The gangs that once ruled the streets of Hell’s Kitchen have lost their power … but not the power to shock. As the pace of Hell’s Kitchen’s gentrification intensifies, it’s increasingly easy to forget that these streets were once fought over by blood-thirsty rival gangs. That shootings were commonplace and bodies were dismembered in back rooms.
The beginning of the end came when Mickey Featherstone turned himself in and testified against his gangland compatriots in the 1980s. In return, he was given a new identity and is now living somewhere under the witness protection scheme.
TJ English still hears from him now and then … though not for a while, he says. The author of The Westies, the definitive book on the Irish gangs of the west side, had been working as a cabbie and a part-time reporter for a couple of rags when he almost stumbled across the scoop of a lifetime.
“As an assignment for the Irish Voice, I was covering the Westies trial in 1988,” recalls the author (his name is actually Thomas Joseph, but the initials have served him well). “Featherstone was testifying against the gang. Even though I was just writing one short article for them, I was down there every day. I got really hooked on the drama of the story which, to me, was like the passing of a generation. Because it wasn’t just the witnesses and the defendants – in the courtroom were a lot of family members, and you could really see the spectacle of this whole way of life that had existed for about a century passing. It was very dramatic.
“One day, at a particularly dramatic point in the trial, I rushed to a party late afternoon at the end of the testimony. A friend of mine was having a book launch party. I was telling him about it and his agent was there and said, ‘Boy, this really sounds like a great idea for a book.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure there are some big writers on it already.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you check and see what you can find out, if anyone’s doing it? If they’re not, maybe you’d be the person to do it.’ So I called around and nobody was doing it. So I went back to the agent and she said, ‘Well, then let’s get a book proposal together.’
“I was 30 years old. I’d never even conceived the idea of writing a book. I remember vividly going home and laying in bed and staring at the ceiling thinking, ‘Now I have to write this book!’”
At this stage, he didn’t have access to Mickey Featherstone. But he knew he wanted it to be intimately told. “I felt it was much more than just a broad historical crime story; it was the story of the relationships in a very tough, urban, New York City neighborhood with a long, deeply entrenched criminal history, and what that was like for the people who lived it.”
Through a mutual contact, he let Featherstone know he wanted to talk to him. Then, one day, out of the blue, TJ got a call. “I was ready,” he says. “I made my pitch.”
He didn’t win Featherstone over immediately … that took a long time. Years. No money changed hands. It seems the violent gangster just wanted his story to be told.
“The key thing is for them to feel as if they’re not being judged, then you’d be amazed how talkative people can be. Especially when they’ve lived such an extreme, intense life on the edge like that. I think he had a vested interest in wanting his version of the story to be told.”
Featherstone would call the author at all times of the day and night, whenever he could get access to a phone. “He felt very isolated. He had become an informant against not just the gang, but against the culture he grew up in, the neighborhood. And some family members had disowned him over it. He had a lot of things he needed to get off his chest. He was very talkative. He just had a lifetime of explaining to do.
“And the whole thing blew my mind! Everything about it! Every day was mind blowing! The extreme nature of the violence, the cutting up of the bodies and how that became their modus operandi never stopped being shocking and it still hasn’t stopped being shocking.”
Was he repentant?
“He felt bad about certain things, yeah. It’s kind of like how you would be if you were so deep into a certain way of life that you weren’t even questioning it. And now you’re brought out of that way of life and you’re looking at it and you’re seeing … yeah, there were a lot of things he was ashamed of.”
But there was more than a future book at stake here. The author was dealing with dangerous men who’d been backed into a corner. It’s safe to say they were capable of anything.
More Hell’s Kitchen Nostalgia
“Yeah, well, the way to do a book of this type is to do it as quietly and anonymously as possible,” he says. “In that sense, I was kind of lucky that nobody knew who I was. I didn’t create waves. I don’t think a lot of people knew I was doing this book until it was published.
“By that time, they had been arrested, indicted, imprisoned, and ultimately convicted. So the gang had been taken off the street. But there were people who wouldn’t talk to me. A lot of people were afraid to talk.”
Twenty-eight years after publication, the book is still in print and continues to be read by a new generation of fans. Hell’s Kitchen may have changed dramatically, but it’s still loaded with associations for TJ.
Mr Biggs, on the corner of 10th Ave and W43rd St – that was the 596 Club back in the day, owned by Jimmy Coonan, which acted as an unofficial Westies HQ. “A number of murders took place there, including the famous murder of Ruby Stein. Bodies were cut up there. One night, they dragged a guy behind the bar and stuck a gun up his rectum and pulled the trigger. And that was just a barroom argument that got out of hand!”
The onetime Sunbrite Saloon (now The Waylon) on 10th Ave – 50th St – “that was where Eddie Cummiskey got murdered. Eddie is the one who learned to be a butcher in prison and brought that skill to the neighborhood and ushered in that whole era of cutting up the bodies. He’s the one who taught Coonan how to do it. His hangout was the Sunbrite Saloon, and that’s the place where a head was allegedly rolled down the bar. I don’t think that ever happened.”
But he adds: “You’d hear these outlandish stories and you couldn’t dismiss them because things that did happen that are verifiable were equally outlandish. I mean, Sunbrite Saloon is where they had murdered someone and put their genitalia in an empty milk carton and dumped that out on the bar.”
Then, of course, there’s the much-missed Market Diner, which was pulled down in 2015 to make way for the Oskar apartment building but was, in its day, a popular Westies hangout – a notorious battle took place in its parking lot. “The Market Diner was legendary,” says TJ. “It was one of the last places in this neighborhood that was preserved as it was for a long time. You could sit in that diner and really start to get a feel for the neighborhood because the diner looked the same, the clientele was kind of the same – working people and cops off duty.”
Many of the main players have now died, of course, while Featherstone is in his late 60s. The author and his subject stayed in touch long after the publication of the book, though he hasn’t heard from him in a couple years. “There was always the idea of the book being developed as a movie. It’s come close a few times, and the latest they’re talking about is a television series.
“People would occasionally come to me and ask if I wanted to do Westies tours. I’d never do that. It would be an insult to people who still live in the neighborhood and had relatives and siblings and friends who were killed during those years.”
But the book has never gone away. It has never been out of print, and TJ is constantly approached about it, about it by people. I get all kinds of communication about it. “It’s passing from generation to generation. I never could have anticipated that 28 years later, it would still resonate with people. I feel the book has become part of the lore of the neighborhood in a way that none of the other books I’ve published have. And part of that, I do believe, it’s because it’s so much about a neighborhood, a community, and all these issues of loyalty as defined in the streets of New York. Hell’s Kitchen was always a neighborhood where loyalty was a treacherous fault line.”
One reviewer took him task about this sense of nostalgia in the book. They said: “You just wrote a whole book about cutting up bodies and these horrible things and now you’re lamenting the passing of this way of life.”
“What I was lamenting,” insists TJ, “was the loss of community. This neighborhood was a really tight community. It was a melting pot neighborhood and people felt a real connection to it – they weren’t just passing through or doing commerce, were really tight. There was a sense that they were under siege from all these forces: social forces, crime forces, everything. And that brought everyone closer together.”
This story originally appeared in issue 48 of W42ST magazine in December 2018.