Neighborhood Report: Red Hook; Chubby Stole a Bomb, Big Vic Left Town, And These Sands Street Boys Carry On

Mikey is not dead. The news came after the backslapping, after the meatballs, after the cigarettes had burned a while, and long after the neighborhood was lost.

"They told me Mikey died," said Bullets, a big man. His voice was wrecked.

     "No," Johnny Apples said. "It was Ralphie that died. Ralphie died, not Mikey. In the house, all by himself."

 The men were old. Last Saturday night, they wore jackets and huddled around the bar of the Sgt. Joseph A. Carullo American Legion Post on Columbia Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It was the third annual Navy Yard-Red Hook-Vinegar Hill reunion, organized by Bob Bellarosa, who was the source of the bad tip about Mikey.

"I have an excuse," said Mr. Bellarosa, 70, who was born to a Filipino father and a Puerto Rican mother but grew up on Sands Street thinking he was Italian. "I did 20 years' boxing, so the brain isn't always there."

A lot of things are no longer there.

The universe of Mr. Bellarosa's boyhood stretched roughly from York Street to Nassau Street and Navy Street to Bridge Street in Vinegar Hill. But after World War II the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, courtesy of Robert Moses, cut through the heart of his childhood, and in 1952, the Farragut Houses, a 16-acre public housing project, toppled most of what was left. Families scattered.

"Moses destroyed us," Mr. Bellarosa said.

Marie Risitano, who grew up in a tenement on York Street, added: "All the houses are gone. All the people are gone." Today, the neighborhood features parking lots, fenced-in grass, evenly spaced plane trees and the roar of traffic.

Mr. Bellarosa has done his best to rally against the loss. About five years ago, he began blanketing the walls of the Carullo Post with photographs of the old neighborhood. Soon after, he began publishing a free newsletter, Our Neighborhood, with pictures and reminiscences from the old days.

"I wanted to remember my people," said Mr. Bellarosa, who still lives nearby, right above the American Legion post. "This is a piece of history that won't be seen again."

There was the time Johnny Apples was sent to jail "in a paddy wagon" -- unjustly, he said -- and the years the sailors on Sands Street made the girls cry. Fifteen-year-olds wore fedoras. Kids shot dice in the streets, and men came home from war with a thirst. Chubby robbed a bomb from a Navy boat. Bullets and Smiley beat each other up for a nickel, and Big Vic got run out of town.

"Those were the days of the gangs," said Mr. Bellarosa, whose loyalties lay with the Sand Street Angels, a group of boys who regularly squared off against the High Street Wolves. "We played together, we fought together, we robbed together, we made love together. This is before the era of the junkies. It was tight knit."

Once, the High Street Wolves raffled off two spring chickens and one turkey to raise money for their maroon jackets.

"I'm a dreamer," Mr. Bellarosa said of his efforts to keep the past alive. He wore a black suit and a short black tie with white dice on it. "I like the old days."

Above him, a disco ball swept over an empty dance floor, and dozens of colored balloons clustered on the ceiling. There was music, but no dancing. The food went unfinished. "Funerals, arthritis and pains in the head" had kept some people away, Mr. Bellarosa said. Fewer than two dozen showed up.

"I was a big man one time," he added. "At one time everybody knew me."