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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Gangs in Garden City

By Sarah Garland. Nation. 305 pp. $26.95

Don't believe the fun-loving depictions of gang warfare in "West Side Story" and Michael Jackson's "Beat It" -- thug life ain't all jazz hands and high kicks. Newsweek staffer and first-time author Sarah Garland offers a softshoe-free view of real-life Scarfaces in "Gangs in Garden City," a comprehensive history of the transition of Nassau County, N.Y., from idyllic Long Island retreat to posse-plagued demilitarized zone.

In muscular, Hemingway-esque prose, Garland weaves an economic and social history of Latino gangs in suburbia around unrelentingly bleak personal narratives of gang members, including one Salvadoran war refugee whose isolation drove him to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a. MS-13) crew: "If he could trust anyone to watch his back and not to betray him, it was these men. . . . They had been cannon fodder, and they had survived." Though immigration hawks and jingoists demonize gang members, MS-13, like the Mafia and innumerable other ethnic gangs that predate the modern metropolis, is fed by America's patchwork immigration policy, poor urban planning, need for cheap labor and race hatred as much as it is by flawed individuals. Gangs are not inevitable.

-- Justin Moyer

© 2009 The Washington Post Company