TALES OF WINDSOR TERRACE

People, places and things…in our neighborhood, they all change at one time or another.

Folks come and go in Windsor Terrace.

Some move away and unfortunately some pass away.

Stores open, stores close.

New business opens, old ones go under.

Out-of-towners purchase the brownstones for sale.

Wine shops open, espresso is now sipped on sidewalk cafes.

Brick oven pizza, top-notch restaurants, five hundred-dollar baby strollers glide across ninth avenue and stay at home dads are out in full force.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the old-timers that hang out on the corners reminiscing. (They still hang out, right?)

My friends, these are the tales from the streets of Windsor Terrace.

The streets where I once roamed.

Eighth, ninth and tenth avenues where I played stickball, whiffle ball, drank booze and listened to music on the street corners.

Windsor Place, 16th street, Howard Place and Fuller.

Streets where I knew everyone.

When the residents saw me coming I could just hear them, “Oh no, here comes the dysfunctional, red-headed kid from up on the avenue…”

Some people in the neighborhood liked me, some didn’t…I didn’t care. I still don’t.

I was a lost kid trying to find my way. Searching for guidance. Trying to read the map; the map for a young child to find his way and become a productive teenager. (Does such a map exist?)

I was without a plan. No blueprint in sight.

When I write, I begin to cry. But to be fair, I also smile at some of the shit I went through. The bottom line, I had no fuckin’ clue.

Funny thing is I thought I was the only kid in the neighborhood going through tough times. As a teenager I had no idea my best friends and many kids before me were going through the same shit; some had it worse. Life at home was awful. We all have a story to tell. We all stood in front of a disgruntled parent at one time or another wondering if we were going to get smacked in the face. As kids, we were defenseless.

I often think about all the people I grew up with and more and more I think of the people who came before me. I think of the junkies sleeping in the streets; the drunks staggering along ninth avenue at four a.m. and the tough guys who scared the shit out of me. I think of the older guys who I looked up to but never told them. I think of the parents of my friends that were always there for them and I think of the parents that were absent in their kids lives.

My memory goes back to the mid-70’s.

We have readers that go as far back as the 50’s.

And of course we have the readers that hung out on Hippie Hill from the 60’s.

There were teens from the neighborhood way before me that went through the same shit as we did. A period of time where I was unaware of; The days of such street gangs like “The Jokers“, “The Tigers” and the “South Brooklyn Boys.” One person in particular is Bengie Powers. With the help of the Internet, I researched and found some material. Our very own, Pat Fenton, an amazing writer has also been a huge help; Pat has written some powerful material on the neighborhood from back in the day.

Here’s an article from Blaine Harden of the New York Times from back in 1999.

Patrick Fenton, then a gangly Irish kid with a pompadour and now a part-time writer and full-time court clerk at the State Supreme Court in Queens, remembered a drunken fight not so much for the punches as for its ending. ”We both threw up,” Mr. Fenton said.

Robert (Bengie) Powers, a former drug dealer and a former heroin addict and now an addiction counselor, said he never once won a fight unless three or four of ”you guys held somebody down and I could beat them.”

There is also a book coming out real soon on Bengie’s life. I am looking forward to reading it.  A book on Bengie’s life will be out at the end of this month. It’s called “Bobby’s Book.”  Pat is writing a piece about it for the Irish Echo, which I’m sure will be top-notch. Fenton’s a great story-teller and certified neighborhood historian.

Bruce Davidson published a photography book, “Brooklyn Gang” a book with many photos including Junior Rice.

The saddest story behind Mr. Davidson’s photographs is that of Howard (Junior) Rice and Cathy O’Neal, the gang couple whose cool and beauty were without compare. No one had the heart to tell their story on Saturday.

Junior was the Romeo of the street gang. He wore sunglasses everywhere and carried a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s ”Howl” in his back pocket. He had the pick of girls on Eighth Avenue and his pick was Cathy, a 13-year-old blond he thought looked like Brigitte Bardot.

Cathy, in the most famous of Mr. Davidson’s gang photographs, fusses with her long golden hair in the mirror of a Coney Island cigarette machine. She loved Junior and he loved her. Mr. Davidson photographed them embracing while lying on the sand underneath the Boardwalk. She became pregnant with his child before she was 15.

Mr. Rice, who is now 57 but whose Brooklyn friends still call him Junior, remembers that everything went wrong after Cathy became pregnant. ”We went to a judge and got permission to get married, which my parents weren’t happy about,” Mr. Rice said in an earlier interview. ”Our daughter passed away after 15 months, and I went into a self-destructive mode and so did she. We got divorced. There was a lot of shame.”

Mr. Rice said he took street fighting to ”the extreme,” using bats, chains and knives. ”I used to go out there and fight and I didn’t know what I was fighting about,” Mr. Rice said. He said he became a drug dealer, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin, and the ”profits went up my arm.” He had several failed marriages and is now divorced and unemployed.

Ms. O’Neal committed suicide years later with a shotgun.

-Steve

Hoops135@hotmail.com

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21 Responses to TALES OF WINDSOR TERRACE

  1. Jack Kelly says:

    Heroin…….It took my Uncle and a couple of cousins. Those were bad times. I remember once my mother walking into PS 10’s schoolyard. I was about 15 and we were drinking beer. She stared at us for a few minutes and looked around. I seen a sigh of relief come over her. So I smiled and said as cool as can be “what’s up ” and she said I’ll show you what’s up as she wacked me in the head!.

  2. Judy says:

    OMG .. I’m from the other direction of WT PPSW, Reeve Place, Vanderbilt St. And Do I ever remember Cathy & Junior…Not stories for here.. Thanks for the mind & time trip..

    • hoopscoach says:

      Thanks Judy…no worries, I understand.

      • jimmyvac says:

        As many great people and stores that there are in the neighorhood, there are the sad ones and the people we lost to drugs and drinking.
        Most of us may have done something but there was a line that we would not cross. As a kid, when I heard kids doing coke or heroin, it would blow my mind.. later on working on Wall Street in the 80s, we used to work long hours, and people were doing coke.. the belief was it made you more alert which was garbage..

    • Michael Castellano says:

      Hi Judy my mother was Cathy O Neil if you knew my mom I would appreciate any stories from years ago this is my email if you would like to share mac62@echoes.net my name is Michael Castellano

  3. Maureen Rice (Flanagan) says:

    Benjie,who is now Bob, has his birthday on September 30th- I know because he and I have the same birthday- I guess I am one of Junior’s failed marriages , though we ended up close friends..and, since that book was published, Junior was blessed to get clean and have quality years before he passed, he adored his grandchildren and they adored him. I just saw one of the “old junkies” on the park bench the other day, and thought- there but for the grace of God- and NA- go I- that is Junior on the cover of Brooklyn Gangs, along with Lefty Jensen, who died many,many years ago- in the background is the young Bob Powers, looking like Kevin Bacon- that book has some amazing photographs..

  4. Maureen Rice (Flanagan) says:

    Actually, Steve, Container Diaries was instrumental in my getting a copy- the night of the opening at the Museum of Photography, I bought a copy for my brother-in-law, I believe it was $60- so I put off buyihg one for myself, then you know, life goes on and I forgot- when I heard of it again, copies were $400 and up on Amazon- in an earlier post, you had referred to this book, maybe in connection with writing about Pat Fenton- I mentioned that, and Bob Rice read it and contacted me, he had two copies and he gave me one- the gift of the book was awesome, but the fact that it was shared with me by someone who loved Junior and misses him terribly, well, that is just priceless.

  5. Pat Fenton says:

    In their heart of hearts, most of the guys and the girls who appear in the Windsor Terrace Brooklyn Gang pictures, were really good people. Even the photographer Bruce Davidson has said that the book is not really about a gang, it’s more about a bunch of young people and their lives together. They certainly were not the toughest guys in our neighborhood. I

    I was very close to Junior Rice, and Bengie, and Lefty Jensen who appear in much of the pictures, and on the cover of Bruce Davidson’s book. When I was young, I stayed over at Junior’s house on 20th Street almost as much as my own. His older brother Bob Rice and I are still as close as brothers.
    Unfortunately for them, they got lost somewhere between the violent culture that existed in the 50′s in parts of our Windsor Terrace neighborhood, and the sweet innocence which I think really represented it. Junior passed away recently,and so did Lefty Jensen, Bengie has managed to turn his life around.
    This I remember about Lefty Jensen, who I once went out to a shoe store in Bay Ridge with in the 50′s, a place that sold second hand motorcycle boots, he had this sort of James Dean sensitivity to him. Sadly, it probably helped to destroy him. He died way too young. The only good thing I walk away with is, the three of them, Junior, Lefty, and Bengie will live on, forever young together, on the cover of Bruce’s book, “Brooklyn Gang.”

    Truth is, we were all lucky to grow up in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that to me was like a working-class opera taking place every day of our lives. Yeah, it had its share of violence and drugs, but I think overall it had a certain pride, patriotism, and a strong belief in doing the right thing in life. The choice was ours. And most of us learned well from those lessons we were taught here.

    It had the original McFadden Brothers American Legion Post on 9th Avenue when it was located near 17th Street in the vast former, wedding hall of Sorrentos Italian Restaurant. And all through the 50’s and into the 60’s, when neighborhood soldiers came home from the wars, they would be welcomed here. Simple “football weddings” were made up of cold cut sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and passed across the table like footballs, barrels and barrels of tap beer and plates of cheese and crackers, some set ups of Seagram Seven and ginger ale, and a live three-piece band playing, and people dancing. And they were the best weddings ever.

    On nights when Holy Name Church would have a Novena the church would get so packed with kids and adults that they had to open up the gates to the altar to let people sit there. And we all had Holy Name School yard where other lessons of life were being taught to us, lessons we would take with us forever.

    Every Irish bar in the neighborhood had a baseball team, and 17th Street on a Saturday Afternoon had stick ball tournaments that went on all day. Come the summer and 17th Street would be closed down from 9th to 8th Avenue for a P.A.L. play street. We had the Sanders Theatre and Prospect Park to fish in, and a wonderful zoo that we could walk to. And in the cold winter when the streets were empty and covered with new snow it was still safe enough to go down your block alone and trade comic books at friends’ houses. It was good to be young then.
    Pat Fenton

  6. pat walls says:

    Great stuff and this is a great blog.

    i just want to add that although we are inundated with yuppies and hipsters, this is still a great neighborhood. We don’t have all the good things of the past but we don’t have most of the bad either. I worry when my daughter walks home alone, but I remember my father doing the same thing over 30 years ago (in IHM), sending me to meet her.

    I have a very strong feeling our children will one day remember this area very fondly, and will certainly say things like “It was good to be young then.”
    Thanks,
    Pat Walls

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