New York City’s civic leadership wasn’t kind to the Hispanic neighborhoods in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The deterioration of the schools and neighborhood was accelerated by social policies and a thinly disguised racism masked by fear and paternalism. Williamsburg became littered with human wreckage ruined by poverty, broken families, drugs and violence. Looking for safe haven, African Americans and Hispanics started moving in greater numbers to Bushwick.
The public school leadership also had trouble in the providing safe, supportive environments for students and teachers. By the 1970s the school system was wracked with violence and conflict. Home too was beset with troubles.
The city built enormous public housing projects that were based on a misconception about how communities are knit together through mixed uses, mixed classes and street interactions. Well-meaning, the projects caused significant destruction of communal relations and the creation of a concentration of anonymity that was hard to overcome. None of the housing projects provided space for businesses that would mean jobs for locals as Williamsburg and Greenpoint deindustrialized and very little space for community organizations like stick ball clubs and churches.
In fact one wonders exactly how many churches were torn down by the construction of the projects and the construction of the BQE, and how many congregations were forced to scramble for new space, relocate out of the neighborhood or close permanently. For example, in an earlier clearance and rebuilding, the First Italian Baptist Church was crushed into rubble within a triangular area separating the streets along the expressway. The massive construction projects put the future of the neighborhood into unneighborly hands.
There was a de-articulation of socio-religious interests and voices by the outside interests of developers, foundations, universities and government bureaucrats.
Leaderless, fragmented and abandoned, Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents could not control their turf. Some younger residents defended themselves and drifted in a search for personal dignity and direction by joining their peer groups in the gangs.
In South Williamsburg each street developed its own gangs. At 387 South Fourth Street R.T.H. (Rock the House) set up home in an abandoned building. The Satan Souls were on South Fifth Street and The Unknown Bikers on South Second Street. The Bikers got their name from tricking out bicycles to look like choopers, something you still occasionally see in the area. The El Quintos, The Dirty Ones, and The Renegade Demons also mixed it up In “Los Sures” (“The Souths”). The Screaming Phatoms ventured out of their Broadway-Meeker Avenue neighborhood to commit a notorious assassination on August 21, 1973 of two Devils Rebels at the intersection of Evergreen Avenue and Menahan Street in Bushwick.
Williamsburg became the place to go if you wanted to kill someone. On March 3, 1971 Frank Serpico, whose exposure of vast corrupt conspiracies in the New York Police Department was pivotal in the city's eventual recovery, was probably set up by fellow officers to be shot on a stakeout at 778 Driggs Avenue. His story was later made into a movie with his name as the title.
In East Williamsburg from his headquarters at the Motion Lounge on 420 Graham Avenue, Dominick Napolitano (aka Sonny Black) maneuvered his branch of the Bonanno crime family into the nooks and crannies of local economic life. (Several capos from another branch of the crime family heisted $6 million from Lufthansa at JFK Airport.)
Local residents were not able to get adequate city government responses. It was then that the evangelical and Catholic Hispanic churches came into their own as beacons of hope. The evangelical churches evangelized and converted many drug addicts and gang members off the streets. A few of the “exes” became pastors and evangelists reaching more drug addicts and gangsters. The churches also provided a shelter and stability to ordinary working people who made up the majority of the neighborhoods.
Consequently, in the late 1960s and 1970s there was another surge of church founding. In 1968 Hispanic Christians founded Calvary Spanish Baptist Church (in a building built by German Lutherans). In 1974 congregants founded the Primera Iglesias Getsemani on Graham Avenue. Their church grew as word spread about their success in weaning addicts off their drugs. The church was also able to purchase its own building. In the same year African Americans founded Mount Calvary Fire Baptized Holiness Church. Its denomination had been established in 1908 because of racism experienced from white Christians. Mount Calvary’s music most likely represented a shift from slave spirituals rooted in the Old Testament to more upbeat gospels focused on Jesus and personal testimonies of salvation.
Elsewhere in Brooklyn, the Deliverance Choir at Arturo Skinner’s Brooklyn Evangelistic Center delivered a similar upbeat musical style.
In 1965 Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty arrived in the form of Community Action Programs. Williamsburg was designated as one of the fifteen neighborhoods in New York City targeted for a Community Action Program. The effect was to start a scramble for government money that disenfranchised the evangelical churches.
The War on Poverty was conceived by hundreds of experts meeting in isolation in Washington, D.C. There was little consideration given to faith-based organizations in the meeting. Rather, the new approach assumed that religious organizations were on the decline. The plans for the War on Poverty favored working with secularized organizations or with religious groups that had well-developed bureaucracies. The general tone and strategy meant that the evangelicals, who favored character development, person-to-person engagements and were averse to politics and bureaucracy, would probably not fit into the plans for changing communities. Locally, there was little effort to engage evangelical churches.
In contrast Clarence Taylor, a historian of African American Christians in Brooklyn, says that the Pentecostal and Holiness churches had “a theory of human value, a doctrine that attempted to restore the dignity, self-worth, and humanity of African Americans…Holiness-Pentecostals attracted a society that measured success by the ritual accumulation of goods, education and job status… [They] stressed virtues that offered a solution to alienation in an urban setting. They advocated egalitarianism…, mutual obligation and commonality.”
The recently released movie "A Most Violent Year" portrays New York City as it was in 1981, the year that a historic record of over 120,000 robberies were reported in NYC along with over 2100 murders, slightly lower than the all-time high in 1980.