West Side Story, which opens May 27 at Merry-Go-Round Theatre, showcases a bitter and tragic rivalry between two New York City gangs. The show is set in the 1950s, and we thought it would be interesting to research a few other gangs that patrolled the same turf as the Jets and the Sharks! We’ve included some pictures comparing stage and film productions of West Side Story to the lives of real gangs in the 50s.
Youth gangs in New York City were very prevalent in the 1950-60s. West Side Story captures the gritty darkness of their reality, as well as their flashy bravado. There are many similarities between the real street gangs of New York City and the gangs in West Side Story. For example, it was not uncommon for well-meaning individuals to attempt fostering some sort of peace between battling groups through a social event, such as a dance. In West Side Story, this is the event that sparks Tony and Maria’s romance, but the real “gang dances” were not always such romantic affairs. The tension between the Jets and the Sharks viewed on stage or screen is almost palpable, and this was also true of the real dances. The sharp divide between the separate gangs made any friendships (or romances) next to impossible. For many of the teenage boys (and sometimes, girls) their gang was their only true family. This connection inspired fierce and unswerving loyalty between members, as exampled in the brotherhood shown in West Side Story. Some other similarities are as follows:
The vehement hatred the Jets and Sharks have for each other is the foundation of West Side Story.One example of a real gang rivalry was between the Harlem Red Wings, an Italian gang that controlled several streets in New York, and the Fordham Baldies (no, they weren’t all bald). The Harlem Red Wings were also in bitter rivalries with several different Puerto Rican gangs. Just as the Jets felt their territory encroached upon by the Puerto Rican Sharks in West Side, so established gangs in the city resented when immigrants came and attempted to set their own boundaries. Most big fights and intense rivalries were over “territory.” Shown below on the left is the Jets and Sharks facing off in the film production of West Side, while on the right, a NYC gang keeps a watchful eye on their turf.
The West Side Story guys pride themselves on their sharp style, which was typical of many young gangs in that time period.
Here’s a shot of the Sharks from the film production of West Side, looking rather similar to members of a Puerto Rican gang in New York City in 1954. Often, the fashion chosen by a gang was intensely personal and a trademark of that group. Another individual daring to wear the “trademarked” outfit was subject to harassment or bodily harm.
A “rumble” is a huge fight between street gangs, and these happened often between gangs in the 1950s. In West Side Story, the scheduled rumble has tragic consequences, as did many real fights. The gangs were made up of primarily teenage boys, whose only real possessions were often just the streets they “owned.” This makes their aggression towards any trespassers a little more understandable. One of the more famous rumbles in the 50s was a fight between the Fordham Baldies (a gang from the Bronx) and the Harlem Red Wings. After the Red Wings trespassed on the Baldies’ territory, it set off a chain of events that resulted in a gunfight which occurred outside of a candy store. This fight resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, and the injury of several gang members. Shown below is one of the final scenes from the Broadway production of West Side Story, where the dramatic fight between the Jets and Sharks takes place, as well as the candy store where a real life rumble between the Baldies and the Red Wings took place.
Gangs like the Jets and Sharks are not the type that still exist in cities today, as the influx of new drugs, more weapons, and enforcement of laws have changed both the format of gangs and the kind of warfare that ensues. Although West Side Story adds a romantic spin with the love affair of Tony and Maria, except for the dancing and singing scenes, the depiction of the gangs is remarkably true to the reality faced by actual street gangs in the 1950s. The intense loyalty, rivalry, pain, and struggles felt and displayed by the street gangs in West Side (although more musical) are certainly representative of what street gangs in NYC probably felt, and the closest many of us will get to experiencing the desperate life of 1950s youth on the streets, making it a show not to be missed!