UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A note of bitterness in his voice : youth gangs, self-expression, and conversations about interracial tension in postwar New York City, 1945-65 Russell, Kaitlin Laura


This thesis challenges the popular idea of 1950s New York City as a liberal desegregated city characterized by racial tolerance by looking closely at the issues of juvenile delinquency and neighbourhood-based youth gangs. Using a wide variety of archival research—including but not limited to newspaper and magazine articles, oral histories, recorded audio, photographs, and databases—it argues that groups of working class teenagers organized themselves into ethnically-divided gangs in response to postwar demographic transitions that saw a large influx of black and Hispanic migrants to historically white areas. It views anti-social gang activity, especially “rumbles” or fights, as modes of conversation that racialized gang members engaged in with fellow teenagers and the public about their experiences and frustrations trying to access the city’s theoretically desegregated recreational amenities. Using two case studies drawn from highly-publicized incidents in the 1950s, this thesis demonstrates that some youth gang members vocally pushed back against municipal and media authorities’ colourblind go-to discourse of “hoodlumism” to explain the juvenile delinquency problem facing postwar New Yorkers— revealing a city riddled with interracial tension after all.

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