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City’s squad raids illicit watering holes

The raids performed by the Illegal Social Club Task Force can be...

By Jennifer Warren

Their tips come from police, firefighters, and anonymous calls. And once dropped, they lead investigators from their base at Fort Totten in Bayside to illegal clubs throughout the city.

The raids performed by the Illegal Social Club Task Force can be the long arm of the law reaching out to thwart modernday speakeasies. They can also resemble a midnight audit of basement and storefront hideaways.

The task force is a unit of the New York Fire Department, and its members are fire marshals who cooperate closely with other law enforcement agencies.

Emil Harnischfeger, who at 59 is the chief marshal of the force, said his fire career changed as he aged.

“I got too old to fight fires. Fighting fires is a young man’s game,” said the marshal, dressed in a black turtleneck shirt, wearing large gold-wired glasses and brushing his hand over a thinning crew cut. “You become more of a liability after you’re 40. I don’t want to see firemen hurt and now I have an opportunity to close down these illegal places.”

Sitting in his firehouse office at the Fort Totten Army base in Bayside, Harnischfeger is surrounded by maps of the city, the landmass dissected by police precinct boundaries and radio frequencies.

Lining the wood-paneled walls around his desk are calendars and clipboards with lists of “vacates” — clubs that have been shut down and vacated by his force. He estimates there are more than 300 illicit cabarets operating in the city. And it is his job to find them, bring them within code, or shut them down.

Harnischfeger estimates that on average 52 licenses are required to open a cabaret in the city. And by establishing an operation underground, owners avoid massive expenses. They also become frequent magnets for drugs, gambling and prostitution.

“They’re not the nicest crowd in the world,” he said of the club owners he is responsible for putting out of business. “They’re not paying liquor licenses. They’re all underground, down below grade, hiding away, trying to make a buck.”

To the uninitiated the list of violations may seem minor and mundane, but to the force they are as deadly as a loaded shotgun. Non-functioning sprinkler systems, blocked doorways, single exits and faulty emergency lighting are the elements that can kill by failing to prevent fires.

While most historians mark the passage of time by wars or presidents, Harnischfeger marks it by fire. With hundreds of newspaper articles documenting the infernos scanned into his home computer, the marshal studies the individual stories to track the evolution of disaster and its gradual taming.

From Manhattan’s Elm Street tenement fire in 1860, which led to laws requiring fire escapes, to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which eliminated many a wooden sidewalk, to the Conway Theater fire in Brooklyn that killed 295 people and prompted the use of panic bars and outward-opening exits, Harnischfeger’s daily inspections for fire safety is a natural progression of his time line.

“Things evolve only after death,” Harnishfeger said.

Leaving the fire house behind, the marshal and his squad pile into a small fleet of SUVs. Inside, the cars are outfitted with police computers and a multitude of switches and electronic gadgetry where one would ordinarily find an armrest. On a recent night the force decides to hit the 25th Police Precinct in Harlem. Armed with a stack of referrals ripe for investigation, they set out.

Driving by shuttered and gated stores the investigators had effectively closed years or months before, they document that the clubs have not sprung up since. With maintenance checks completed they head north to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx where a tip leads them to a late-night pool hall.

A violet neon sign glowing in the window, cigarette smoke, beer and the audio from a 1970s adult film playing overhead on two television sets, the investigators make their way into the hall for an inspection.

The owner escorts them to the basement door on which a metallic sign reads: “Baby Shower.” Harnischfeger taps the sign and gives a knowing smile, “That tells you something,” he said, referring to the fact that parties are being held clandestinely in the pool hall.

At the bottom of the stairs the basement is outfitted with a dance floor, mirrors, and a TV screen linked to the storefront surveillance camera that feeds its grainy overhead image, providing advance warning of a possible raid. A flier upstairs advertises the room for parties.

By night’s end, the owner — unable to show the accessibility of two basement exits, one of which led to an illegal wooden staircase — found himself with summons in hand and a promise from the social club task force that they would be back.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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