1965-1967: Philadelphia Gang Wars

Gangs ruled the streets of Philadelphia in the 1960s and ‘70s. 28th and Oxford, 21st and Norris, Valley, Somerville, 21-Lot, 21st and Titan—for most young men growing up in North Philadelphia, becoming part of a gang was inevitable. Either they had the protection of their neighborhood gang or they risked being stabbed in the back on the way to school. Gangs started tagging street corners as a way to mark their territory. This was not an act of self-expression or artistic creativity. It was a way to send a message to other gangs: “This is our turf. Leave or get shot.”

Cornbread as Cyrano

When McCray arrived at the YDC, it was full of gang members. Kids had been pulled off the street and sent away to be “corrected.” Once off the streets, the rules of the gangs became a little looser, and the gang members became friends with McCray. His way with words, which had helped land him in the institution, made him an asset to the gang members. They would have him write love letters and poems to the women they wanted to impress. McCray never represented a gang, but when he was released from the YDC, he was friends with gang members from all over the city. This gave him safe passage around the different neighborhoods. During his journey, he spray-painted the name Cornbread in every gang turf from one end of town to the next.

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