Somewhere north of Jamaica Bay, the Brooklyn-Queens border winds through a sunken tract of land that nonetheless stands out quite sharply from the surrounding neighborhoods of East New York, Ozone Park, and Howard Beach.
Here, sparsely distributed houses rise from densely overgrown marshland to display either trimmed yards and extensive gardens or graffiti-covered abandonment. Willows hang over grasses much taller than people. Dusty cul-de-sacs sport wide collections of disused boats and jet skis. Piles of debris and crushed rock loom precariously. Basements breach the water table only a few feet down and become submerged. Meadows bloom. A truck sells Italian sausages from the same spot on the side of the highway that it has occupied for 31 years. Locals refer to their neighborhood as Spring Creek, Old Old Howard Beach, East New York, Lindenwood or, most evocatively (and commonly), as "the Hole." Few spots in the five bouroughs--yes, even taking into account Staten Island--feel further from the crowds and activity of Manhattan.
And yet, for ten below-grade blocks in an obscure corner of the city, the Hole has its share of stories. The area most recently came to media prominence (or notoriety) in October 2004, when FBI investigators searching a half-flooded lot that has stood empty for decades exhumed the bodies of Dominick Trincera and Philip Giaccone. The two men, along with a third, Alphonse Indelicato, had planned a takeover of the Bonanno crime family in 1981. All three were gunned in an elaborately set trap, under the watchful eye (and orders) of then-capo, soon-to-be-don, eventual "Last Don" Big Joey Massino. The bodies were disposed of by the crew of rising Gambino family capo John Gotti, who owed his old friend Massino a favor. While Indelicato was found within a few weeks by children playing in the lot (minus a tongue), the others bodies failed to turn up. But in September 2004, staring down the death penalty on charges of racketeering, seven murders, arson, extortion, loansharking, illegal gambling, conspiracy, and money laundering, Massino began cooperating with the FBI; by October 13th, after almost a week of excavation and water pumping, they'd recovered the final two bodies and evidence of their identities. Another body, that of John Favara, who struck and killed John Gotti's son Frank in a motor accident in 1980, is thought to lie, still undiscovered, somewhere in the Hole.
But stories like this are hardly uncommon for residents, some of whom fondly remember Gotti's presence in the neighborhood, even as they convey dubious rumors about a partially-developed plot ("Cobblestone Estates") just east of the Hole: "They stopped work because the ground was too contaminated by the 200 mafia bodies they dug up." In fact, work seems to have stumbled with only foundations poured due to much less exotic cases of bribery and corruption. (Caught on tape in the thrall of an 8 x 14 foot bathroom in a free house she was to recieve in exchange for smoothing the way for development, city Assemblywomen Diane M. Gordon tells the developer, "You're making me so excited. Oh, my Lord.")
And then there are a couple broad meadows in the Hole's southest corner, one time site of stables and pastures belonging to the Federation of Black Cowboys. Still with their main grounds located just down the street in Howard Beach, the Federation houses some 40 horses in stables or trailers, which a large paddock and apparent riding grounds. Though they lost their pastures in 2002 when the lots were sold to a developer, it doesn't appear that any development has taken place; the lots are among the broader and wilder swathes the area has to offer. The Federation is still going strong, however; their next rodeo is scheduled for September 25, 2009.
Despite the apparent calm during my trips through the area, recent events serve as a reminder that this is also the edge of the neighborhood that sparked Spike Lee to direct Do the Right Thing. And the racial tensions are still there, as evidenced by new graffiti on a couple buldings, written in a runic script that has been linked to recent Neo-Nazi activity in other parts of Brooklyn.
And so, I give you the Hole, Lindenwood, Howard Beach/East New York, Brooklyn/Queens.
Further images and research via Nathan Kensinger.