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September 13, 2012

Street Gangs of New York: Amazing Photographs of the Reapers in 1972

In August 1972, LIFE magazine published an intimate and, for the time, remarkably even-handed article on the mounting problems associated with street gangs in New York and other cities around the country. The piece focused on one gang in particular — the Reapers in the South Bronx — and featured a series of powerful color pictures by a young photographer named John Shearer.

Shearer, only the second African-American staff photographer ever hired by LIFE — after Shearer’s mentor and friend, the great Gordon Parks — was uniquely qualified, among the magazine’s not terribly diverse stable of shooters, to capture the Reapers' days and nights. But even he had trouble penetrating the gang's wall of suspicion.

“I visited the neighborhood five or six times, without my camera,” Shearer told LIFE, “just so I could get a feel for that part of the South Bronx. A few times I was approached by Reapers asking me what I was dong there, but largely I was left alone.”

Then, on one fortuitous early morning after a late night in the neighborhood, an exhausted Shearer was sitting outside a bodega drinking a cup of coffee when a Reaper literally tripped over his legs. It turned out the young man was none other than Eddie Cuevas, the charismatic president of the gang.

Shearer and Cuevas got to talking, and when Cuevas learned that Shearer was not only a genuine photojournalist with an impressive list of assignments already under his belt, but that he was also the son of Ted Shearer, the groundbreaking visual artist and creator of the long-running comic strip Quincy, it was a done deal. The next day, Cuevas informed Shearer that he could begin shooting the Reapers lives in earnest.

“Eddie fancied himself something of an artist,” Shearer recalled. “He’d designed the Reapers’ colors, and the fact that my dad was the man behind a comic strip that he read every day provided me with my ticket into his world.”

Eddie often complains about being hassled by police, but he gets along well with the cop on the beat. Eventually he would like to become a policeman himself. “I’d rap to the fellows and take care of my people.”

Reapers gang members try to clean up their South Bronx neighborhood, 1972.

With Javelins, nearby allies, Eddie discusses plans to clean up neighborhood.

Flanked by his war lord, wearing hat, Eddie warns the president of a rival gang to leave Reaper members alone.

In a city youth agency office that sometimes gives him funds, Eddie argues, above, for money for trips out of the city. “I want my boys to see what the world’s about.”

A peace treaty among the gangs has been violated by rivals. Under pressure to retaliate, Eddie instead goes before a night meeting to plead for patience.

Street gang, the Reapers, New York, 1972.

In an apartment building corridor, members of the Reapers administer their own swift and brutal justice to a junkie accused of having stolen a Reaper’s car.

In an apartment building corridor, members of the Reapers administer their own swift and brutal justice to a junkie accused of having stolen a Reaper’s car.

Eddie and his fellow Reapers pay their respects to 'Chino' Rosa, a member of a neighboring gang who was knifed to death. Friends of Chino’s say he was held up and murdered by a junkie, but a grand jury decided that Chino’s assailant had been acting in self-defense. The Reapers donated a week’s dues to the bereaved family.

Reapers president Eddie Cuevas and his mother in their South Bronx apartment, 1972.

Eddie Cuevas, president of the Reapers street gang, with his girlfriend Yvette, South Bronx, 1972.

Reapers president Eddie Cuevas meets with gang members, South Bronx, 1972.

Eddie and Yvette have been going steady for four years. “When we get married,” he said with pride, “she’s going to wear a white dress.”

Eddie Cuevas, president of the Reapers street gang, peers out a window in the South Bronx, 1972.

Eddie’s mother has maintained a shrine to her husband since he died ‘of drinking and a bad temper’ four years ago.

On a Bronx street are names important to the Reapers: Eddie, his girl friend Yvette, Con and Mr. Kool, the war lord and vice-president.

(Photos by John Shearer—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)


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