Last week, Elliot Caldwell was fatally shot outside of Campos Plaza, the NYCHA public housing project where he’d grown up. An EV Grieve commenter noted that the 23-year-old had been arrested in 2013 when the Manhattan DA busted alleged members of the Money Boyz, a coke-dealing gang based out of the East Village housing project. DNAinfo wrote that a woman claiming to be Caldwell’s aunt told reporters: “He was a great father. He changed his life for his son. He just got caught up in a bad situation.”
The NYPD told B+B that the suspect in Caldwell’s shooting is described as a “black male wearing a red hoodie,” who “fled from the scene on foot.” So far there have been no arrests, and police say the investigation is ongoing.
While the proximity of a glittery Whole Foods where you can buy pre-peeled oranges and multimillion-dollar luxury hotels make it easy to forget the East Village and Lower East Side were once havens for violence and gang activity, if you pay attention there are occasional, bloody reminders of the area’s past, which still seeps in to the present. Or taken another way, these are reminders that, for some residents, violence has remained a harsh reality despite the presence of conspicuous wealth. However, Jose “Cochise” Quiles– co-author of a new book along with Clayton Patterson, The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side– sees the connection between then and now with a much greater clarity.
“Where I live right now, I still live on the Lower East Side, and there’s still a lot of gang activity,” Quiles explained. “It’s not the way it was back then, but it’s still there. And a lot of them are very young, 12 and up. And they’re looking for attention, they’re looking to become somebody in this underworld, these baby-faced kids, no longer in school, these kids carry guns bigger than both their hands. This is crazy, but this is the reality of our world.”
But while violence is brutal in any form, the neighborhood’s past was even worse. As Patterson explained of the book, which is partially devoted to Cochise’s experiences growing up on the Lower East Side, there was a time when “almost every block down here had a gang.”
Back when Jose “Cochise” Quiles and Clayton Patterson first met, it wasn’t exactly under the friendliest of circumstances. At the time Cochise, a native New Yorker raised in the downtown Puerto Rican community, was the leader of a street gang called the Satan’s Sinners Nomads, and he’d heard from a friend that Patterson– a fellow resident of the Lower East Side and local artist-activist known in the community for his video camera documentation of police misconduct– was actually working for the police.
“We used to see this guy with a skull cap, an embroidered jacket back, with a camera constantly– click, click, click, click,” Quiles recalled. One day, as he remembers it, one of the gang member’s girlfriends said, “You see that guy over there? He’s a snitch and he’s selling everybody out. He’s taking his pictures and his video camera footage and he’s givin’ em to the cops.” Eventually, Cochise knocked on Clayton’s door, ready to confront him. The year was 1992.
As Patterson recalls in the introduction to The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side, rather than immediately flipping out on him, Cochise “listened carefully to what I had to say.” Once the two determined that the rumors about Clayton being a police informant were just that, rumors– they bonded over their shared love for the neighborhood. And today, more than 20 years later, the friends still convene on the Lower East Side, an area that Clayton has spent decades documenting, and a place that Cochise has only recently returned to.
“I wound up doing 25 years, almost half my life, in prison because of gang activity– I’ve been in Attica, I’ve been in Clinton Correctional Facility, I’ve been in Sing Sing,” Cochise recalled during a recent interview. Having served several separate stints in prison, Cochise was finally released for the last time in 2012. He returned to the only other home he’s known, the Lower East Side, where he still lives today, to find a completely different landscape from the one he grew up in. Still, he says, the same problems that led him to gang life remain in the neighborhood, albeit to a lesser degree, and it’s their staying power that partially inspired him to write this book– a colorful compendium of LES gang history that’s one part memoir and two parts ethnography. “I used to see the attention that these guys got. I wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to be accepted,” Cochise remembered of his childhood.
Together, Patterson and Quiles make for quite the bookwriting team– on the one hand, there’s Clayton the historian, the outspoken political activist, and the community’s vocal guard dog, and on the other is Cochise, who has no problem being the cautionary tale, a walking, talking example of what happens to the systematically oppressed when there are few other options for survival but a stint in the underworld. While too much of one or the other voice might make for an incomplete history of local street gangs or a crime-prison-redemption cliché, in tandem they’ve made a compelling book. It’s all backed with visuals (Clayton’s photographs, Cochise’s drawings) and research that was conducted by both parties, behind bars and outside of prison walls.
Cochise might not be winning any awards for his prose just yet, but the memories contained in this first book feel like honest ones. And taken along with the invaluable insider knowledge, stuff that could only be obtained by someone who’s really lived this underworld life, Street Gangs is an original work in that it offers a way to understand a very specific kind of outsider culture and historical moment on the Lower East Side, both of which were shaped by oppression at the time of their existence, and that have since acquired holes in their retelling from either whitewashing or demonization.
When I met up with Clayton and Cochise, we convened at the Outlaw Museum, or Clayton’s Lower East Side apartment. We all sat in the front room with Elsa, Clayton’s partner and collaborator, and the couple’s wriggly black dogs who were intermittently barking, growling, and causing a general ruckus. Cochise seemed unfazed, at home in the chaotic little digs, even jumping up to try and catch the phone at one point while Elsa sat stroking the littler, apparently more sensitive dog who was up in arms about pedestrian dawdling that day.
Cochise sat quietly as Patterson explained his own take on the book’s importance before leaving the room, when his friend took the opportunity to praise him. “Clayton and I became good friends, he involved me in art shows, he introduced me to a lot of cool people, he got me involved in writing– I would never have written that book if it wasn’t for Clayton,” Cochise said. “I owe him a lot, and Elsa. They’ve been good friends.”
Likewise, Patterson clearly has Cochise’s back. When I arrived, Clayton explained to me how their new book had been rejected by a local book shop, Bluestockings, the self-described “100% volunteer-powered and collectively-owned radical bookstore.” Clayton was baffled as to why the shop told him that they wouldn’t be stocking Street Gangs, given their selection of neighborhood-specific titles. “You’re on Allen Street!” Patterson said of the bookstore. “The Allen Boys, which are part of the book, that was their territory.” Clayton argued that, to him, this seemed like just “another form of gentrification”: “To have this radical bookstore turn a totally blind eye to that history, and you have all these ‘activists’– whatever that means– totally ignoring the history of where you are, it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It’s supposed to be the local bookstore.”
B+B reached out to Maria Herron, the Consignment Titles Coordinator at Bluestockings who handed down the rejection. Aside from having a full consignment section, she explained that “the book was presented as a history of gangs and gang violence in the Lower East Side. While we carry titles on many different topics, we generally curate through an intersectional feminist lens, to which this title did not seem related, as it seemed like a book only on the history of violence of our neighborhood.” Herron added that “of course,” she would reconsider stocking the book somewhere down the line.
Cochise didn’t have any explicit words for Bluestockings, but he insisted to me that he doesn’t “glamorize” violence, and that the book aims to do just the opposite, in fact. “I want to help kids, to steal them away from that lifestyle,” he said. The author acknowledged that, “I try to be graphic about it, I tell them about the violence, about how these leaders that I looked up to died violently– drug overdoses, gun violence– they’re all gone, they’re all dead.” But he said that it’s important to communicate a true sense of what happened. “I’m left to tell that story of what once was on the Lower East Side.”
Even though the mood at our meeting was initially colored by the disagreement with Bluestockings, I noticed that Cochise, despite being a brawny guy, and whatever embedded expectations I have about ex-gang members, maintains a monk-like serenity– there’s a quiet stillness about the guy. He’s deferential to the extreme and exceedingly polite, even when I was asking questions that he’d definitely heard before. Cochise often responded with a flash of preparedness and a hint of didactic speech, but it was almost always overtaken by genuine consideration.
“Look, there’s bad and good between the inmates and prison guards. You’re gonna find it out here anyway– but there is also good,” he said. Maybe this ability to see sameness in a new light is a sort of prison survival mechanism. Whatever it is, Cochise seems to be OK with the fact that digging around in the past can be a messy business– sure, you can dish out some easy answers, but when you get to the core of things there’s inevitably going to be some paradox, it’s part of being flawed (oh, and just human).
Behind stories of redemption, there are always the questions of why and how a person needed to be redeemed in the first place. As Clayton argues in answer to a question he poses in the book’s introduction–”Why do people join street gangs?”– well, it’s complicated. Cochise did have some ready-made answers. “I used to look up to the gang members– I’d see the cars, the jewelry, the money– I used to see the attention that these guys got. I wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to be accepted,” he recalled. “Back in the late ’60s to early ’70s, we had a lot of street gangs. What did we have in New York? Abandoned buildings, drugs– every neighborhood had a street gang.”
Cochise says that he was also looking for “a father figure,” after his own father abandoned him. “When I was 10, 11 years old, my father used to live at 22 St. Marks Place, and when he left us, I basically felt like nobody wanted me or my family, my mother. At that age is when I went out on the streets looking for somebody to hang on to.”
And yet things are always a little bit more complicated than that. “It’s really the history of the inner city,” Clayton said. “In these neighborhoods you almost couldn’t not be involved in these gangs, or at least be affiliated or friends with or deal with, because that was the neighborhood and that’s who ran it.”
Gangs offered not just a feeling of belonging, but validation as well. “That’s how I found out about my culture, was through the gang members,” Cochise recalled. “A guy named Indio, in the late ’70s he was the leader of a gang called the Katos, and this guy was very well known in the streets, but he would sit me down, and the other kids, and tell us about our culture, what happened when our people came to New York City. He used to tell us names like Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebrón. It was different from what we were learning in school– the forefathers of America– but we didn’t know anything of our culture and about the place where we came from.”
It wasn’t as if Cochise didn’t have any positive reinforcement outside of gangs, either. During our conversation, he recalled encounters with prominent members of the Puerto Rican community– ostensible good influences who met similar fates to those of lifelong gang members. In other words, it seemed to him that tragedy was inescapable. At about 14 years old, Cochise had a run-in with Miguel Piñero, the Puerto Rican playwright and actor, an ex-member of the Dragons (a gang that the book says was “prominent especially on the Lower East Side in the 1950s and ’60s”), and original member of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. (There’s only one surviving member of the Cafe– the rest, as noted in a 2001 Times piece, “were murdered or died in jail or of AIDS”).
“When my mother had moved us to 6th Street between [Avenue] A and B, the Nuyorican Poets had a storefront studio there, where they used to have fictitious gang jackets with names on it for plays and stuff like that,” Cochise recalled. “I used to take the jackets from the walls and pretend to be a gang member. Miguel Piñero one day caught me doing that, it was a brand new Lee jacket. He laughed at me and said, ‘Look kid, you can keep the jacket– if you want the colors, you can keep the colors, man.’ He was giving me, a snot-nosed kid a brand new jacket just to be nice. But to me, I didn’t care about the jacket, I cared about the gang colors.”
Several years later, in 1988, Piñero– a heroin addict since the age of 12– was dead from liver disease. “I still remember– he gave me advice, but I always heard the negative, I always went with the wrong side,” Cochise lamented. “It doesn’t matter who I was looking up to, they still had their problems with drugs or with violence.”
While Cochise’s memoir makes for a large chunk of Street Gangs, the book isn’t just a personal history or even a micro-history of the Puerto-Rican-American LES experience. Rather, both authors made an effort to document a sort of taxonomy of Lower East Side gang history in accounting for well over 20 separate gangs, many of them indigenous to the area. The gangs are described, some in more vivid detail than others, by various indicators such as their “colors”– which, I came to find out for the first time, is not simply red for Bloods and blue for Crips, but a term that refers to a “traditional illustrated jacket,” as Clayton writes in the book, complete with the gang’s name and location. Cochise recalled during our conversation that having the privilege of wearing gang “colors” for the first time sent him over the moon as a kid, even if they were faux. He explained that while most of the gangs he writes about in the book are dead and gone, “some of them are still around, they’re no longer street gangs, they’re motorcycle clubs,” which explains the familiar aesthetic.
Another point made by Cochise and Patterson in the book is about the fundamental shift in the city’s gang culture. In the ’50s and ’60s, street gangs provided protection for specific blocks and micro-sections of the neighborhood. Just before many of the city’s gangs became more preoccupied with drug dealing in the ’80s and beyond, and larger nationwide chapters of the Bloods and Crips, for example, began to overtake the smaller, neighborhoody gangs, some groups were reacting against what they perceived to be violence spiraling out of control. A few gangs, as the authors argue, actually fought back against the tide, and rose above the rest by seeking to curtail violence altogether.
“The Young Lords were like the Black Panthers, a sort of socially conscious group, which the gangs became for a certain period of time,” Patterson explained. In 1971, after the murder of Black Benjy, a member of the South Bronx-based Ghetto Brothers, the gang enacted a truce instead of seeking revenge. “That made people realize, ‘Killing each other isn’t what we should be doing, we should be socially conscious and try and clean up the neighborhood,'” Clayton explained. Cochise added that another gang, the Black Spades, a “very feared, brutal gang– they used to be the most notorious African-American street gang,” have transformed into “community activists.”
It may have taken Cochise a bit longer to swear off gang life, but still, in its focus on stories of gang rebirth and eventually in Cochise’s personal transformation, Street Gangs is also a classic tale of redemption. The cover design is dominated by an old photo of Cochise (taken by Patterson in 1992, the year they met)– there’s a bandana pulled up over his nose, concealing his face, and dark glasses covering his eyes. His hands are facing the camera palm-up, like a beggar’s, except that he’s holding a small pistol and red baggies full of crack. “A crack dealer aggravated Cochise,” a caption inside the book explains. The gangster had taken the dealer’s goods before he later “threw everything into the river.”
But it’s Cochise’s clothing that makes for some cognitive dissonance: over a leather jacket, he’s wearing a studded jean vest covered in a variety of insignia– skulls and crossbones, but also a number of swastikas, and even a pair of Nazi Parteiadler. Clearly, we’re looking at the Cochise of yesteryear. As he explained in excerpts from the intro, “The color red symbolizes the blood of our enemies, and the black the death of our enemies.” As for the Nazi stuff, Patterson interpreted “Cochise’s use of the swastika […] to be anti-social” rather than antisemitic.
Cochise was making art at this time too. The gang’s clubhouse was filled with his work. “I used to paint everything black, all kinds of demonic figures, sculptures of upside down crosses and everything,” he recalled. Both GG Allin and Dash Snow, among other artists, were drawn to Cochise’s work. “I don’t do that stuff no more,” he laughed.
Years ago, Cochise and some of his fellow gang members were convicted of attempted murder and ended up serving 18 years in prison. While incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility, Cochise got involved as a leader within a prison ministry program known as “Cage Your Rage.” As he writes in the book, it was during this last stint that he dealt with his “anger issues” head-on.
During our interview, Cochise recalled another realization during this time. “I’m talking to a friend through my cell, we used to hold out mirrors, and I’m telling him my story, about how I used to be a gang member, how I changed my life and got involved with all this positive stuff, and as I’m sharing that story, a young kid, 17 years old was listening to the conversation. One morning, our cell doors were open, this kid comes up to me, baby-faced kid, I dunno who he was, he says, ‘Thank you.’ I says, ‘For what?’ He says, ‘I was ready to commit suicide, but I heard you talking to your friend.’ He would smile everywhere after that, his smile would light up the whole yard. It was beautiful, and not just for him but for me, because I knew then that I could make a difference in somebody’s life. That I could take my past, and what’s left of my life, and do something with it.”