Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out and About in the East Village, Part 1

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.



By James Maher
Name: Christopher Reisman
Occupation: Police Officer, retired
Location: 9th Precinct, 5th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue
Time: 11 a.m. on Monday, May 5

I’ve lived here since 1969 and I also used to work here. I was a cop. I grew up in the suburbs, in Westchester, and I left school early and wound up in the Army when I was 21 years old. Most of the guys who I was hanging out with there were from New York.

I got out after three years — two years, 11 months and 14 days. I knocked around for a little while and came over to the neighborhood when I was 25. When I was in college I used to come around here for music. I used to listen to a lot of music. You had the Five Spot on 5th Street and then they moved up to St. Marks. You had Port of Call East, East Village Inn, Pee Wee’s, Slug’s.

The area always intrigued me. It has always been unusual. The area was unique in the city for a number of reasons. It had been crushed by urban renewal. There was a very strong neighborhood identification in those days. There were Polish blocks and Italian blocks and Ukrainian Blocks. For the most part, the Jewish families were gone by then. In those days, nobody owned the entire neighborhood. They might have owned their own blocks, but no one group was strong enough to bully the others. If you were going to be a bully you had to stay on your own block. It was almost exclusively blue collar. By the late ‘60s people were starting to be damaged by the war.

As in most communities, the low level criminality was always the cottage industry — selling little pieces of dope or betting on the numbers. Socially, everybody stood down from whatever their position or status was. I remember in Phebe's you’d see cops, actors, firemen, dancers, kids from Chinese youth gangs, and Hells Angels all drinking together, because nobody was in charge. That was the deal.

There were a lot of people involved in the arts because they could afford to live here and work some little job to pay the rent and then practice the rest of the time. It was always to a degree bohemian. It was inexpensive. It was a community that did not for the most part sit and judge you. Everybody had a place as long as you didn’t impose yourself on people.

I knew Hilly Kristal, the guy that owned CBGB. That was an interesting place. It was kind of a sentiment of the times too There were some of us who drank at his other bars — he had a bar on West 9th Street and another bar on West 13th Street, and those were part of the nightlife. We all knew each other and long story short, the night before he opened Hilly’s on the Bowery, typically, he was not ready to open. He still had to put down the floor, which he had neglected to do. So it was me, my roommate who was an electrician, a waiter, and one of his bartenders, and we laid the floor the night before he opened, for a bar tab. This was probably in ‘73 or ’74.

When I joined the cops, I kind of engineered my assignment here, and I wasn’t disappointed. I worked at the 9th Precinct and I first started in May 1969. You had an area where there wasn’t a lot of money and there was certainly very little affluence. For the most part it was not considered a choice assignment. As a matter of fact, very often, cops who couldn’t be punished would be assigned here under the theory of how much harm can they do?

Beginning in the late 1960s, drugs started to erode the social fabric of the neighborhood. I didn’t have any basis for comparison because I hadn’t lived here before, but it became very obvious that this was increasing. There was also a little street culture here, for everybody, in the sense that most people lived in very small apartments, but they lived with their whole families and there was no air conditioning.

Consequently, any opportunity they could get out the apartment was a good thing. So people literally lived on the sidewalks. It was either that or go to a gin mill. It was much, much tougher. Jail was not a unique experience. The sensibilities and sensitivities of incarceration were pretty much evident on the street. If you stepped on somebody’s foot and didn’t sincerely apologize, you’d probably get badly hurt.

We came right during a social change, for us as well, because the department and the city were changing rapidly. The older fellows… we learned from some of the smartest cops in the city, because they had defeated the police department. There were some very creative and intelligent men. Many of them were veterans from the Korean War and several World War II vets. They were all from the city. And then there were the people that you didn’t want to spend any time with.

In those days you worked around the clock. We used to say, if you want to [sleep on the job] it was pretty safe in the daytime, you could go to sleep, because nothing was going to happen. From 10 at night to seven in the morning it was usually pretty busy. They called it the three-platoon system. The first platoon was from midnight to eight, the second was the day shift, and the third platoon was four pm to midnight, and it changed every week. Consequently, you were always sleep deprived.

As time went on you’d probably end up in a job where your hours were a little more regular, but by that time your children were already grown, and your wife was already completely estranged. It was tough that way. There was a very intelligent reform, maybe around the late ‘70s, when they gave cops the opportunity to pick their hours. It also gave them an opportunity to get side jobs, because when you worked around the clock it became very difficult to get a part-time job.

For a cop to get a side job they had to submit a request and identify the employer, get permission and almost always the conditions were impossible, so the cops would take the job on the side and hope they didn’t get caught, cause you had to. I was making a $112 a week, but I was single. If you had a family, you couldn’t do it. Now you had a choice. You either had a part time job or you get cozy with somebody who was going to give you money. In many cases, to some extent it was deliberate by the powers that be. Jimmy Walker had a famous saying when somebody came up to him and said the cops want a raise. He said, ‘Let them get their own raise.’

When I came on the job the police department was very conservative, and part of it still is today. A policeman was fired because he was living in sin with his girlfriend. If you were working here, everybody in the whole world is doing it. The irony was very often that the cops were expected to respect the rights of the individual that they themselves were not entitled.

The early ‘70s was at a time where the police department as a whole was very passive. If you were in uniform and arrested a man for narcotics, the cop would be investigated automatically. If you had too many of these they assumed you were a crook. The official orders would be, if you see narcotics, do not take action. So the public sees me walking by a drug dealer and thinks I’m corrupt. Out of an effort to be genuinely pristine, the job inadvertently created a mass corruption image. So Tompkins Square Park was the result of this type of a free zone, which was really sad for the people that had no other place to be. It was pretty much no blood, no foul.

For the most part, I always worked at night. I worked what was called the public morals, which was called the vice squad. I was assigned to the career criminal apprehension unit. I did that for three years and then went into detective work. I was what they called an active cop. I made a lot of arrests.

We would get what you’d call a kite from a precinct commander, ‘there’s a bookie and he’s working out of candy store x’. We’d go in and place bets and so on. When we started here we didn’t have radios. When you worked the foot post you worked by yourself and it was very instructive because you had to learn how to cope with whatever was going on by yourself without any help. It was only your reputation or how you presented yourself initially that enabled you to do anything at all so you stayed alive.

Burglaries were certainly prevalent. We used to wonder whether there were more than five television sets in the entire precinct, because they would be stolen and resold everyday, which was particularly savage because it was almost always poor people being robbed. The poor people were at the mercy of the vestiges of the middle class and the upper class. Polite solutions were imposed on situations that just didn’t work.

Everybody has watched television, and so everybody knows about crime and how that works and how institutional corruption works, but they don’t have a clue. It’s not their fault. They’ve been educated to think that they know. So this also created problems for us, not the least of which was that none of us have a 26-minute solution to a problem. It’s much more dull and much more unsatisfactory.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.

In Part 2, Christopher Reisman talks about the murder of his partner in 1975.

25 comments:

John M said...

Fantastic post. It makes me wish the man would write a book, or at least tell all of his stories and observations to an interviewer with a recorder for transcription.

Anonymous said...

The last paragraph here, about "television culture", is one of the most intelligent comments/observations I've read online in quite a while. Kudos to Mr. Reisman.

marjorie said...

Perhaps the best interview yet in this wonderful series. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

thank you Christopher for your intelligent and insightful contribution to this series, I look forward to part 2

Anonymous said...

A lot of us are street smart but this man is a street genius by comparison. I think this part sums up my idea of New York, at least the New York of not too long ago.

"Socially, everybody stood down from whatever their position or status was. I remember in Phebe's you’d see cops, actors, firemen, dancers, kids from Chinese youth gangs, and Hells Angels all drinking together, because nobody was in charge. That was the deal."

dwg said...

These interviews always bring the East Village alive in ways you never knew or didn't expect as well as continue to paint a portrait. Only on EVgrieve.

nygrump said...

So I'm taking there IS someone in charge now? maybe they'd like to come out from behind the curtain and take a bow..

9:44 am said...

Nowadays, it's the Google culture and they've been educated to think that they know.

Anonymous said...

What an intelligent, wise, observant and empathetic fellow. Pretty much the polar opposite of my perception of NYPD cops in 2014.

Goggla said...

Great interview - I really enjoyed this one and look forward to Part 2. And I agree with John M and hope this man writes a book.

Anonymous said...

My dad is a retired officer however not from the NYPD. Cops get to see it all and most become quite good judges of human characters before too long. I find it fascinating what he said about the changes in the force over the years. My dad also worked 2 jobs in the 60's and 70's to support our family.

Roxana Anniuk said...

Woderful article and great interview...I was one of the Ukrainians growing up in the neighborhood.

Joelle Morrison said...

I once heard Chris Reisman, who is not a big man and not a showoff in any way, describe how he exercised control by tapping the side of his head. "Tough is in here," he said. With John DeBerry, it was humor and comfort in his own skin, along with being wily as the dickens. As a team, they were unbeatable.

HippieChick said...

What a mensch. Astute, humorous and intelligent. Great add to a terrific series. I too wish he'd write a book: I have lived in the 9th since 1968, and have been through what he describes so eloquently.

Anonymous said...

This gentleman is a superb narrator. Very astute and benevolent observations of the changes over time here in the East.

- East Villager

Nina d'Alessandro said...

I settled in this neighborhood in 1973. I met Chris in the Binibon Cafe on the corner of Fifth Street and Second Avenue. His respect for--and compassionate understanding of--the longtime residents of the neighborhood trapped in poverty, his love for music, his enthusiasm for the arts and young artists flocking to the area, all made him someone you wanted to be around, and one of the only cops in the neighborhood whom you really felt you could trust. He is one of the most intelligent people I've been around, and just plain salt of the earth. I remember once when I had to call on him professionally after my apartment had been robbed, again, the ceiling pulled in, and its contents nearly destroyed by--judging from muddy shoe prints on my floors--what must have been one adult and two teenagers. Without going into the whole story, I'll say that I figured out who one of the teenagers was--a neighbor. Chris knew the kid's whole history and told it in a way that I'll never forget--compassionate, insightful, really firm on the law, but also full of awareness of how a criminal is made. I could write an essay about that moment . . . Sometimes I wondered, seeing Chris on the streets or in clubs, how he bore all that awareness and sensitivity in his work, which tended to harden everyone in the force. . . . Yes, I wish he'd write a book. What a full human being--a mensch, the long-gone Jewish community would call him. And what a blessing, really, he was to the neighborhood. Thank you for doing this interview.

randall said...

Great interview. Spot on observations from someone doing it before compstat ruined law enforcement.

Can't wait to read part 2. As someone working in the "law enforcement industry" now, I'd love to sit and talk music and crime with Mr. Reisman

Anonymous said...

I would love to read a round-table discussion with this gentleman and Phillip Giambri (http://evgrieve.com/2013/06/out-and-about-in-east-village_26.html). The things these two men have seen (from two different sides) would be fascinating.

"I used to go to all the police meetings and this new guy came in named Gunderson, back in ’75, and he changed everything down there. The 9th Precinct had the reputation, if you got out of the Police Academy you had to learn to be a bag man, and they sent you to 5th Street to learn that. It was a very crooked place. That was part of our problem — the cops had their own thing going on and they couldn’t give a shit about what we did."

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

I agree with Marjorie, best interview yet.

Walter said...

The 9th precinct cops used to hang out at Phebe's on 4th and Bowery. Not infrequently, there were cop-on-cop fist fights in there. But that was more than 35 years ago.

Anonymous said...


A great entry in a superb series.

So much humanity and insight.

Anonymous said...

This dude is my neighbor...I need to know more...

Unknown said...

Great interview, lot's of appreciative comments. Good for Chris. He deserves being recognized
for the smart, stand up guy that he is. Paul Pines

Annie Birdseed said...

About thirty two years ago, back when I was hooked on dope, I was staying with a friend on Ave A and East Fourth St across the street from Key Foods. It was on the second floor, above the real estate office. My friend who owned the apartment had gone out of town for the weekend and I had lost the key and couldn't get in. It was hot and my dog and cat were locked inside with no food and just a bowl of water. I was desperate and didn't know what to do when along came Chris. I had met him once when he was looking for a terrible fellow named Jamaica who killed an old lady so he could steal her twenty dollar television set. I didn't know who Jamaica was but I told Chris if I ever did hear about him, I sure would tell him. He told me "I don't usually believe what people say but I do believe you. And he was right, I indeed would have told him if I had seen the fellow. Anyway, Chris saw me crying and asked me what was wrong and I told him that my dog and cat were locked in the apartment without food or wate and that my friend wouldn't be back for three days. So, he pulled his car up on the sidewalk, then borrowed a ladder and put it on top of his car - then climbed into my friend's apartment and opened the door and let me take my dog and cat out. He then closed the door making sure it was locked and we left. I went and stayed with another friend till Monday when my other friend returned. Oh, and my key was returned to me a few days later although by this time, I already had another key. That's the kind of fellow Chris is.

Glen said...

I was born on the Lower Eastside further south Chinatown and Little Italy - Then in the mid 60's I lived on 3rd St before the Hells Angles took over 88 E 3rd - Got drafted out of there 2 years came back, drifted a bit became a cop and guess what, back to the lower east side - Came back form one war and found another one going on back home - When I got assigned to the 9th the oldtimes said " Eh kid what did you do to get dumped here" I just laughed I was home - Chris and I worked together 69~72 Those were bad years for the Police department in general, Knapp commission, Serpico, The NY Times - And in any war there were the casualties. The 9th Pct we lost a lot of good cops in those years - Foster and Laurie - Fred Reddy and Andy Glover - I'm out over twenty years my heart says I'd go back today, But you can never go home - Chris, myself and a dwindling number meet once in a while for breakfast in the old neighborhood - It's just me Glen , formally of the Neighborhood police team -