A few days ago, news broke that the Hells Angels would be leaving the neighborhood. Many East Village residents are celebrating; others, like me, mourn. I realize the group’s history is deeply troubling. But their departure seems a symptom of too much drastic change, too fast. Two years ago, the Streit’s matzoh factory, which had been on the Lower East Side since 1916, decamped for Rockland County and has been replaced by multimillion-dollar condos. In 2007, the home of Beat poet Hettie Cohen Jones, ex-wife of Amiri Baraka and neighborhood mainstay, was swallowed by the luxe Standard Hotel. In 2005, McGurk’s Suicide Hall, the notorious post-Civil-War brothel and saloon that later became the home of feminist pioneer Kate Millett and a passel of women artists, was razed; it too is now a luxury condo.
I moved to my block in 2000. The Hells Angels (no apostrophe in Hells, please) were right across the street, where they’d been since 1969. In 1977, they’d officially bought their building from one Birdie Ruderman for $10. Census records show that Birdie was born in Poland in 1901, lived in the East Village for decades, and moved—along with many other coming-up-in-the-world Jews of her era — to the Bronx. She died in 1979.
I moved to NYC in the early 1990s. I lived in Chelsea, a neighborhood that had begun gentrifying before the East Village did. I used to walk from West 22nd Street to the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street between B and C for late-night slam poetry shows, sticking to the middle of the street from the Bowery eastward. Few cars drove by. The East Village then was dotted with burnt-out husks; I’d pass barrels with fires burning in them and people slouched against crumbling walls. But on one block of East 3rd Street, I could breathe easy. It was under the Angels’ protection; they had cameras trained on the Harleys parked in rows on both sides of the street. Someone was always watching.
Eight years later, after stints in the Mission District of San Francisco and a safer, more northwesterly part of the East Village, as well as the acquisition of a husband, I moved to the Angels’ block. I had a knack, it seemed, for moving to neighborhoods just as they were beginning to be desirable to white people with artsy jobs. I also conformed to the cliché of white people whining when other white people followed in greater numbers.
When Josie was born, my mom used to walk her up and down the block in her baby carriage. Once Mom sat on the Hells Angels’ red-painted bench outside the clubhouse, rocking the carriage with one hand. An Angel came out and ordered her to move; the bench was for Angels only. Seventeen years later, she’s still furious. (There’s now a sign on the bench: “Private Property: Do Not Sit on Bench.”) By the time they were three, both my daughters could identify the purr of a Harley motor; they knew it was different from other motorcycle engines. They were also good at sleeping through truly deafening noise.
When my dad died in 2004, my husband and I took possession of his car, a burgundy 2002 Nissan Maxima. Unbeknownst to us, it was beloved of NYC headlight thieves, as the headlights could be nearly instantly popped out with a flat-head screwdriver, like balls of flesh from a honeydew melon. After the third theft, Jonathan knocked on the Angels’ clubhouse door, with its flaming skulls and pitchfork-wielding, helmeted winged demon painting, to ask if they had surveillance video he could look at. I worried he’d be killed. Richie, the Angel who answered the door, listened to him quizzically. “You can’t look at the video,” he finally told Jonathan. “But we’ll take care of it.” A week or two later, Richie approached Jonathan on the street. “It won’t happen again,” he said. It didn’t.
Jonathan befriended Kevin, the guy who moved the bikes back and forth across the street for alternate-side parking. The Angels were territorial when other vehicles got too close to their self-proclaimed parking spaces, delineated with orange traffic cones. But Kevin and Jonathan bonded over music; Jonathan, a former radio DJ and band manager, gave Kevin a bottle of Jose Cuervo and burned him a CD of a bootleg of a Cult show. We never had problems parking after that. Kevin sometimes moved the cones for us. A bouncer at Bowery Ballroom in his spare time, he greeted us warmly (and gave us bottled water) whenever he saw us at shows. Many of his compatriots have more surprising musical tastes. In the summer, when the clubhouse windows are open and music blasts out, the selections can be…wide-ranging. Once I heard an Angel singing along at the top of his voice to the Association’s “Windy.”
There were undeniably scary times to have them as neighbors. In 2007, a woman— seemingly drunk or mentally ill or both—staggered out of the Edge Bar a few doors down, screaming curses, trying to storm the clubhouse. She was found outside the club, beaten nearly to death, a few hours later. The cops shut down the block; cruisers and uniformed officers poured in; sharpshooters stormed our stairs and took positions on the roof, aiming at the clubhouse. Josie and her sister Maxie, at a playdate at a friend’s house on East 14th Street, were stuck there—and I was unable to leave my own building—until that evening, when the cops let people return. There have been several beatings and a stabbing in our years here; cabdrivers and tourists who’ve gotten too close to the bikes have been threatened. In the old days, it was worse: Club member “Big Vinny” Girolomo (whose motto—”When in doubt, knock ‘em out”—is inscribed on a bronze plaque above the clubhouse door) was charged with throwing his girlfriend to her death from the roof. A boy lost his hand in a fireworks accident during one of the Angels raucous blockwide Fourth of July parties. In 1985, the FBI stormed the building, seized cocaine and meth, and arrested 15 people. The Angels later sued in civil court (in a case presided over by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor), arguing that the raid had been illegal. The jury agreed. In recent years, the city has been careful about entering the clubhouse; it’s paid nearly a million dollars in fines for raids determined to be wrongful.
There’s no doubt that the club’s history is stained with racism and anti-Semitism. Yet a 1983 pro-Angels documentary quotes two of the Angels’ Jewish defense attorneys, Stanley Siegel and Herman Graber, insisting that despite the Angels’ penchant for Nazi memorabilia and swastikas, they’re not anti-Semites — they’re right-wing patriots! Siegel muses, “Perhaps [they’re] best suited to the most conservative wing of the Republican party— the Goldwater wing.” (One of the 3rd Street club members who shows off a vintage SS patch on his leather jacket in the film is Howie Weisbrod, who insists that it merely symbolizes that that the SS were “the elite of its corps” and he wears the patch because it was “a gift from a brother.” He continues, “You say we’re fascistic, we’re anti-Semitic or whatever. Well, I guess I’m the proof that we ain’t, you know, because I’m Jewish, and I sure ain’t a fascist and I sure ain’t anti-Semitic, because I don’t hate myself.”) I’m not sure how to square this with the description in a New York Times article of another 3rd Street Angel with “I hate Jews” tattooed on one bicep and “I hate [the n-word]” tattooed on the other.
In recent years, as the Angels have become less associated with murder and meth and more associated with traditional commerce, their use of the legal system has also increased. The group has sued dozens of companies for trademark infringement, including Toys R Us, Amazon, Zappos, Walt Disney, Marvel Comics, and a teenage girl selling handmade Death’s Head patches on Etsy.
But my memories of the club will always be writ small. The most indelible: I was rounding the corner of First Avenue and East 3rd Street with Maxie, then aged three. I heard loud popping noises. I hesitated. Gunshots? But there was no screaming, so I carefully set off for our apartment, holding tight to Maxie’s hand. The noise got louder. And then we saw Kevin, standing behind the Angels’ battered blue van, jumping up and down on a sheet of bubble wrap. Maxie stared, her eyes huge. Kevin spotted us. “Come on!” he gestured to Maxine. I released her hand. She ran over to Kevin, who took both her hands, and the two of them jumped up and down together, giggling. Bang! Bang! Bang! After a few minutes, Maxie told Kevin, “My sister loves bubble wrap! She will be sad she didn’t jump too.” Kevin opened the back of the van, where there were several giant rolls of bubble wrap. He made a handle for one with packing tape and presented it to me. We said thank you and goodbye, and took it inside. I spread the bubble wrap over the floor of our entire apartment, and Josie and Maxine bounced and bounced and bounced.