The New York Times - September 7, 2002


An Icy Night, an Old Book, and Decades Later a Movie

By Polly Shulman


I used to wonder, whenever I left town, where other people got their idea of New York. To hear my Ohio relatives talk when I was young, the city's streets were lined with drug fiends snatching at pocketbooks with their right hands while snapping open switchblades with their left, elbows out to push you in the gutter and steal your cab. "You ride the subway?" they would ask, incredulously. "Alone?"

Then, in my early teens, I found a copy of Herbert Asbury's book "The Gangs of New York" on Grandpa's shelf. Everything sprang into focus. Here were the originals of the out-of-towners' nightmares: the Plug Uglies, who stuffed their enormous hats with wool and leather to protect them from brickbats hurled by rival gangsters and who stomped fallen enemies to a pulp with hobnail-studded boots; the Whyos, who offered price lists for various flavors of mayhem, from "Punching, $2" and "Ear chawed off, $15" all the way to "Doing the big job, $100 and up." Here were desperate fighters with names like Stumpy Malarkey and Goo Goo Knox; Sadie the Goat, who would butt her victims breathless before conking them on the head; and Hell-Cat Maggie, who dressed for battle by filing her teeth to points and wearing sharp brass claws on her fingertips.

First published in 1927, "The Gangs of New York" was one of a dozen books, mostly of popular history, that Asbury wrote in the 20's, 30's and 40's. For years, it was available only in Grandpa's den, thrift shops, guest-room night tables and the occasional country cottage bookshelf. That's where the director Martin Scorsese, then in his 20's, found it one icy New Year's Eve, while he was house-sitting on Long Island.

"I was intrigued by the title. I started to read it, and I couldn't stop I went through it in one day," Mr. Scorsese said. "I thought it would make a fantastic film. Since then I've been obsessed with this book."

His movie version, "Gangs of New York," with Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas and Jim Broadbent, is set to be released on Dec. 25, more than three decades after Mr. Scorsese first devoured the book, 25 years after he announced plans to film it and some 12 months after it was originally to be released.

What drew Mr. Scorsese to "The Gangs of New York" was not only its drama but its familiarity, he explained in a telephone interview. The Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, where the most flamboyant of New York's gangs flourished before the Civil War, "is very much a part of where I grew up," he says. "The streets themselves Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott Street, and Mulberry had stories to tell. I started hearing the legends and history of the neighborhood from the time I was 8 or 9 years old, from the clerics at the church and the Irish nuns who taught us Italian children at St. Patrick's elementary school."

While the nuns told young Martin about the Irish community, his father, who had grown up on Elizabeth Street, passed down folklore about 19th-century neighborhood gangs. And when young Mr. Scorsese read Asbury's history, the stories sprang to life.

Asbury accentuates the violence of his New York underworld with a breezy humor that can seem cartoonish at times, as when he describes New York's own version of Paul Bunyan: Mose, an early leader of the Bowery Boys gang. An 8-foot-tall redhead, he would blow sailboats down the East River with a puff of his two-foot-long cigar. He had once lifted a streetcar "above his head at Chatham Square and carried it, with the horses dangling from the traces, on the palm of his hand as far as Astor Place."

In later chapters the humor becomes less mythically burlesque and more ironic. Marm Mandelbaum, the matriarch of fences, furnished her house on Clinton Street with an elegance rivaling that of the city's first families to whom her furniture had once belonged. Harris Cohen, a secondhand clothing merchant on the Lower East Side, became so successful (by dragging customers bodily into his shop) that in a move later imitated, evidently, by owners of Ray's Pizza restaurants a dozen other merchants on the street threw up signs claiming to be the famous, original Harris Cohen. One of the Cohens kept a cage filled with English sparrows in his window, Asbury writes, advertising his prices with their cries of "Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!"

One gang the Hartley Mob, which haunted Broadway and Houston Street in the second half of the 19th century would ride around in hearses, their weapons concealed in the black drapery. Another, the Molasses Gang, would tell a shopkeeper that they had bet on how much sorghum his hat could hold. If he gave them permission to fill his hat, they would cram it over his head, then rob the till while he struggled for breath.

Far from controlling the mayhem caused by such figures, the authorities often added to the problem. The police turned a blind eye on gang activity; in return, thugs guarded the polls with bludgeons to make sure everyone voted for the politicians who paid the police. At one point New York suffered an embarrassment of police forces the Municipal Police, fielded by the outgoing Tammany Hall government, and the Metropolitan Police, under the control of the new, reform-minded mayor. Criminals had a field day, since officers of one force would release prisoners arrested by members of the other. The firemen were no better: rival gangs formed their own volunteer brigades, battling to the death to control a fire hydrant while the building in question burned to the ground.

Making a film out of a history that spans most of a century and dozens of characters, each with his or her own story, required dramatic compression. To do it, Mr. Scorsese narrowed the focus of most of the film to a brief period culminating in the infamous draft riots of 1863, when New York's racist, xenophobic Nativists took to the streets in response to Civil War conscription. No civil disobedience for these far-from-conscientious objectors a century before Vietnam. They burned down some 300 buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, where they beat to death a little girl who had hidden under a bed. They sacked armories and police stations, looted mansions of everything from mahogany chairs to birdseed, murdered dozens of African-American citizens and wounded nearly every policeman in the city.

Mr. Scorsese tells the story of this difficult period through a romance between two fictionalized composites, both Irish-Americans: Mr. DiCaprio's Amsterdam Vallon, scion of the leader of the Dead Rabbits gang, and Ms. Diaz's Jennie Everdeane, a bludget female pickpocket who aspires to classier con games. The part of the villain is supplied by Mr. Day-Lewis's Bill (The Butcher) Cutting, the head of a Nativist gang; he's modeled after the real-life Bill (The Butcher) Poole (who belonged to a different gang and died before his film counterpart).

"A lot of these gangs were tied to right-wing groups that were adamant against the influx of so many immigrants, particularly the Irish," Mr. Scorsese says. "Immigrants and freed slaves were threatening the work force, doing jobs cheaper. I see the film as projecting a city that's ready to blow up, set against the backdrop of a country that is blowing up. And ultimately everybody's fighting it out in the streets to see who belongs here.

"It's a template for what's still going on today," he continued, "with the rivalry between newer waves of immigrants and older assimilated groups. It's the spirit of the city: the struggle to be alive, and ultimately the struggle to be free, in an environment where so many races, colors, creeds come together. This is the big experiment of this country, and a lot of it happens in New York."