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.

Anonymous said...

Where did all the puerto ricans go?

destiny nieves said...

My name is Steven Nieves I grew up in Park Slope. My parents used to live on 147 5th ave in 1973. I was 10 years old when the riot took place. I was a young Puerto Rican brother, but I saw-so much racism . White people spitting at my mom and calling us spics. Telling my family to leave the neighborhood. Park Slope belongs to the public and it doesn't matter if you black,Hispanic or white. But now we have new white people in the neighborhood that things that Hispanics and blacks don't belong here. They are evicting Hispanics and blacks from Park Slope.Hiking up the rent to make sure we don't get back in. They are building condominiums all over Park Slope worth half million dollars and up. So you wonder what happen to all the Puerto Rican. Some of us are still here because we have rent control and is not easy for landlords to evict us. And some just gave up. We need to let them know that we are not going any where and we belong here just as much.

Anonymous said...

Bravo to you Steven! I grew up in Park Slope in a rent controlled apartment and the owners tried in underhanded ways to intimidate us to move out so they could raise the rent. But we didn't give in. I wasn't a victim of the racism, but I saw and felt it. There were many Italian and Puerto Rican gangs back in the 60's and 70's. Even with the racism, I feel blessed to grow up in Park Slope in the 70's. It was diverse and I was lucky to have many friends of all different races and nationalities. I can't think of any other neighborhood in Brooklyn that had such diversity back then. I was lucky, it made me a better person.

armando sandoval machete said...

my name is armando sandoval,and iam still fighting for our country,which is puerto rico,we want to end us,colonialism of our land,what happened in 73,it wasnot political,at that time i had a brother named elliot,a real trouble maker,he put a gun to the italiens in the nieghborhood,and they retaliated,i was shot on union st talking to an italien friend,and got shot,with my brother elliot,but before that we had moved the mafia from our hood,they tried to bribe me offering 10 pct of the numbers racket which i turned down,later a det,came and told me to accept the offer,or they would put a contract out on me,and i replied that that woild be a big mistake,and that they would bleed like me,so it happened,and we stood our ground,it was not political,our politics run deep,and its about freedom,park slope was not to racist,like other hoods,we lived ,and respected all,and also the death of a viet nam vet was also what set this off,,theres more but i guess this is it for now,free puerto rico,and our last politcal prisoner held in american jail ,free lopez.

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Jen R said...

My mother and her family lived at 6 Berkeley Pl. around that time. I'm going to ask my mother about this. I also was raised in Park Slope and remember racism growing up there. A lot sure has changed from all the gangs, burnt and boarded up buildings, the shootings, drugs.. My mother still lives on Union St. near 4th Ave., in a rent controlled apt. of course!!

Jen R said...
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Jen R said...
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carl Fiorio said...

The area was bad then drugs,violence ,gangs, but people don't realize the same people fighting with one another in the early 70s were now getting high together in the late 70s .

carl Fiorio said...

The area was bad then drugs,violence ,gangs, but people don't realize the same people fighting with one another in the early 70s were now getting high together in the late 70s .