Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Friday, October 2, 2009

The 1973 Park Slope Riot

As we wrote our previous post about Mary Patten's Douglass Street Mural, we were struck by the On the Wall authors' assertion that several Black families had been firebombed out of their homes in lower Park Slope in the mid-1970s. We could not simply pass this assertion by, so we tried to research those events. And although we were unable to discover more about those particular incidents, we did stumble upon something else that provides insight into the social conditions from which Mary Patten's community murals emerged: the Park Slope riot of 1973.

In those days, Park Slope's 5th Avenue was vastly different from the baby-carriage-clogged restaurant row that it is today. Union Street was the dividing line between a largely Italian community to the south, and a growing Puerto Rican community to the north. Tensions between these communities simmered along 5th Avenue; the intersection of 5th Avenue and Union Street was the epicenter of this tension; and Park Slope exploded in late June of 1973.

Tuesday, June 26, 1973, was primary day, and Puerto Rican candidate Herman Badillo was in a tight race for nomination in the Democratic mayoral primary runoff election. He lost narrowly that day to Abe Beame. Late that evening, a car pulled up in front of 6 Berkeley Place, just above 5th Avenue. Armed men emerged, firing at two Puerto Rican brothers who were sitting on the stoop, wounding both. The assailants drove off, yelling "if Badillo had won, we would have killed you!"

Word of the assault spread quickly on Wednesday, June 27, and as darkness fell, large groups of Puerto Rican and Italian Park Slopers gathered near the intersection of 5th Avenue and Union Street. Insults were hurled; then bottles and bricks; then people began throwing hundreds of fireworks; and the riot was on, with windows smashed, cars firebombed, and finally gunfire exchanged along 5th Avenue. Five youths were shot, and five police were injured trying to break up the fight:

New York Times, Thursday, June 28, 1973

The worst injured was 15-year-old Jose Colon, shot through the neck and paralyzed from the neck down. The next day, police found spent .22-caliber shells atop 238 5th Avenue (now the Sunflower Academy), on the Italian side, and later found a rifle with sniperscope on the building's fire escape.

News accounts note that the windows of the Manufacturer's Hanover Bank branch at the corner 5th Avenue and Union street were smashed out, and the building was firebombed; presumably it was the building on the southeast corner:

5th Avenue and Union Street, southeast corner

New York Times photographs

Interestingly, the New York Times accounts indicate that the ground-floor apartment at 6 Berkeley Place, where the initial attack occurred, was "the headquarters of a Puerto Rican political group called the Machetes." A detective noted that "this is not a gang, but a political organization that wants independence for Puerto Rico," and a member of the group indicated that it was an offshoot of the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican social service organization modeled somewhat after the Black Panthers:

New York Times, Friday, June 29, 1973

A 2006 Times account of the riot notes that the Machetes were "by some accounts a street gang and by others a Marxist political group."

The Machetes, or Macheteros, are apparently still in existence today, a clandestine organization still fighting for Puerto Rican independence. They are also called the Boricua Popular Army and are described by the FBI as a terrorist group.

Below, Puerto Rican residents of Park Slope, standing in front of the ground-floor Macheteros headquarters at 6 Berkeley Place:

New York Times photograph

The detailing above the ground floor windows has been shaved off since the New York Times photograph was taken in 1973, but the location of the Times photograph is easily recognizable today:

6 Berkeley Place, left

6 Berkeley Place - Macheteros headquarters, 1973

6 Berkeley Place - detail

The 1973 Park Slope riot had a sad coda three decades later, in 2004, when Jose Colon, the 15-year-old shot through the neck on the night of the riot, ultimately died. The wound was said to be a contributing factor in his death. The shooter, who had earlier served three years on a charge of reckless endangerment, was then charged with 2nd degree murder, but ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in 2006 and was sentenced to two to six years.

Such was the charged atmosphere of lower Park Slope in which Mary Patten soon began to organize around the creation of her Douglass Street Mural, which both frankly acknowledged the reality of social conflict, but also pointed toward the possibility of communities working together in cooperation.

One could make the case that Park Slope's tradition of cooperation was already quite evident in 1973. Historian Francis Morrone, in his recent book about Park Slope, notes that the riots occurred just one month before the current Park Slope Historic District was designated in July, 1973. And as the Park Slope Food Coop's sign in Union Street declares, the Coop was "est. 1973".


ChickenUnderwear said...

Thanks. I enjoyed reading that

pbrown said...

Great article, I'll ask my family about the riot. An argument could be made that the historic district designation pushed the Puerto Ricans out of the Slope and that the Coop is unintentionally white liberal elitist.

9271782e-2096-11e3-bf56-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Where did all the puerto ricans go?