Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The North End Gang Wars of the Early '80s, Part 2

Some say the dividing line was Interstate 91. Others say the train tracks. Still others insist it was Birnie Avenue. One thing was for sure: when the border was crossed, tempers flared.

It was the early 1980s in the North End: the territories were established and the gang colors were assigned: red and black in Demon City and yellow and black in Whop City.

In the legendary battles between the Demon-strators and the Whops/Last Survivors, the summer of 1981 marked the time when the clashes were ratcheted up a notch after Demon-strators enlisted the help of Hartford’s Savage Nomads gang.

On August 31, 1981, in front of the North Main Street branch of BayBank Valley, a Savage Nomad with a Mohawk haircut leaned out of a car and fired on Last Survivors Jesus and Rafel Laboy. Jesus took cover behind a fire alarm box.

“Do you know how thin that is?” said Jesus, referring to the pole, to a reporter from the Morning Union. “It’s thin, man, when you’re hiding from a gun.”

Residents began to fear that Springfield gangs, by using outside forces, would bring more casualties in the North End gang wars. After all, that year the Savage Nomads in Hartford had joined a pact with their chapter in New York City, and the result was two killings in a single week in Hartford. Bringing in reinforcements from other areas was the newest gang tactic, and not an entirely surprising one: there was power in numbers, the “mergers” served to intimidate and demoralize enemies, and shooters couldn’t easily be identified by witnesses.

Because many of the Springfield gangbangers had roots in Hartford and New York, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for more personnel and firepower to descend on the North End and make an already dangerous situation unbelievably chaotic.

A Savage Nomads stronghold on Park Street in Hartford

After a violent Summer of 1981, the retaliatory gang shootings in the North End continued into the fall. On September 12, Marixa Rivera, who was friendly with the Demon-strators/Spanish Lords, was shot as she was crossing Main Street in the North End. An hour later, three Demon-strators were arrested after they fired shots on Donald Street: Whops/Last Survivors turf.

At the end of an October 2 Morning Union story on the gangs (below), Police Chief Paul Fenton raised eyebrows when he insisted that there was “no gang problem in Springfield. These are isolated instances.”

The feud resumed the following year with a February 8 brawl at the New North School:

After three people were shot at Main and Huntington Street on July 21, Mayor Theodore Dimauro ordered Chief Fenton to report to him personally on this shooting and other confrontations that night that also involved gunshots:

By 1983, however, police were confident that they had things under control in the North End. The “Hartford presence” turned out to be not as menacing as it could have been. There was trouble, but it was not as heated as it was in 1981. On January 26, two other gangs, the Playboys (Huntington and Main) and the Blue Boys (Patton Street) went at it:

And the Playboys also fought with the Last Survivors on June 16:

(Yes, that injured patrolman, Michael Schiavina, is the same one who was gunned down with his partner by a Plainfield Street man, “Crazy Eddie” Ortiz, two years later.)

Then came another casualty of the North End gang wars. On July 3, someone threw a bottle at Jose Olivo’s car in front of Charkoudian Drug Store, 3274 Main Street, and he responded by fatally shooting 20-year-old Pierre Messier, who was friendly with the Whops/Last Survivors. This took place eight days after Messier’s 25-year-old sister, Diane, was shot in the thigh on Donald Street.

The idea of white youths getting shot in a gang dispute in the North End might seem unlikely to many, because the gangs were predominantly Hispanic, but the neighborhood once had a large contingent of of French-Canadian families—whose teenagers battled Puerto Rican youths in the North End Streets in the early 1970s. The Messiers grew up on Donald Street before moving to Abbe Avenue that year, and both streets were considered to be in “Whop City.”

Pierre Messier was certainly no stranger to the neighborhood’s feuds, having been arrested with a juvenile for beating someone with a chain on November 9, 1981, but Hampden County Superior Court Judge George C. Keady said the violence truly had to stop because he was sick of young lives and families ruined. He sentenced Olivo, 17, to nine-to-12 years in state prison.

“A message has to go forth from this courtroom,” he said. “Peace has got to start somewhere, and it seems to me it’s got to start in our daily lives.”

By the end of the summer of 1983, police insisted they were winning the war on gangs, because their leaders were in jail, and many of the “players” had become fathers and wanted out of “the life.” There had been two gang-related shootings in mid-August, including a victim with a leg wound, but the gang wars were quieting down:

It’s hard to say what finally ended the North End gang wars of the early 1980s. Aggressive policing and community cooperation certainly were major factors. A couple of years ago the subject was brought up on the Facebook page “You know you’re from Springfield, MA if…”, and a person, who wrote that he had “an unusual view from where I stood,” opined that the police’s gang control program quelled many of the problems. “A lot of compromise” also helped, he added. “We were killing each other. HIV, ODs, and prison played BIG roles as well.”

But history often repeats itself, and in the early 1990s, Springfield was flooded with a resurgence in gang activity when New York and Hartford-based gangs such as the Latin Kings and Los Solidos spread north to this city. In Hartford, the formerly feuding Savage Nomads and Ghetto brothers joined together to form Los Solidos, and they, along with Hartford’s 20 Love gang, began recruiting in Springfield.

“Gangs. Drive-by shootings. Teen-agers dead at the hands of other teen-agers. Drug turf wars,” wrote a Springfield Sunday Republican reporter in 1995. “It can’t happen here. Guess again.” Indeed, it already had—in the previous decade, before a long respite.

And guess what? Gangs are still a problem in Springfield. The website Law Street ranked Springfield the 10th most dangerous city among cities with a population of under 200,000—partly because of gangs. Law Street used the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report Statistics to determine its ranking.

“Springfield’s high levels of violent crime and gang activity have led its police department to adopt Iraq-style ‘counterinsurgency’ strategy,” according to the website. “This strategy involves community building in which officers work to solve the underlying problems that contribute to crime. Increased police visibility has also been used to help combat issues with gangs in an attempt to make Springfield residents feel more secure. Although many members of the local police department believe these strategies will help, the jury is still out on the effect of the these new efforts and Springfield remains one of the most dangerous American cities.”

Springfield’s counterinsurgency strategy was featured on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes, which included the oft-told story that there were “gang members on motorcycles with AK-47s on their backs” at the Edgewater Apartments on Lowell Street in the North End’s Brightwood section: formerly Whop City:

According to the 60 Minutes report, “They found that since the counterinsurgency operation started, North End Schools have seen fewer discipline problems and drug offenses, and that litter and gang graffiti is no longer everywhere in sight—important indicators that the community is no longer totally under the gangs’ control.”

Hell’s Acres readers: what do YOU think? Three decades after the North End gang wars of the early 1980s, is the North End under control out of control? Leave comment below!

 Read The North End Gang Wars of the Early 1980s, Part 1.