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"It's just a brand name that they're taking on," he says. "Most of them don't have any connections to Los Angeles or Chicago, and the ones that do are rare birds. It's just mythologizing this sort of gang stuff that goes on elsewhere."
Savelli agrees. "The Bloods we have here are without a doubt less organized than they are in other parts of the country. They're very violent—they've actually been responsible for the majority of the cop killings we've had over the last ten to fifteen years—but they seem to attract a more disorganized type of gang member."
"The Crips are a little bit more organized, but probably not as organized as they are out in LA. I think what a lot of people are confused about is that with a lot of these gangs there's really no national connection. It's not like there's a guy from Los Angeles in MS-13 who's traveling out to New York to meet with the MS-13 guys there."
What exactly is to credit for New York's relatively low levels of gang activity is something of a mystery, Curtis says—one that he and several of his colleagues are currently applying for grant money to explore. "We want to see what we have here in New York that other places don't," he says. "What have we done here that other cities haven't?"
There are a variety of theories, none of which, he suggests, seems at a glance particularly convincing. Oftentimes members simply age out of being in gangs, but there's no reason that should disproportionally affect New York-based organizations. Likewise, an improving economy can decrease membership, but it's not like the economy—especially for young, poor men—has exactly been going well. The work of the NYPD could be responsible in part, but, Curtis says, he can't imagine that's the whole story.
New York street gangs started disappearing in the 1960s as corporate-structured organizations began to squeeze them out of the drug trade. These new outfits were typically family-run, and while management was often all drawn from same ethnic group, low-level workers were hired with no particular regard for ethnic or gang affiliations—much like employees of any legitimate business.
"Just like how at Ford the boardroom is dominated by people with the last name Ford, these organizations were dominated by family members at the top, and then the higher level of management would be people of the same ethnic group as themselves," Curtis says. "And then the laborers would just be whoever. They'd just be hired help."
Recently, he notes, criminal activity in New York has shifted to more of a franchise model, with organizations "divesting themselves of their lower-level employees and setting up franchised businesses instead." Under this type of arrangement, large dealers provide packages to smaller operators on consignment, who are then left to distribute the drugs in whatever way they choose.
The switch to this sort of structure has coincided with another change in New York drug trafficking—the replacement of street dealing with a delivery-service model. From the early 60s to the early 90s, most of the city's drug dealing was done publicly out in the streets. Over the last two decades, though, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies have made this sort of selling considerably more difficult. As a result dealers have largely taken their business indoors.