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His Gang

Memories of Brooklyn's mean streets fill 'Cracks in a Sidewalk.'

March 27, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

His uncle was called Yabo. His father was called Yabo. So when the youngest member of the Yablonsky tribe became a member of the neighborhood gang, of course he adopted the same nickname and had it proudly emblazoned across his leather jacket. It stuck, just like dad's and Uncle Yabo's monikers.

It was a tough Jewish gang he joined, in the tough Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. And it's the subject of "Cracks in a Sidewalk," at American Renegade Theatre, Yablonsky's drama about his youth, his gang, his territory.

Yablonsky grew up tough. But there was only one problem: He was also a poet. So he admittedly and repeatedly beat up other kids so they knew he was really one of the guys. He always considered it a credit to his personality that, just on principle, the gang members didn't break an arm or a leg because of the poetry. Especially after they grew up, which Yablonsky did, though he never got very tall.

As a matter of fact, he's not that much bigger than Mickey Rooney, whom he directed in the feature "B.J. Lang Presents," which had a set designed by a member of the old gang. Yablonsky, as writer-director, won the San Geordio Prize at the Venice Film Festival for his film "Jordi," and among many other writing assignments, penned John Huston's "Victory," which starred Sylvester Stallone and soccer immortal Pele.

As a playwright he has received Morganthau, Ford and Rockefeller grants, and won the prestigious John Golden Award. And it's as a playwright that Yablonsky wanted to tell his tale about that gang in Brownsville.

"I was involved in this milieu," he explains, "with these guys, until I went into the Army at 19. It was a street gang, yeah. The only thing about it was that guns were rare. Everyone freaked with guns. Guns came in about two years after our gang broke up. The younger kids would say, 'Hey, Yabo, look what I got.' And they'd take a .38 and lay it in my hand. I'd say, 'Yeah, right, Paulie, that's a pretty nice piece, Paulie.' But it would scare the hell out of me."

Even though the gang functioned in a neighborhood that spawned the Amboy Dukes and the infamous Murder Inc., the kids were more interested in territory than in crime.

It was the late '40s and early '50s when, he said, "You could get hurt, really hurt. You could get killed. But my mother could get off the elevated [train] at 10 o'clock at night, and walk eight blocks home and not have to worry."

There was a different mind-set, he said, than there is in today's gangs.

"I believe that part of the real violence involved now is drugs," he said. "I'm all for the legalization of everything. If someone wants to shoot themselves to death with something, amen, do it. But don't take the world with you. I really believe that the blind shooting, the drive-by shootings, are all about drugs. And people are making billions on it. You've got to remember that Prohibition practically created the Mafia, a billion-dollar criminal empire. It did do that, and it's essentially repeating itself."

Yablonsky believes there will always be gangs because urban communities are filled with poverty and always in transition, with a new group of economically depressed immigrants always replacing an older generation. All gangs, Yablonsky asserted, share something in common: They are all seeking recognition and identity. As he put it, "The big word here is respect."

That's what his play is about, he said. "I joined the gang because I needed a little respect. And I sure respected them."

BE THERE

"Cracks in a Sidewalk," American Renegade Theatre, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Indefinitely. $12. (818) 763-4430.

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