The Westies: A Gang That Shot Themselves in the Foot

westiesA NYC cop finds a dead body in a hotel basement, along with a shell casing and a signed birthday card. He’s sure it’s a false clue to throw the cops off the trail. Nobody could be stupid enough to leave a fingerprint and a handwriting specimen at a murder scene. Well guess what, the killer was that stupid. Not only that, but they botch  a massive job; while their boss is meeting with the Italian Mafia, they’re told to drop in to check on him if he doesn’t call in one hour. During that time, they forget to check on him.

T.J. English (author of Born to Kill) has crafted this well-written and perfectly researched historical narrative about the Westies. For those of you unfamiliar, they were the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, and for those of you who call it “Clinton,” it was the part of Manhattan west of Broadway. Much of it is gone, replaced by Lincoln Center and post-1980 apartments. But in the 1960’s, it was full of Irish gangs, but like most inner-city neighborhoods, it was changing. Puerto Ricans were moving in and most of the Irish were moving out. T.J. captures the mood of those who didn’t move out until the 80’s, an era when Times Square theatres and Madison Square Garden provided the labor.

One of the best things about The Westies is the historical value of the book. T.J. English makes it very clear that NYC, like all others, was changing after WW2. White people were leaving in droves, and in the case of Hell’s Kitchen, moving to the new Irish neighborhoods in the East Bronx, Flatbush, Queens, New Jersey, Levittown. With Kennedy in the White House, Tip O’Neal in Congress, High Carey in Albany, nobody cared for the few Irish Americans left in the inner cities. English suggests that the better-off Irish American families in the Bronx were embarrassed by the ones in Hell’s kitchen. But that’s not surprising, when you consider that by the 1950’s, the Lower East Side was Jewish-owned, but no Jew lived there, and none would visit at night.

The main characters are Jimmy Coonan, and his henchman- whom I believe the author sanitizes too much-Mickey Featherstone. Now Featherstone, he doesn’t come off as frightening, but just crazy. He was a deranged Vietnam veteran, a kid from an abusive Hell’s Kitchen home who got worse in the army. He becomes a feared killer for the mob, while at the same time playing the hardworking husband and father. If you were a loan shark, all you had to do was drop the name Featherstone and the borrower paid up. Like a whole lot of mobsters, he turned state’s evidence after he was (in his view) wrongly convicted and abandoned by the other gangsters.

The Westies were obviously big on muscle, but small on the brain. They sought out the Italians to create a partnership, and they were accepted, but they ended up being used by the Italians. Freelance thugs were all the Italians wanted them for, and they never got any real respect from the Mafia families. They had none of the organizational skills of the Italian Mafia, which is why most of them ended up in jail, in the witness protection program, in the bottle, or on drugs. By the time the movie State of Grace was filmed, the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen were all gone. The area was already gentrified, and the only Irish presence were the pubs. The part you see in the movie West Side Story is gone too, demolished to make way for Lincoln Center.

The Westies, with their lack of intelligence, did not survive a changing city.

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