under 24-hour surveillance. At the top of a seedy staircase, I was met by two Angels in full-patrol regalia. A ponytailed white guy asked a Latino man if he wanted me searched. I told them I came in peace; I was there to write a story. The Latino man, 27-year-old Jose Gonzales from Brooklyn, told me that everyone gets searched–even Sliwa himself.

In the front room of the threadbare office, two young kids were doing their homework under the supervision of an Angel. In the back is a work-out room where the patrol boys stay in fighting shape. On the wall behind a glass frame are t-shirts from the long forgotten Rock Brigade, The Magnificent 13 and the ever-present Guardian Angels.

"Every year we still go up to that McDonald’s on Fordham Rd. where this started," Gonzales told me, "but I bet most of the kids that come for the programs don’t realize why we are there or the history of it."

I asked Gonzales how many Angels there are in New York.

"We put an emphasis on school, and the majority of our members are 16 to 18, so during the winter we have only 80 to 100 or so. I don’t have exact numbers, but once the summer comes we’re like 1000 strong."

And what of the ancillary project known as the Junior Guardian Angels?

"It’s like a Big Brother program. We check on the kids’ schoolwork and make sure that their grades are good. We take them on weekend trips and let them train with martial arts."

Why did Gonzales join?

"I did it at first because I wanted to get free martial arts training. But after about a month or two you really want to help people. It rubs off on you. I was in a park near here checking the ground for drug paraphernalia. I was pulling a syringe out of the grass, and I felt someone tugging at me. I thought it might be a junkie mad that I had found his stash. It was a kid, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ That touched me, and I wanted to help kids. And I have."

Tony Johnson is a fine clerk in the New York City court system and was a Guardian Angel back in the early 80s when he and the group were both relatively young.

"I was in high school when I joined. I did it for two years, from 16 to 18. By my senior year in high school I had my own patrol."

Like Gonzales, he got involved because of his interest in martial arts and a desire to help others.

"I was mugged on Fulton St., and a thousand people walked past and saw it and no one stopped to help me. I got away, but it bothered me that no one would stop. I always had a problem with people being robbed. People work hard for what little they get, and that shouldn’t be taken away from them. It’s wrong. Poor blacks robbing other poor blacks. No one should rob anyone, but I felt here we were all black and all poor and we are stealing, robbing and hurting ourselves."

Johnson and his crew hit the subways for two- to three-hour patrols. One night, he and a few other Angels got into a brawl with a knife-wielding gang of Puerto Rican guys.

"I was fighting with a guy and he was lashing at me with his knife. He tore my shirt to shreds but I got out of it."

Soon the danger got to be too much. Later, a few Angels were shot, and Johnson’s mother begged him to quit. He did.

"We did a lot to prevent crime. We made good citizens feel better that someone was out there watching their backs."

There are now 25 other U.S. and Canadian chapters and six in foreign countries. They also have Cyber-Angels that have been patrolling the net for pervs since 1998. As a talk-show host and media figure, Curtis Sliwa may have done well financially from the organization, but he’s given back. Forgotten are the killjoys who didn’t want pot-smoking on the 4 train. Forgotten are the taunts about the matching t-shirts and berets. Twenty-four years ago, Sliwa created an organization that has helped more kids than most, and his legacy is strong.



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