Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mr. FInkel--a tale of an aging Jewish gangster in the 1954 East Bronx



Mr. Finkel paced up and down in his spacious apartment on Crotona Park East. He lived in the best building in the area, an elevator building that had been built just before the crash in ’29. It had a marble lobby, three staircases, a big courtyard with a statue in the middle and a laundry room . It was one of the few things that gave him solace nowadays. In the background, his wife watched the Army-McCarthy hearing on TV.

He’d been out for two years already and was itching for some action. He kept his job as a Wall Street clerk that he’d been given as a condition for his release, but let’s face it, there was no future or real money in that. He wanted to get back in the game in the worst way, but his parole officer wouldn’t even let him go to Tillie’s candy store, with its two-bit bookies and its penny-ante pinochle games. His wife’s brother owned a big commercial laundry on Allerton Avenue and White Plains Road, and both his wife and his brother-in-law both wanted him to become a partner.

But so far, he resisted. After all, he’d been in the outfits since he was 17 and Dutch Schultz hired him to work on the truck delivering barrels of beer. He was still only 52 years old—he had a lot of years ahead of him. Some of the guys he used to run with, like Meyer Lansky, Longie Zwillman and Doc Stacher, were making millions in Florida, in Vegas, in Havana. Why not him? It just wasn’t fair! He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and become a square.

On top of it all, his wife kept pushing him to move to a better neighborhood, to the Concourse or Pelham Parkway.  But Mr. Finkel resisted. Yes, the neighborhood was changing. But the changes hadn’t reached his block, or any of the adjacent blocks. He’d lived in this building ever since he moved up here from down-and-dirty Fox Street. He knew the butcher, the baker, the appetizing store guy, the newsstand owner, the local movie theater. No, he’d stay here for the time being – unless, of course, he got his big break and moved to Miami or Vegas.

Suddenly, he got the call he’d been waiting for. It was Mr. Vellela. He wanted to see him tomorrow in his suite at the Concourse Plaza. They agreed on a time. He wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world!
“How you doin’, Sol,” Mr. Vellella greeted him as he walked into the office. “You want a drink? Scotch, 
bourbon, rye, anything? A martini, maybe? My girl will make it for you.”

“Just a Canadian Club and soda,” Mr. Finkel answered, sitting down in the plush armchair. “What took yiz guys so long?”

“Well, we’ve been a little preoccupied. Frank Hogan, the Manhattan DA, is startin’ to make some noise again. Also some tension between some of the families. Don’t worry about it—it’s a Sicilian thing. But let’s let bygones be bygones. You up for a little proposition?”

“Sure. You know me,” said Mr. Finkel eagerly, sipping his Canadian Club. He was finally going to get some action. “Watcha got in mind?”

“We want you to run some numbers for us.”

It wasn’t much, but at least it was a new start. “Sure! Where?”

“In your area, you know, East Tremont, West Farms, Crotona Park.”

Mr. Finkel frowned. “I dunno. About half the neighborhood is P.R. now. Those people want to bet with their own kind.”

Mr. Velella smiled. “That’s why we want you to partner with this kid, Jesus! He’s smart, he’s resourceful, he knows the lingo, he knows the people.”

“His name is Jesus? You bullshittin’ me?”

“It’s pronounced Hay-Zoos! Lots ‘a Puerto Ricans have that name.”

“Whatever.”

The next day, Mr. Finkel met Jesus, whose family owned a private house near the old railroad tracks south of 180th Street. He was impressed with his intelligence,  his organizing ability, the way he had a backup plan ready if anything went wrong. Jesus would organize the street operation, recruit local teens as runner and do the collections, while Mr. Finkel would do the bookkeeping and deal with Mr. Vellella and the other higher-ups.

“You and me, Jesus, we’re gonna make mucho dinero!”

“That’s Hay-Zoos!”

“Whatever.”

For awhile, things went great. It was almost like the old days before the war, although not quite. Because he didn’t want to attract too much attention from the parole board, Mr. Finkel wore suits from Robert Hall nowadays, not the $100 suits of yesteryear. For the same reason, he didn’t drive a Packard anymore, just a more plebian Oldsmobile.

After about six months, however, things began to go sour. Jesus became late with some of his payments and became increasingly difficult to find. And, of course, Mr. Vellella put the pressure on him. He decided to take things into his own hands. Going through his ledgers, he focused on one address that was two months behind in payments. He decided to go there himself. He was a little nervous about going that far south, to 169th Street, but why should he be afraid? Wasn’t he the same guy who had personally bumped off three hijackers when he was riding shotgun for the Bugs and Meyer Gang back in the ‘20s? He might be a little more overweight and a little more gray, but he was still the same guy, he told himself. He headed out. Just to make sure, he put his gun in his pocket.

Walking up the tenement stairs to the apartment where that particular numbers drop was located, he had the sense that something was wrong. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with five Puerto Rican teenagers.

“Where you going,” one of them asked. “You don’t live here.”

Thinking fast, he said, “I have to visit someone. I’m a Welfare investigator.”

“No you’re not,” said the same kid, whom Mr. Finkel gathered was the leader of the gang. “We know who you are. As soon as we saw you on the street, we followed you here. You’re Mr. Finkel, right?”

“What’s it to you?” Mr. Finkel asked in a oud, aggressive voice. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You don’t know the people I’m connected with.”

The gang laughed. “We’re not afraid of anyone, man,” another one said. “We’re the Diablos!” 

“You’re making a mistake,” Mr. FInkel said, yelling even louder. “I’m gonna tell Jesus about this!”

They laughed again. “That’s Hay-zoos, man. He’s working for us now!” the leader bragged. “He’s been with us for about a month.”

So that was why the money wasn’t coming in, Mr. Finkel thought.

“Look,” the leader of the Diablos said in a suddenly conciliatory voice. “We don’t wanna hurt you. We give you respect because we know you’re one of us. You’re a player. But your Jew gangsters and your Italian compadres don’t run things about here no more. We do! So why don’t you just go home?” 

Mr. Finkel was packing heat, but he knew he couldn’t take on five guys. As he started going down the stairs, he heard the Diablos’ boastful chant:

“Out came the Diablos
From the coconut trees
They were bad motherfuckers
In their BDVs!”

When Mr. Finkel got home, he was shaking. “What’s wrong?” his wife asked. “Something happen to you?”

“Nothin’,” he said brusquely, waving her concern away with his hand. “Just gimme a Canadian Club and soda, will ya?”

Mr. Finkel stayed awake all night, thinking. If he left the life, Mr. Vellella would be pissed, but Vellella knew enough about him to know that he wouldn’t start running to the cops and the DA. Maybe it was time, he thought. In the morning, he woke his wife up with a smile.

“Rachel,” he said, “Tell your brother I’m goin’ in with him in the laundry. And so we can be closer to the place, we’re movin’ ta Pelham Parkway!”

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bay Ridge--a Brooklyn Success Story



Originally from Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A recent Brooklyn Daily Eagle article by Paula Katinas states that “Bay Ridge is such a desirable neighborhood to live in, people will do anything to live there.”
Many buyers are purchasing one- or two family homes, gutting them, then transforming them into multi-family housing with as many as eight apartments. In some cases, says Katinas, the buyers claim they’re only making minor improvements, get permits for the work, but then redo the house from top to bottom.
If they are caught doing so, they should pay the penalty. But the question remains—what is it about Bay Ridge that makes the area so attractive? It’s common to see third- or fourth-generation residents living in the area – something that can’t be said about most neighborhoods.
One reason is that Bay Ridge has a mix of private homes, two-family houses and apartment houses. The smaller houses range from spacious wooden homes to row houses that in many cases are as appealing as those in Park Slope and nearby areas. The apartment houses are generally solidly built, many are elevator buildings, and they are generally well maintained. This is not the situation in some nearby neighborhoods where the single-family homes are well cared for, but many of the older apartment houses are somewhat rundown.
Another factor in Bay Ridge’s success is its nightlife. The bars and restaurants of Bay Ridge don’t feature famous singers and musicians, but they make the neighborhood as lively at night as during the day. If a neighborhood has crowds of people walking around at night, crime is less likely to occur. The clubs and bars contribute to a sense of community, and many of the bands have a local fan base. If one particular bar is a problem, the community moves into action, but the majority of them are solid, law-abiding enterprises.
In addition, Bay Ridge and nearby Dyker Heights have a very high number of people who are actively involved in local affairs. Political clubs (of both types), churches, Boy Scout troops, PTAs, youth baseball leagues, amateur arts groups, community gardens and more all have very high rates of participation.
Why this is the case I don’t know, but this type of cohesiveness may easier to maintain when you have large numbers of people who have grown up together and known each other for many years. One Bay Ridge resident who works for the Eagle once told me that most residents know who their local politicians are. By contrast, when I went petitioning to get my assemblyman back on the ballot in my own neighborhood, quite a few passers-by didn’t know who he was – even though he’d been in the Assembly for more than 25 years.
Finally, Bay Ridge is a community where small business thrives. A case in point is Hinsch’s, now known as Mike Hinsch’s Greek-American Diner. There used to be hundreds of places like Hinsch’s all over the city, but it’s not an accident that Bay Ridge is where this one has survived. Yes, chain stores are making inroads on 86th Street and other Bay Ridge arteries, but not as much as in some other neighborhoods.
This type of small-town living isn’t for everybody, but it appeals to enough people to make Bay Ridge a Brooklyn success story. No, builders shouldn’t cheat to get more people in – but can you really blame them?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Memories of Long ISland College Hospital

From Brooklyn Daily Eagle



Now that LICH is closed, regardless of when or in what form it will eventually reopen, it’s time to reflect on the past.
I first heard of it when I moved from my basement apartment in a two-family house in the Bronx to an Art Deco apartment house in Midwood, Brooklyn. At the time, I was suffering from serious asthma. That was why I moved out of the two-family house – my place was next to an open boiler, and I believed it was exacerbating my condition.
Once in Brooklyn, I started to look around for a new doctor. My previous doctor was a well-known pulmonary specialist at a prestigious Bronx hospital, but it was clear he was doing nothing for me – I was still going to the emergency room frequently and wheezing and getting out of breath constantly. I decided to try an allergist, and found an allergy practice in Brooklyn Heights. I knew very little about the Heights at the time, but I reasoned that it was about halfway between my new home and my job in Midtown Manhattan. The doctor was affiliated with what was for me a new hospital – Long Island College Hospital.
For the first time since childhood, I found myself taking allergy injections on a regular basis. No offense, but these allergists didn’t really help my condition, and I was actually admitted to the hospital a few times. After changing jobs to what is now the Brooklyn Eagle, my health plan changed and I had to find another doctor. My new doctor was also a LICH-affiliated physician with an office in the Heights. He stopped the injections, and put me on the road to recovery, a road that improved as new medications were added to my regimen. Even though I soon got married and moved to Manhattan, I kept my Brooklyn doctor for a few years.
Along the way, I had two operations at LICH. The first was to take out nasal polyps. My doctor exclaimed that they were growing at such a rate that they not only endangered my breathing, they would push into my brain area. The operation was a success. The second operation was also a success, but the aftermath was extremely painful.
There was also the time that I was taken to the LICH emergency room from the Eagle’s old office on 30 Henry St. after I attempted to open a Snapple bottle, only to have the bottle break and cause a wide gash in my wrist. The Eagle’s production manager at the time filmed the whole thing with his digital camera and suggested that I sue Snapple. I did, but my lawyer gave up after Snapple kept insisting on more and more documentation.
Even before LICH’s recent financial crisis, we wrote stories about the hospital. I once wrote a feature on the Lamm Institute, a division that provided services to developmentally disabled children. The building has since been sold. I also interviewed a new high-powered chef at LICH whose goal it was to bring gourmet food to the hospital cafeteria. Sadly, it couldn’t last. On a third occasion, I interviewed a group of doctors who were introducing a new machine to detect osteoporosis. They tried it out on me, and to shock, it turned out that I had a mild case of the disease. They told me that years of taking asthma-related steroids had taken their toll.
At any rate, these are some of my memories of LICH.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

In Praise of Landmark Districts



From Brooklyn Daily Eagle
 
Claims that landmark districts are holding back the city are exaggerated.
In an article in the Eagle about a forum sponsored by Crain’s New York Business, Matthew Taub quoted Kenneth Jackson, professor at Columbia University, as saying that “History is for losers…Boston and Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston lost out keeping their gracious streets and their old buildings. New York is a world city–you want to live in a world city? You have to accept change.”
The cities Jackson named are very different from each other. Boston seems to be doing OK. There are about 60 colleges and universities in greater Boston, and I doubt that they would be prospering if Boston were a town for “losers.” The Red Sox seem to be doing all right, too. As for Savannah, it was the subject of a best-selling book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” by John Berendt.
There are about 25 officially designated historic districts in Brooklyn, most of them in an area stretching from Prospect Park north to Brooklyn Heights and then east to Bedford-Stuyvesant. Many of these districts are well known: Brooklyn Heights itself (the first in the city), Cobble Hill, various parts of Victorian Flatbush, Stuyvesant Heights, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Some of them encompass fairly large areas. Others, such as the Borough Hall Skyscraper District, only consist of a few blocks or half-blocks.
Landmarking regulations can be a pain to homeowners within the district – for example, they have to replace a window or door with the same type of window or door, and they often have to get approval even to install a window air-conditioning unit. Yes, things sometimes get out of hand. But, homeowners who need to make repairs to their landmarked houses needn’t fret. There’s an entire industry of contractors, designers, etc., who specialize in this type of work.
If one looks at the sheer size of Brooklyn, the landmarked districts take up about a tenth of the borough, if that much. And it’s not as if the districts are imposed on residents – there is a formal hearing process, where both proponents and opponents of landmarking have their say. Often, as in the cases of the Heights and Park Slope, residents led the effort to declare the area a historic district. In the case of the Skyscraper District, many of the owners and tenants of the skyscrapers opposed the effort, saying that landmarking could hurt business. While their objections weren’t successful, they were seriously considered.
In Taub’s article, Professor Jackson is quoted as saying, “I have been leading tourists and teaching students for 40 years. I have never heard a single person say they wanted to go to see a historic district.” I think Jackson is splitting hairs--maybe the students never said it in those terms, but I bet plenty wanted to go see Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. And landmarking has done a lot for those neighborhoods. If Brooklyn Heights were dominated by 40-story buildings, fewer tourists would come to the Promenade because they wouldn’t even be able to find it.
Clearly, not every neighborhood deserves to be landmarked. But in general, landmarking has done far more good than harm.