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A lifetime of fighting crime

Long Island City, 1980: Industry is taking its last sooty breath on the banks of the East River. The city is struggling amid a recession and high crime.

In the sprawling Queensbridge Houses, a few men in red berets are trying to destroy the culture of drug dealing and violence that permeates the projects.

So it was for Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, in his first forays into Queens.

“You’d get lost in that maze, and it’s not like there’s one way in and one way out,” he said in an interview. “You’ve got to run for the river. Because when all of a sudden the locals would posse up and try to reject you, they didn’t try to do it with logic. They’d try to do it with a baseball bat across your forehead.”

Sliwa, a Brooklyn native, founded the group dedicated to ridding public areas of criminal activity after working as the night manager of a McDonald’s in the Bronx in the late 1970s.

He started by patrolling the No. 4 subway train on the Lexington Avenue line, but later branched out to neighborhood patrols as more and more people sought him out.

“We were labeled vigilantes by Ed Koch. That was like a scarlet letter of doom,” he said, referring to the mayor who ran City Hall from 1978−1989. “Seventy−six arrests later, where cops would be giving me a wooden shampoo and a dose of their street smarts, luckily, in 1993 Rudy [Giuliani] became mayor and changed the way business was done with the Guardian Angels here and everywhere else in the world.”

Sliwa and his group came back to Queens in 2004 at the request of state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D−Jackson Heights), who last week called on the Angels again to help establish neighborhood watch programs after a spate of stabbings in his district.

Reacting to a string of gang−related incidents five years ago, Peralta reached out to Sliwa after seeing the Angels working security at a festival in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“I set up a meeting with Curtis, asked him what he would need for me,” Peralta said. “He said, ‘You just give me space, I’ll take care of the rest.’”

“You have the illegal aliens who get preyed on,” Sliwa said. “Gangs will literally jump on that 7 train, they’ll come to 103rd [Street], they’ll come to Jackson Heights, they’ll roam the streets on a Friday or Saturday night and viciously beat some of the illegals who have just gotten paid. ... The gang−bangers know that the illegals are not going to go to the police.”

Peralta praised Sliwa’s group as an asset to the community, helping to convince immigrants to communicate with law enforcement.

The New York of 2009 is considerably different from the world Sliwa grew up in, with the NYPD reporting major index crimes down 78 percent over the last 16 years. Today the Guardian Angels in the city focus largely on running youth education programs in city public housing buildings, including Ocean Bay in Far Rockaway. They have also opened up chapters in numerous cities throughout the United States and in 12 other countries, including Mexico, Peru and Brazil.

But Sliwa will not forget the conditions on those subway cars that drove him to try to change things without the police.

“It was a bad psychedelic dream. You would sit in a car you couldn’t see out the windows of because they were splotched with graffiti,” he said. “These posses of guys would roam up and down the trains ... singing, ‘Manhattan makes it, Brooklyn takes it,’ and feasting right on you. It could be a crowded car, 30 or 40 people, and instinctively they would know that you were being targeted and they’d go to the cars in front and behind. You’d be on our own.”

For those wishing to make a difference, Sliwa urged a process of networking and collaboration.

“It’s almost impossible by yourself as a lone warrior,” he said. “You just have to start connecting with others and then you’ll find those who are on the same page, who have the same agenda. It’s all about teamwork.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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