And that may have been one of the reasons why Ridgewood never made it onto the new scene radar. Where I lived, the southwest part by Cypress Ave. and Himrod St., the main presence was Italian, Puerto Rican and Guyanese. And it still is. The toughest group of that quarter were the Italians and I don't think hipsters were, or are, ready for any neighborhood where the so-called white people are the toughest of the lot.
Ridgewood could be a rough place. During my years there I had a machete and a switchblade pulled on me. An irate Italian man drew the machete as I was about to punch his son out over a parking spot. The father charged into the fight like he'd been waiting all day for some action. I saw his long blade and a maniacal gleam in his eye like it would give him pleasure to cut someone. I gave the spot up. About a year later a little Puerto Rican man who wanted the $5 bill I had in my hand pulled a switchblade on me as I went to buy cigarettes in a deli on Wycoff Ave. I think he thought I was some rich interloper who would give up the money at the sight of someone holding a blade. All I could think of as he screamed for me to hand over the money was that he was no bigger than most 12-year-olds. I fought off this armed midget with a bag full of wood blocks and dirty t-shirts. I don't know which got to him: the smell of the shirts or the smack of the wood. He ran off. I got my cigarettes.
Along with the street crime, I came to find that Ridgewood had a mob presence. Not the big dealers and honchos, but mob boys all the same. The Mafia guys who hung out or lived there were small-time players?mostly small earners, boosters, hijackers and gambling-den owners. Low-key and low profile, those guys today aren't going down on any RICO indictments. Today's high flyers would be wise to follow their lead: Take the 100 G's a year and sleep well at night or go for the millions and die in a prison bed. Your choice.
If the Mafia is going to be a viable criminal organization into the next century, neighborhoods like Ridgewood will be the strongholds. But in the 80s, in Ridgewood, most of the gangsters were just off the jet and they made good foot soldiers for Gotti's crew. I knew they were with Gotti because on a warm summer afternoon in the late 80s John Gotti came to Cypress Ave. for a meeting. He was greeted like the pope's emissary, sent to give out blessings. One Italian kid yelled, "Did you see him? He said 'Hello kid' to me."
Ridgewood's storied history as a mob neighborhood goes back as far as July 12, 1979. Ridgewood borders the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, which was home to one of the mob's most notorious hits. Carmine Galante, who after Carlo Gambino's peaceful death in 1976 aspired to be the de facto Godfather to all five New York families, went for an early lunch at Joe and Mary's Restaurant on Knickerbocker Ave. that July day. As he sat down to his afternoon meal, a team of efficient shooters ran into the back garden where Galante was sitting and gunned him down along with his bodyguard and the restaurant's owner. What made the hit memorable was the tabloid shot of Galante with bullet holes through his body and a puddle of blood under him, his dead jaws still clutching a cigar. Since Galante's mob nickname was "Cigar," some were convinced that a tacky tabloid photographer stuck the stogie into his mouth for the added effect. It worked.
Recently I drove around lower Ridgewood to find that not much has changed. The hipsters are still absent and the same people live there, although if you go down to Knickerbocker Ave. where Galante was shot, the Italians are long gone. Joe and Mary's Restaurant has morphed into Caffe La Notte, and while the name may be Italian the workers and patrons are all Spanish. Old Bushwick Park where the Italians played bocci and planned nefarious enterprises is now Maria Hernandez Park, she being the woman who was gunned down by crack dealers in the late 80s when she tried to rid the neighborhood of that scourge. Hernandez didn't die in vain as crack, for the most part, has left the park.
One block down on Irving Ave. one of the last Italian businesses is going strong. The sweet smell of baking bread can still be sniffed at Giangrasso's Bakery, although the retail store is closed. The doors are locked and they only deliver, preferably out of the neighborhood.
I drove up to Cypress Ave. The building that housed Gotti's social club is now a bodega. The nearby coffee shop, Estrabar, is still open and crowded with Italians. They make splendid cappuccino and espresso, and the cannolis are still fresh. When you walk in the English conversation stops and Italian only is spoken.
Everyone is an outsider in this neighborhood. Driving across the avenues I see that there is no there there in Ridgewood. Just small Mom & Pop delis that lock up tight when the sun sets. Cutting up farther on the avenues I see that the bars still have no names. Middle-aged men with faces like catcher's mitts sit and drink Schaeffer and Rheingold beer. These joints don't need names because if you don't know them, they don't want you in there. I drive farther on, mesmerized by the identical attached homes that line the dark streets. No one is out. The sidewalks are empty. It is a neighborhood you could move to and get lost in forever. It never needs to fear gentrification.