Category: New York City

Mole PeopleA subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate.  And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past.  The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded.   But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers.  In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface.   The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets.  Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City.  Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous.  I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.

There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller.   The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern.   In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City.  The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt.   Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection.  The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality.  And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.

Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations.  Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections.   Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees.   Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society.  And even more surprising,  some of them preferred to live underground.  But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.

Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion.  It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book.  The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters.  Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart.  But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews.  She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen.  Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility.  Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give.  But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.

The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be.  Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning.  Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way.   In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed.  Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.

The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock.  New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home.   The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.

ISBN-10: 155652241X
ISBN-13: 978-1556522413

New York City

BlueNearly twenty-six years ago, New York City Police Officer Michael Dowd was arrested by the Suffolk County Police Department in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for the possession and distribution on narcotics. His arrest, trial before Judge Kimba Wood of the  Southern District of New York and testimony before the Mollen Commission solidified Dowd’s reputation as the dirtiest cop in NYPD history.   Arrested with him were other officers, drug dealers and other participants.  Ken Eurell was retired at the time of his arrest but during his active tenure, he patrolled the streets of the Seventh-Fifth precinct with Dowd and embarked on a path of corruption that is still unbelievable to this day.  The duo recounted their life of crime in the 2015 documentary The Seven Five.  Undoubtedly, Dowd is the main focus and his recollections are backed up by Eurell and the other former officers.  This is the story from Eurell’s point of view about how and why he found himself more deeply immersed in crime with Dowd.

Eurell starts off by explaining his family history and how he joined the NYPD.  Hi story is relatively straightforward and certainly non-eventful until he crosses paths with Dowd.  Corruption had already existed and as Eurell points out, it was quite widespread throughout the department. Incoming officers were forced to learn on the quickly and those who made the decision to inform on dirty cops often faced a career derailed from being ostracized.  Dowd is not just corrupt but takes everything to the extreme and is blessed with a mind geared for exploiting every angle possible. It does not take long for Eurell and Dowd to begin to pull off numerous capers and form a working relationship with two of the biggest drug dealers in East New York.

I lived five blocks from the 75th Precinct and remember when the story broke.  Prior to Dowd’s arrest, there at had been stories of arrest at other precincts of cops that engaged in corruption of all sorts.  Most of the people in the neighborhood were not surprised as most of the officers from the “75th” were considered to a bunch of cowboys.  Having read this account by Eurell and that of Internal Affairs Investigator Joseph Tromboli in his book Good Cop, Bad Cop, the moniker of cowboys is a huge understatement.  They were nothing short of out of control and Dowd was on a mission to self-destruct and might have succeeded in the end if not for Eurell’s decision to cooperated with authorities.

The book is shocking at times but I do think Eurell and the authors were right about what East New York was like during the 1980s and 1990s.  Having lived there at the time, I can say with all honesty that the neighborhood looked like a war zone.  Poverty was rampant, murders common and the police struggled with containing the constantly increasing criminal elements.  But what happens when the cops are part of the element? Through participation with Adam Diaz and Baron Perez,  Dowd and Eurell had crossed a line from which there was no safe return.  East New York, described by officers herein as the “Land of F*ck”, was hell on earth and the problems that plagued the neighborhood extended far beyond the reach of the NYPD and led directly to City Hall. Today, those days are long gone and the landscape bears no resemblance to what it used to look like.  Vacant lots have disappeared, crack-cocaine is no longer the drug of the street and the faces of the NYPD are now more diverse.  But the 75th is still there at 1000 Sutter Avenue and for older residents, the place that was once the source of the dirtiest cops in all of New York City.

Today, Ken Eurell no longer lives in New York, having relocated to Florida as he attempted to put his life back together again following the fallout after Dowd’s final downfall.  As he tells his story he is candid about what he did, how he was seduced by the lifestyle and the pain he inflicted upon his own family.  He does not ask for sympathy, freely admits where he went wrong and never portrays himself as a victim or hero.  This is simply his part of the story and I think a good supplement to Tromboli’s book and the documentary. I would go as far as to say that if you have watched the film and read Tromboli’s book, then his is another piece of the puzzle.   Some of the information is revealed in other places but I do think Tromboli’s book contains a bit more because it is told from the side of Internal Affairs so he is able to convey what was known about Dowd and when NYPD brass knew it.   Some readers might be tempted to ask how did they get away with it for so long?  The answers are in the book and they just might surprise or even shock you.  But this was New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was one of the most dangerous cities in America before gentrification arrived.

I often think about my childhood and early adult life in East New York.  Many of my friends have long left the neighborhood and I no longer live there myself.  But we all carry many memories and they will remain with us for the rest of our days as I am sure they will for Dowd and Eurell.  The East New York they knew is different today and if the City is successful, it will be unrecognizable to them in just a few years.  But no matter how much transformation occurs, the dark history of corruption within the Seven-Five  will remain in its history.

ISBN-10: 194226674X
ISBN-13: 978-1942266747

New York City

fanypdToday it is hard to imagine that less than fifty years ago, New York City was once considered one of the most dangerous cities in America.  Rising crime, poverty, budgetary mismanagement and police corruption combined to turn the Big Apple into a city that took more than it gave.   The New York City Police Department was tasked with maintaining order in the concrete jungle in the face of budget cuts and incredibly layoffs in the late 1970s.  The officers who survived those dark years carry with them endless memories about their time on the streets of New York City.  Tom Walker, who retired in 2004, spent several years of his career at the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx, nicknamed by the officers as “Fort Apache”.   The name sounds heroic but as we learn in the book, it was for darker and more tragic reasons that the station was referred to as a fort. Outside the walls of the precinct existed a world that bordered on the surreal and gave a glimpse into what hell must really be like.

The story begins as Walker is a newly appointed Lieutenant assigned to the 41st Precinct or simply, “The Four One”.  On his very first day, he quickly learns that his new home is anything but welcoming.  He is instantly introduced to the infamous Fox Street and its surrounding walkways that prove to be nothing short of deadly.  Readers who are natives of New York and remember the era in which this book was written, will recall the sense of disparity and anger that consumed many of New York City’s poorest residents.  Walker addresses this in the book and clearly shows the link between poverty and crime. And the scenes that he describes throughout the book reinforce that lack of hope that often consumes the ghetto.   While many of the officers finish their shifts and go home to the suburbs, the residents of the Four One could not leave, reliving a nightmare every day of their lives.  As a former resident of East New York, Brooklyn, I can relate to Walker and the people of the South Bronx for my own neighborhood resembled the Four One except that for us it was the Seven-Five.

After finishing the book, I asked myself how Walker was able to do that job with a wife and five children at home?  The constant threat of death on every shift and the traumatic experiences placed upon the officers could have doomed his marriage or taken his life.  Yet he perseveres through the book and even talks briefly about the struggle that some cops face in maintaining a health marriage.  What is evidently clear is that to be a New York City Police Officer during that time was literally gambling with your life.  Today the streets of New York City are much safer although the threat of death still exists albeit on a much lower scale of risk.   The City has a stable budget and the department has consistently filled its rank adding more officers to patrol the streets.   In hindsight it seems nearly criminal that the Four One was understaffed, under-supplied and even neglected by higher-ups in the chain of NYPD command.  Sadly, there are several instances in the book where there are no cars available to respond to police dispatches.

Many years have passed since the book was published in 1976 and the South Bronx has undergone a dramatic transformation.  Fox Street and Southern Boulevard have been improved and no longer look as if they’ve been hit by an explosive device.  The gangs such as the Savage Nomads are lone gone and only live in the memories of others.  Some of the residents are undoubtedly still there advanced in their years but others have moved on in life leaving the Bronx behind.  And other officers, like Walker, have since retired and moved on with their lives.  But they all share a bond from the time they spent in and around Fort Apache.  Walker’s story is an interesting step back into time and an invaluable account of the darker times in New York City history.

ISBN-10: 1935278398
ISBN-13: 978-1935278399

New York City

good-copThe arrest and subsequent conviction of former NYPD Police Officer Michael Dowd highlighted the perils of decades long corruption that plagued many precincts in the New York  City Police Department.  Dowd and several other officers had engaged in a multitude of crimes ranging from narcotics trafficking and possession, armed robbery and accessories to murder . Several had even violated department protocol by appearing for work under the influence of alcohol or narcotics or sometimes both.  When the scandal in the 75th precinct made headlines, a whole city was stunned and for many, it confirmed many of their beliefs about the NYPD being a corrupt agency full of crooked cops.  The fallout from the scandal would force Mayor David Dinkins and Police commissioner Lee Brown to act quickly.  The Mollen Commission was created to investigate the pattern of police corruption that had been plaguing the City of New York. Its final report was published in July, 1994 and remains freely available for those interested in one of the darkest periods in New York City history.

One nagging question that never went away was how was Dowd and the other cops allowed to operate for so long without being noticed?  The official story was that their activities were well hidden from prying eyes.  However, the late Mike McAlary (1957-1998) who worked for the NY Daily News for 12 years, brings us the story of retired officer Joseph Tromboli who pursued Dowd for several years before he was apprehended by Suffolk County detectives in a separate drug trafficking case.   And what we learn in Tromboli’s story sheds light on the repeated failures of the Internal Affairs Division of the NYPD to remove Dowd from the NYPD and formally charge him with the many crimes he had been freely committing. A seasoned investigator and no-nonsense officer, Tromboli dedicated his life to catching down and in the process sacrificed his own happiness and many important parts of his life.   His efforts however, were not in vain and upon the publishing of the scandal in the City’s newspapers and the Mollen Commission that followed, Tromboli would be vindicated as the cop who had tried but was prevented from bringing down the most corrupt cop in New York City history.  This is his story and the good, the bad and the ugly side of the blue wall.

New York City

sleepWhen Heriberto “Eddie” Seda was apprehended on June 18, 1996,  the residents of East New York, Brooklyn and the detectives tasked with finding him breathed a sigh of relief.  For six years Seda terrorized East New York and the City of New York in a murderous rampage intended to mimic the infamous Zodiac Killer that terrorized California in the 1960s.  When Seda was arrested, I was 16 years old and lived several blocks from the 75th Precinct, which was tasked with patrolling the neighborhood that had become recognized as one of the worst parts of Brooklyn.  The shootings became the topic of discussions among my father, friends and classmates in school.   We had been warned by our  parents to be vigilant and report anything we saw or heard that was out of the ordinary. Kieran Crowley, a former reporter for the NY Post, was assigned to cover the story and spent hours in East New York interviewing witness and countless more hours reviewing documents and articles.   He has put together the only account of one of the most heinous killing sprees to terrorize New York City.

The book was written in 1997, roughly a year after Seda’s capture.  And at the time it was published, Seda was still waiting trial.  Since then he has been tried, convicted and is currently incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Center in Comstock, New York.  He will not be eligible for parole until 2081 and will never again roam the streets of Brooklyn..   For the younger generation of East New York, Seda’s name is unknown but to the older generation, his name conjures up memories of a dangerous time in East New York to which they never hope to return.  Crowley’s investigative report is the definitive account of the crimes and Seda’s life and the wave of terror he inflicted.  The dysfunction and mental instability and degrading relationship between Seda, his mother and sister are covered in detail providing the necessary back story to the infamous crime spree that gripped a neighborhood.    Many years have passed since East New York was paralyzed with fear but Seda’s reign of crime remains with us reminding us of the many horrors that once plagued New York City.

ISBN-10: 0312963394
ISBN-13: 978-0312963392

New York City

ENY ghettoIt’s been several years since I lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  The neighborhood is considered to be one of the roughest in Brooklyn and is the target of the DeBlazio’s administration’s plan for redevelopment.  The area purchased by John Roberts Pitkin in 1835, is one of the most misunderstood areas in the City of New York.  I still vividly recall memories of my childhood, both good and bad as if they happened yesterday.  I and many of my friends no longer live in the area.  Some of them still live in the city, but others have moved to other states and abroad.  They are now fathers, husbands and wives.  But no matter where we go in life, we will always trace our roots back to this unique and tragic neighborhood.

Lately I’ve been curious about the history of  East New York and decided to give this book a read after seeing it in my list of recommendations on Amazon.   The late Walter Thabit, a community activist and urban planner who was instrumental in the creation of many low and moderate-income housing, tells the story of how East New York, the area once filled with prosperous European immigrants became a low-income war zone filled with drugs, poverty and death.  And it is a story that is shocking, appalling and infuriating.  President Kennedy once gave a speech about the differences in the chance of success in life between white and minority babies at birth.  It’s as if he was looking straight at East New York when he said those words.   Governmental neglect of the social and economic issues, white flight and racial discrimination set the stage for the transformation of East New York from a promising area to a ghetto.

The 1968 amendment to the Federal Housing Authority which allowed the government to control mortgage contracts in the area, resulted in the foreclosure of homes across the area and paved the way for the destruction of many blocks which had nothing but flat open space on most of the blocks.   The centralization of the public school system combined with the power and influence of the UFT continued the systematic policies that had an adverse effect on the education of minority children  throughout the city making East New York was a place in which hope did not exist and quality of life was an unheard of concept.  In recent years, the area has seen a turnaround with new buildings and improvements.  It’s darkest days are in the past, but they should never be forgotten and serve as reminder of a place and time which we never wish to revisit.  The efforts of Walter Thabit, Leo Fiorentino, Rev. Johnny Youngblood, Granville Payne and many other residents to bring peace, equality and success to East New York are examples of what can happen when people work with each other as opposed to against each other.

ISBN-10: 0814782671
ISBN-13: 978-0814782675

New York City