Urbanities

Keith Elliot Greenberg
Letter From Pelham Parkway
Winter 1992

The Commission for Forgiveness of Blood came to Pelham Parkway with its work cut out for it.

For generations, this tidy middle-class Bronx neighborhood has served as a refuge and beacon for successive waves of immigrants moving up and onward out of crowded city tenements and into the neat red brick two- and three-family houses that line Pelham Parkway’s well-swept streets. Even today Pelham Parkway retains something of its bucolic pretensions. Horses roam the bridle paths leading past traffic into Pelham Bay Park. Columned minimansions stand graciously before the wide green traffic islands that punctuate Pelham Parkway, the thoroughfare from which the neighborhood takes its name. Once the showpiece of the “Borough of Beautification,” Pelham Parkway also boasts both one of the world’s largest collections of wild animals (the Bronx Zoo), and of cultivated plants (the 230 acres of azalea, rose, rock, and herbs of the New York Botanical Garden).

Many of the Italians and Jews who enjoyed breathing the relatively open air of Pelham Parkway have long since moved on to even greener pastures. In mid-1990, the Commission for Forgiveness of Blood came to town to address the urgent concerns of the newest and most exotic group of Bronx immigrants: the Albanians.

The Albanians have always been a fighting people, survivors of war, first with the Romans, then the Byzantines, then with successive waves of Slavic warriors from the north. In the fifteenth century, the Turks arrived, ruling for five hundred years until, in 1912, Albania finally declared its independence. Serbia took advantage of the ensuing confusion to grab much of Albania’s eastern territory, which was incorporated into Yugoslavia upon its formation in 1918. Most Albanians in the Bronx are from Yugoslavia; immigration from Albania proper stopped in the Sixties, when Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha cut off all escape routes from his nation. When Tito died in 1980, his fragile nation of manifold nationalities began to disintegrate, and Albanian immigration from Yugoslavia into the Bronx surged.

“After each war, the side that doesn’t win comes to America,” says Isuf Hajrizi, manager of Illyria, the twice-weekly Albanian newspaper published in nearby Belmont.

The 15,000 Albanians in Pelham Parkway, mostly members of the clannish Geg tribe, had already faced the common hardships of immigrants mastering a new land, a new language, a new culture; now they gathered to confront a peculiar difficulty of their own. Each new immigrant group brings to New York its own strengths and weaknesses; the Albanians bring close-knit families, a strong sense of honor, a fierce drive for independence—and a penchant for blood feuds.

For generations in Albania, the blood feud had been the principal means of settling family disputes. They still talk in Pelham Parkway about the quiet Albanian fellow from Yugoslavia’s Kosova Province who lived a law-abiding existence for 35 years in the Bronx, then returned home to avenge his father’s death a half-century earlier. So in the Bronx, Albanian men would quite reasonably arm themselves in case they encountered a rival from the Old Country below the elevated tracks of the #2 train on White Plains Road.

Anton Cetta and his Commission for the Forgiveness of Blood came to the Bronx hoping to end it all. “The time has come for us to all shake hands,” Cetta, a professor at the University of Kosova, told the warring Bronx factions, “because the blood feuds have destroyed the Albanian nation.” What’s more, many feared the Albanian blood feuds might destroy Pelham Parkway, or at least that portion of the neighborhood the Albanians have claimed for their own.

A private people, Albanians maintain an unostentatious presence in the Bronx. There are no discotheques blaring pulsating Albanian rhythms or restaurant signs proclaiming “Albanian-American Cuisine.” Yet according to community organizers, Albanians own about 35 percent of the pizzerias in the Bronx, usually under the names of their former Italian owners, like Nicky’s on Fordham Road and Tony’s on Arthur Avenue.

The greatest Albanian success story, however, has been in real estate. Albanians now own as many as one-third of the privately held buildings in the Bronx. For many Albanians, the first step on the road to owning real estate is taking care of someone else’s building. After World War II, many Albanians came from Italian refugee camps, and the Bronx soon developed a swarm of Italian-speaking Albanian supers. In the Bronx, the Albanian super is a kind of folk character, renowned for his ability to get the job done, sometimes in unorthodox ways.

As in the pizza business, the newcomers had no intention of remaining the hired help for long. In Pelham Parkway they still tell the story of Peter Mrnaci, an Albanian super who used to kid his Jewish landlord, “One day, I’ll own this building.” Years passed and Peter saved and then, one day, the landlord decided to sell. True to his word, Mrnaci became the landlord, and the landlord, his tenant.

As good landlords, Albanians are also good neighbors, helping to preserve the integrity of their buildings and their community. In a city that makes it difficult for landlords to evict drug dealers and destructive tenants, the Albanians have improvised ways to keep their buildings neat and safe. Some have eliminated the drug problem in their buildings by providing free apartments to undercover cops; others brag that they scare away dealers with fists, bats, and, if necessary, guns.

There are other, less salutary sides to Albanians’ legendary prowess as landlords: When tenants complain about services, some Albanian owners have been known to pretend they don’t speak English. And woe to the tenant who incites an Albanian to a grudge match: When one group of women repeatedly complained about the lack of heat in winter, the owner turned it on in the summer, saying something like: “You want more heat? Now you got it.” But their occasional excesses must be measured against the Albanians’ accomplishment: preserving a safe, orderly middle-class neighborhood.

Why have the Albanians succeeded in the Bronx, where so many have known only failure, poverty, and decay? Like other immigrants, Albanians rely on close-knit family ties. Brothers and sisters frequently live in the same home along with their spouses and children. Everyone works and puts the money into the same bank account. After a couple of years, the family has enough to invest in a property.

Just about every Albanian with parents abroad also sends money home. It costs about $150 a month to support a family of five in Yugoslavia’s ethnically Albanian Kosova Province, and Albanian political organizations there regularly send lists of the neediest to compatriots in the Bronx. Some of the wealthier Bronx real estate owners sustain as many as fifty Kosova families each.

Albanians in the Bronx also benefit from extended clan ties, both ethnic and religious. They are almost all members of the Geg tribe, indigenous to the barely penetrable mountain regions north of the Shkumbin River. (The other major group of Albanians in New York, Tosks, came from the farming regions south of the Shkumbin and gravitated mainly to Manhattan and Queens.) Most Gegs are either Sunni Muslims or Albanian Catholics; after World War II many received help from Church-run resettlement organizations working out of refugee camps in Italy. The Albanian Catholic Church split from the Vatican at the beginning of this century, when Albanian priests refused either to celebrate the Mass in Latin or to turn in their guns. Our Lady of Shkodra Albanian Roman Catholic Church on Park Avenue in the Bronx still flies the American and Albanian flags, but not the Vatican banner.

When a newcomer arrives from the Old Country, as some 7,500 Albanians have in the last decade, he is put to work as a super or in construction, whether or not he has a green card. The job may be a gift from a more established Albanian, but the newcomer is expected to take it seriously. If he works hard, his benefactors may one day help him acquire a building of his own.

Sali Nezaj is a typical case. He arrived in the Bronx in 1970, moving in with his cousins. While his wife spent nights cleaning offices in Manhattan, he worked in construction and diligently saved his money. In 1984, he made his first big purchase, a 19-family apartment house at Bainbridge Avenue and 198th Street. Today he owns four Bronx buildings and encourages his supers, immigrants from Jordan and Puerto Rico, to follow the same track.

Like other Albanian property owners, Nezaj had a lot of help fixing his places up. Albanians cut costs by doing their own repairs—electrical, plumbing, roofing, painting, plaster. On big jobs, other Albanians help out, sometimes free of charge, knowing that one day the owner will return the favor.

And every Albanian, no matter how poor, comes to this country with one other key asset: a rigid code of honor. Albanians succeed in part because they can operate outside the tangled web of city regulations that makes it so difficult to start and sustain small enterprises. Albanians don’t always need formal contracts or mortgages either, because, as Gregory Lima, an Italian-American who serves as public affairs coordinator of the Albanian Benevolent Association, puts it, “They’d rather die than break their word.” Realtor Rexh Xhakli, 52, has lent Albanians he barely knows up to $80,000 on a handshake—without interest. “You don’t charge a brother interest,” he explains.

Nor do Albanian small businessmen often have to deal with the heavy taxes imposed by organized crime. As far back as the Ottoman Empire, Albanians were notorious for refusing to pay imperial taxes, and today in the Bronx they’d rather give up their business—or worse—than pay tribute to the Cosa Nostra. Mobsters have learned not to shake down Albanian business owners, for fear that thirty years down the road the owner’s son might kill the son of the wise guy to repay the indignity.

“Outsiders look at us as landlords who carry guns,” says Alex Lekutanaj, a 26-year-old real estate manager. “They don’t look at the honor and traditions.”

The Albanians’ sense of honor—and their taste for blood feuds—can both be traced to a tome of etiquette named for a fifteenth-century aristocrat: The Canon of Leke Dukagjini. It is a book that can be found in many Bronx living rooms, along with the black two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, decanters of plum brandy from the Old Country, and picture of Scanderbeg, a prince who defied the Ottoman Empire. In the children’s rooms, next to Barbie dolls, sit likenesses of Nora, the fifteenth-century Albanian girl who assassinated a Turkish sultan.

It is in the Canon that the peculiar mix of honor and ferocity that make up the Albanian character is most starkly on display: “Upon entering the house, the guest must give you his weapon to hold,” one section stipulates. “Holding the weapon is: A) a sign of valor and honor, as well as an indication of your pleasure that a guest has come to you; B) a sign of guardianship, since after you have said, ’Welcome,’ he must have no fear and know that you are ready to defend him against any danger.”

“If I give you my word that I am going to protect you, nothing in the world can stop me,” notes Gjovalin Nikci, 27, the first Albanian printer in the Bronx.

When blood feuds erupt, Albanians insist, it is never a case of violence for the sake of violence. It’s always over honor. But Isuf Hajrizi acknowledges that “Albanians have fought for really stupid things,” citing land and women as the two main causes. Among other acceptable provocations for blood feuds outlined in the code: violating the hospitality of a host by insulting his friend or worker, robbery, failing to repay a debt or obligation, and removing the cover of a cooking pot on your host’s hearth.

Once an Albanian is killed, the feud can quickly escalate: Male family members are responsible for preserving the honor of the deceased—even if it takes generations to obtain revenge. But there are limits, even in blood feuds. The Canon stipulates, “If two groups are fighting and one hundred men have been killed on one side and not a single one on the other, the rifles must be put aside and the firing must stop if someone interposes himself between the two groups.” In some parts of Montenegro, village elders establish a cut-off point: After a certain number of people are killed, the blood feud is officially terminated. “In my village, it was 21,” Nikci remembers.

What if the combatants refuse to end the feud? The Canon has an answer for that as well: “If the firing and abusive language does not stop after the mediation, there is a tremendous rain of bullets and a confusion of rifles until both sides are destroyed.”

It took a man of Cetta’s insight and stature to realize that, as the twenty-first century looms, The Canon of Leke Dukagjini may not be the most productive guide to personal conduct. In Kosova, Montenegro, and Macedonia, Cetta visited more than 1,500 families embroiled in feuds, showing sympathy to their predicament, but sternness in his demand: Blood feuds must end, for they were obstructing efforts to create an independent Albanian republic in what is now Yugoslavia.

In the past, when a blood feud was resolved, the guilty party would send a mutual friend to the other family to request forgiveness. When Cetta ended a blood feud, he never asked forgiveness in any individual’s name, but in the name of the Albanian nation.

After Cetta’s visit, blood feuds suddenly fell out of vogue in the Bronx. In the course of a week in July 1990, ten oaths of revenge were retracted, another 12 potential blood feuds quelled. Cetta and his entourage moved on to Detroit to counsel Albanians there.

Nikci remembers feeling nervous about attending local weddings, lest he get caught in the cross fire. Now he says that although not all blood feuds have ended, Albanians’ attitudes have changed: When neighbors are on the verge of violence, the name of Cetta is invoked, and everyone steps back from the brink and reevaluates his anger. “The only comparison I can make is to Gandhi,” Nikci says.

As fighting intensifies in Yugoslavia, the number of Albanian immigrants streaming into the Bronx is likely to increase. Here in a borough that the rest of the city has largely written off, Albanians will continue to flourish quietly—aware that it is the sometimes rigid constraints of Albanian culture that have enabled them to prosper here.

Even those outside the tribe must give the Albanians their due: Obstinate, chauvinistic, even occasionally violent, they may be. But if you’ve been to Pelham Parkway you know that they keep a nice neighborhood. And today in inner-city New York, that’s no small virtue.

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