There Goes the Neighborhood: Gangs of Yuppies Move Onto the Turf of New York's Hells Angels

updated 09/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1987 01:00AM

Perhaps in the deepest regions of hell there is some nook or cranny that cannot be exploited by real estate developers. But in Manhattan there is not. On that unlucky island the demand for living space so far exceeds the supply that no tenement is too squalid, no street too mean to lure young professionals desperate for shelter—and developers eager to provide it. Witness the ongoing gentrification of East Third Street, natural habitat of the New York City chapter of the Hells Angels.

Across the street from the Angels' clubhouse a banner touting co-ops for sale flaps in the fetid breeze. A partial rehab, featuring a fresh coat of tan paint over a soot-blackened facade, has transformed a sagging old apartment building into trendy housing for the affluent young. You might think that a beer can's throw away from the lair of a notorious band of bikers would be a less-than-desirable homesite—and you would be right. That's why a dark, airless, 400-square-foot, one-room apartment there can be had for only $68,000 (plus $388 a month maintenance), about half the going rate in the city's tonier precincts.

The Angels, who bought their then-decrepit building in 1977 for $1,900 and fixed it up themselves, view the neighborhood's sudden ascension with mixed feelings. "We've moved up in social class without leaving the block," jokes chapter president Brendan Manning. But his smile can't hide that tinge of resentment common to an area's old families when the nouveaux riches arrive. As his biker buddy Butch Garcia notes, "We always kept this block clean when it was a ghetto, a slum. Now the rich people moved in and everybody's trying to keep it clean."

Manning, 31, who lives in an apartment above the clubhouse, as do a number of Angels and their families, anticipates no trouble with the new upscale neighbors. "If they don't bother us, we can deal with them," he says. "As long as they don't complain and don't call the cops and"—his barbarically handsome face grows stern—"don't hit our motorcycles." He vows with a resolve as ineradicable as his tattoos that, even if the clubhouse becomes an island of sweaty denim in a sea of pin-striped wool, there will always be the Angels: "We were here first. We're not gonna change. We don't change for nobody. If they can't handle it, they can move."

The trouble is, they can't move. If the yuppies could afford to live anywhere else, they wouldn't be on East Third Street in the first place. Take Cyndee Nielsen, 24, an account executive for an international marketing firm. She was paying $500 a month to share a small bedroom with one of her four roommates in a Greenwich Village apartment. When her rent went up, she had to move. Now she counts herself lucky to share a "very small" $1,200-a-month two-bedroom flat in a tenement down the block from the Angels. "My roommate's room won't fit a double bed," she says. "They're the smallest rooms I've ever seen."

Yet Nielsen's only complaint about her living situation is that the block is attracting too many of her fellow yuppies: "It's a trendy area to live down here because it's the Hells Angels block. It's a real bonus having them here, especially if you're a single girl—I know that nothing is going to happen to me on my street." The burly bikers keep an eye on things, and free-lance malefactors steer clear. "The Angels don't like commotion," she explains. "They don't want a bunch of cops coming down here."

Sometimes a bunch of cops comes down anyway, most recently when a few Angels allegedly took it upon themselves to smash the windshield of a passing motorist whose horn-honking had disturbed them. In 1985, after a massive raid on their headquarters, six Angels pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. (Manning himself still faces trial on federal narcotics charges.) And back in 1978, the then president of the chapter was charged with (though never convicted of) throwing a young woman to her death from the roof of the clubhouse.

But then, who doesn't have eccentric neighbors? "They have their ways," concedes a longtime East Third Streeter. "The Angels are hard to predict, but they're all right."

"It's like having the Mafia on your block," enthuses the real estate broker showing the co-ops across the way. "No junkies walk down the block. There are no winos. There are never any problems."

With the bikers enforcing a sort of pax angelica on the block, it's no wonder the crime-weary middle class is flocking in. Of course, the elderly low-income people who have lived there for decades are being displaced, but there's no room for sympathy in the apartment business. "They go to Puerto Rico," says the broker, with a shrug. "Or they die."

Eventually, then, everyone on the street will be an Angel or a yuppie, living side by side, learning each other's ways. Already the Angels are showing a certain interest in real estate: They talk of someday taking out an equity loan on their building (now worth a good half-million dollars) to invest in other properties. "That would be the sensible thing to do," says Manning.

If the Angels have an equal effect on the local yuppies, you may one day run into an investment banker with a tattoo (Born To Raise Capital?). Ask him how things are on East Third Street—and don't touch his motorcycle.

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