Drug Wars Raged

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By Jim Rutenberg

No one story stands out from my time at the Manhattan Spirit, as it was called then. Several do. Together they tell the tale of New York City then and now, a city transformed wonderfully and tragically, yet in some ways stuck in time.

Certainly one of my favorite stories from back then was about a crack gang who controlled a small sliver of the Upper West Side. I was only 24 and it was exciting, in its way, to report on drug dealers who had killed people on the corner of the very street on which I lived, West 107th Street. It was the stuff of the day’s mighty tabloid writers—Mike McAlary, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin—who I tried so hard to emulate—and the bosses let me, too.

It may have been just one small drug ring terrorizing no more than 10 square blocks, too small to gain much notice in the daily papers. But it was part of a patchwork of drug syndicates that had helped to drive the city’s murder rate above 2,000, and had caused so many of us to constantly look over our shoulders after dark.

I remember one winter night leaping out of bed at the sounds of gunfire and sirens, grabbing a notebook and giving chase to cops running along the icy and slippery sidewalks looking for the shooters. They never found them. And they were not a little perplexed and annoyed at the young man from their community paper tailing them in a dingy overcoat.

I remember trying in vain to learn the story behind a drive-by shooting in which a man was hit in the knee right before my eyes. It happened one spring night just outside the open door of the Night Cafe on Amsterdam Avenue, where I was drinking a beer alongside a fellow young reporter, Warren St. John. I was certain it was related to our local drug gang, but the gunmen and the victim, who was quickly scooped into a car that literally burned rubber as it sped off to God-knows-where, were long gone before the police arrived.

And I remember trying to convince the superintendent of our building, who was plugged in to the neighborhood toughs, to tell me about the head of the gang, who went by the name Flaco. He said he knew all about him, but never told me anything worth reporting.

Court papers finally helped me to lay out in the pages of the Spirit the way the gang had kept others out of its territory, how it worked with suppliers and how its members had tried to buy off a local police officer. The gang was called “Young Talented Children,’’ the court papers said, and our cover story about it had the headline, “Young, Talented & Deadly,’’ and a drawing of a bullet. What I didn’t realize at the time was that we were documenting a dying industry whose near-demise would deliver such a safer city and take so many once too-familiar phrases out of our local lexicon. When was the last time you talked about “drive-by” shootings or commonly saw “crack vials” or “crack heads?”

That battle may have been nearly won—yes, skirmishes continue—but more than a few other stories we covered then still rage now. I wrote at least two cover stories that in one way or another had to do with crumbling school buildings and the Board of Education’s inexplicable inability to deal with them. I remember vividly that I was working on the second of those when terrorists blew up a Ryder truck in the basement of the World Trade Center. But my story proceeded without delay, as off-topic as that might seem in retrospect. We probably should have devoted the whole paper, and the one after that and the one after that, to the attack. But while six had died, the attack seemed to have been a fluke break-through by a hapless band of dunces, one of whom was so careless as to sign his real name on the truck rental agreement, leading to his quick arrest. The towers were the worse for wear and tear, to be sure, but they did not fall. They, and we, seemed indestructible.

Then there was the battle over the future of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rail yards on the West Side. Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo was pushing the idea for a Yankees stadium on the yards, an idea that was picked up by Rudolph W. Giuliani as well. Later, of course, Mayor Michael Bloomberg also tried to succeed where those two New York gorillas failed, with a stadium for the Jets and the Olympics. I covered that stadium fight for the New York Times and thought of the last one. I can still see our July 1993 Spirit cover about the proposed West Side stadium in my mind’s eye. It featured a photo of a Yankees pendant shoved in the ground at the edge of the yards with a headline that read, “The Manhattan Yankees?”

It sure seems timely now, yet it was not among our prettiest-looking covers. The deck was stacked against it on that score. Our resident genius art director John Moynihan (1960-2004) had not designed it. Moynihan came up with the most striking cover of my time at the Spirit. The story was about heroin use at Columbia University. We struggled for a headline until Moynihan shouted out, in a put-on, old Boston newspaper guy’s accent: “Columbia’s Dark Secret.’’ He illustrated it with a reverse negative of the Columbia library streaked with psychedelic colors. Moynihan loved newspapers and newspapering; he got us pumped and always reminded us that our little community weekly could be just as tough and exciting as anything else in town.

When it came time to put out the giant 10th anniversary issue of the Spirit—an overwhelming task for our tiny staff—he rallied us by digging up a bonanza of old photos of the borough that he found at the Public Library’s photo archives on 42nd Street. We—Chris Erikson, a chap called George Matouk and me—rallied him on that crushing deadline night, he told us, by coming up with snappy captions and headlines. I’ll never forget how he convinced us to celebrate the closing of the issue at an empty Hogs & Heifers early that morning with several shots of Jamesons and several more pints of Guinness. When we closed the bar we stumbled over to the printing house around the corner, where we had dropped off the proofs a couple of hours earlier. Together, with the sun coming up, we saluted as the issue rolled off of the presses. The Spirit was 10, but we were all just getting started.

Jim Rutenberg, a reporter for the New York Times, was editor of West Side Spirit from 1993 to 1994 and political editor from 1995 to 1996.

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