Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Real West Side Story -- No. 330 W. 47th St.

The modest apartment building sat in a tumultuous neighborhood -- photo by Alice Lum
New Yorkers, as with all Americans, have an airbrushed view of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of the 1950s due to the popular musical play and film “West Side Story.”  Based in fact, the story faced off Puerto Rican and Italian teen-aged gangs in territorial and racially-motivated warfare set to music and dance.   The reality was a life-and-death daily struggle for the street-tough boys.

Hell’s Kitchen gained its nickname shortly after the Civil War.   According to Herbert Asbury in his then-shocking 1928 book “The Gangs of New York,” the term originally referred to the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, organized around 1868 by notorious criminal Dutch Heinrichs.   The gang specialized in raids on the Hudson River Railroad, but its repertoire included breaking-and-entering, extortion, and “highway robbery.”

The Hell’s Kitchen gang merged with the equally-notorious Tenth Avenue Gang which had terrorized the neighborhood for decades; going so far as to hold up and rob a Hudson River Railroad express train.  Other gangs in the gritty neighborhood included the Hudson Dusters and the Gophers.

In September 1881 The New York Times described the neighborhood as “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square in this part of New-York.”

The newspaper followed up on September 22 that year saying “the entire locality is probably the lowest and filthiest in the City, a locality where law and order are openly deified, where might makes right, and depravity revels riotously in squalor and reeking filth. The whole neighborhood is an eyesore to the respectable people who live or are compelled to do business in the vicinity, a source of terror to the honest poor, and an unmitigated nuisance to the Police of the Twentieth Precinct, whose record-books are filled to overflowing with the names of the residents of these tenement houses.”

The tenement houses that The Times mentioned were, for the most part, squalid and filthy.  A year later James D. McCabe, Jr., in his “New York by Gaslight,” described the buildings.  “The city contains two classes of tenement houses.  Those of the first class are occupied by well-to-do working people; those of the second by the very poor.  The first are large, neat-looking structures, and are kept as clean as the great number of people occupying them will permit; the second are wretched abodes of misery, and often of vice and crime.”

McCabe placed the monthly rent on a tenement apartment at between $10 and $30—a range of around $200 to $600 today.   It is little wonder that the impoverished families turned to crime and vice to pay their rent.

Around this time a tenement house went up at No. 330 West 47th Street that attempted to bridge McCabe’s two-tier classification.  Only 20-feet wide, as wide as a typical brownstone residence, the five-story building not only offered just one apartment per floor, it made a valiant attempt to be attractive and modern.

photo by Alice Lum

Sitting on a rusticated stone base, the red brick façade was trimmed with limestone lintels and bandcourses as well as attractive terra cotta tiles drawing on the popular Queen Anne style.  The additional expense, for no other purpose than make the building more attractive, was unnecessary on a street peopled by workers in the nearby freight yards, factories, stock pens and warehouses.

Early tenants, like Annie E. Reed, often found themselves on the wrong side of the police force.  On April 29, 1890 Annie was on Sixth Avenue near 22nd Street, in the heart of the shopping district known as the Ladies’ Mile.   Unlike most of the women along the avenue that day with their parasols and plumed hats, the 33-year old Annie could be coarse and loud.  And that got her into trouble.

She got into a loud argument with a “man calling himself ‘Count’ Justus de Sussini, a cigar dealer of Cuba,” reported The New York Times the following day.  The ruckus was such that a police officer attempted to arrest the pair.

“The Count resisted and had to be forcibly taken to the Thirtieth Street station, where he raved and the woman cried,” said the newspaper.  “The Count attempted to draw a pistol, but was disarmed, and the pair were locked up over-night.”

The following morning Annie was discharged.  The “Count” seems to have gotten off fairly easily, too, by today’s standards.  After pulling a firearm on police officers, he “was fined $10 for carrying a pistol without a permit.”

Despite its questionable tenants, the building was apparently profitable.  In July 1893 The New York Times noted that “a Mrs. Lehman” had purchased the “five-story single-flat house” for $21,000—nearly half a million dollars today.

One of Mrs. Lehman’s renters was Howard Green who, together with John W. Noble, came up with a lucrative, if dishonest, scheme in 1896.  The pair extorted money from saloon and hotel owners who were selling liquor on Sunday.  Posing as Excise Commissioners, they promised not to report or arrest the managers if they would pay a bribe.

In July of that year Samuel Collins, the manager of the Burt Lewis Hotel on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, got suspicious.  He complained to police who arrested the men.  The Times said “Collins alleges that he gave $50 to the ‘Commissioners’ to say nothing about his place of business.  His tax certificate did not permit him to do business yesterday.”

As for Green and Noble, “They deny that there is any truth in the story,” said the newspaper.

In 1939 the Works Progress Administration’s “New York City Guide” optimistically said that “Gangster rule of Hell’s Kitchen continued until 1910, when a special police force organized by the New York Central Railroad launched a counter-offensive.”

The methods to eliminate gang criminality seem, perhaps, a bit extreme today.  “Clubbing, shooting, and arresting indiscriminately, they soon had most of the Gopher leadership in hospitals or behind the bars and a majority of the lesser lights in flight.  Remnants of the mobs functioned throughout the Prohibition era, but the backbone of Hell’s Kitchen gangsterdom had been effectively broken.”

The authors described the varied ethnic population of the area—Irish, Italians, blacks and, the newest group, Puerto Ricans.   While the organized criminal mobs of the 19th century were essentially wiped out, a new type of gang was arising.

By mid-century racially-based gangs staked out territories.   Just as in Leonard Bernstein’s play, teen-aged boys carried deadly weapons and fought hand-to-hand combat in pre-determined “rumbles.”

In 1959 Frances Krzesinski was a hat-checker at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue—a world away from her apartment in the brick tenement building at No. 330 West 47th Street.  Frances was separated from her husband and struggled to raise her four children ranging from 9 to 16 years old.
photo by Alice Lum

Anthony was the eldest.  He attended Junior High School 17 until 1958 when he dropped out and took a job as a messenger for a publishing house.   Despite the obstacles that confronted him, Anthony was described as “a good boy.”

On the night of August 29, 1959 Anthony Krzesinski’s life would tragically collide head-on with Hell’s Kitchen gang life.

A Puerto Rican gang, the Vampires, had been expanding southward into Hell’s Kitchen from their turf in the West 70s and 80s.  The gang was led by the near-sociopathic Salvador Agron, known as the “Capeman” or “Dracula” because of the red-lined nurse’s cape he wore.  When the Vampires heard that some Puerto Ricans were being ill-treated by Irish and Italian Hell’s Kitchen teens, a rumble was arranged with the Italian gang, the Nordics.

Near No. 330 West 47th Street was a playground that stretched through the block from 45th to 46th Streets, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The New York Times said “The playground has no lights, but is kept open at night so that residents of the area can go there for a breath of air.  A street light on West forty-sixth Street floods the northern half of the playground, devoted to handball, but the concrete benches and tables at the south end, intended for checkers, lie in deep shadows.”

It was in this playground, called “the park” by neighborhood youths, that the rumble between the Vampires and the Nordics was scheduled to take place around midnight on August 29.  Unfortunately for Anthony Krzesinski, it was also where he and five other white friends decided to congregate.

Harold Luken brought his 14-year old sister, Sandra, along as the youths met at the park to talk, unaware of the gathering storm.   A little after midnight the Vampires arrived looking for the Nordics—but the Nordics never showed up.

The gang engulfed the benches where Anthony and his friends were sitting.  “Where’s Frenchie?” one of the gang members demanded.  The group said they did not know and it appeared for a moment that the Puerto Ricans had gone.  Nevertheless, the six neighborhood youths decided it was time to go home.

The New York Times reported the following day “Harold Luken and his sister headed for the near-by Forty-fifth Street exit.  Suddenly, the intruders loomed out of the shadows and blocked the exit.

“’They told me: ‘you aint leavin,’ Harold said.

‘They allowed the girl to pass.  Then one of them smashed a bottle on Harold’s head.”

The boys fled towards the 46th Street exit, but the Vampires overtook them.   Argon, “the Capeman,” wielded a 12-inch Mexican dagger.   Although Anthony and his friend, 16-year old Robert Young, were stabbed before reaching the street, they continued running in terror.

“The Krzesinski boy fell dead, stabbed in the chest and groin, in the hallway at 447 West Forty-sixth Street.  Robert Young, who had been stabbed in the back, was helped by the Woznikaitis boy into the hallway of the tenement next door, 449 West Forty-sixth Street,” said The Times.

Robert Young died later that night in the hospital.   The other three boys were treated for their injuries.

When later arrested, Salvador Agron told reporters his gang had gone to the playground “to fight Italian and Irish boys.”    He arrogantly told reporters committed the murder “Because I felt like it.”  He added, “I don’t care if I burn.  My mother could watch me.”

The sensational murder trials of Agron and Luis Antonio Hernandez (known as the Umbrella Man because he used an umbrella with a sharpened point as a weapon) drew wide-spread attention for a year.  The nation was, perhaps, nonetheless shocked when the 17- and 18-year olds were sentenced to death on October 7, 1960.

After he spent a year on Death Row, Salvator Agron’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in February 1962.   The decision did not sit well in the apartment where Anthony Krzesinski had lived.

“At 330 West Forty-seventh Street, another tenement house, Mrs. Frances Krzesinski, mother of Anthony Krzesinski, refused to talk.  But a note on the door of her apartment, addressed to the press, expressed feeling against the commutation,” said The New York Times on February 8, 1962.

The note read “Agron will live on our tax which we must pay, but I wish he never has a good day for the rest of his life.  May he die a thousand deaths a day.”

The turbulent days have passed when the life in Hell’s Kitchen was made even more difficult by the racial tensions between teen gangs.  The tenement house at No. 330 West 47th Street where Anthony Krzesinski lived his brief life still stands out with its Queen Anne tiles and irregular façade.  While the entrance was been updated and altered; the building stands as a mute witness to troubling, tumultuous times romanticized in a Broadway play and Hollywood musical.

photo by Alice Lum


5 comments:

  1. The connection to Broadway goes beyond West Side Story's general theme of ethnic gangs warring in that neighborhood: Paul Simon (with Derek Walcott) created a musical, The Capeman, about this very incident, and about the life of Salvador Agron more generally, including his life leading up to the slaying, and his rehabilitation in prison and his life upon release. It opened in 1998 to a generally poor reception and ran for only two months, and has had some revivals in other guises since.

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    1. Ha! I came here to make the same comment!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Capeman

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    2. Thanks to both of you for the additional information. I was unaware of the play. Very interesting.

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  2. Tom: do you have a sense of what the origional floorplans were like? Did each apartment have a bathroom? The idea of one apartment per floor seems at odds with the stories you read of the cramped conditions in so many of these tenements.

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    1. one apartment per floor sounds lavish--but the building is only 20 feet wide. Take out the staircase hall and we're probably talking about rooms only 10 or 12 feet wide. They would be railroad flats; one room leading into the other in a long line. At least that is what I surmise without seeing actual floorplans.

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