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The Brand New Same Old Hustle

Lotto seller in Bed-Stuy, photograph by Matthew Vaz, 2005.

Twenty-five years ago, on April 29, 1980, charter buses from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem brought protesters to the downtown offices of Governor Hugh Carey for one of the most unique protest marches in the history of New York City. An angry crowd of workers from the city’s illegal numbers industry was upset about new legislation paving the way for the New York State Lottery to enter the numbers game.

The marchers carried signs that read: “Our job is no game. It is a hard honest day’s work.” Another demanded, “Give me money to eat, give me a better home. Or give me my numbers job and leave us alone.”

Many in the city’s black and Latino communities viewed the numbers as their game, one invented and popularized by West Indians in Harlem. The state lottery was a threat to an entrenched local tradition, and its place in those same low-income communities remains controversial today.

The game traditionally involved a bet placed on a three-digit number. A New York number and a Brooklyn number—from whichever New York racetrack happened to be in season at the time—were offered six days a week in bodegas, barbershops, beauty salons, bars, and backroom gambling spots.

The Brooklyn number came out at the end of the day by taking the first three digits to the left of the decimal point in the total pari-mutuel handle of a given track. For example, if today’s handle at the Aqueduct is $798,245.67, then the Brooklyn number that hit today is 245. The New York number, sometimes called the 357, was determined one digit at a time, after the third, fifth, and seventh races. This allowed players to bet one digit at a time, called single action.

Single action was generally far more popular with black bettors, and because it was a smaller game it allowed for more local operators not affiliated with the mob. With the end of Prohibition, the mafia had turned its attention to the lucrative numbers business. Working with police on the take, the organization succeeded in seizing much of the city’s action. Yet many of the people employed by numbers operations continued to be black and Latino, and by the mid-1970s several black numbers banks were once again autonomous.

The numbers operations were a key part of the infrastructure of urban communities. A 1972 study conducted by New York City’s Off-track Betting (OTB) conservatively estimated the total figure for numbers workers at 15,000, but numbers advocates estimated the figure at over 100,000 workers.

Social scientist Dr. Mary Manoni conducted a study in Bed-Stuy in 1970 and found the numbers rackets to be the single largest employer in the neighborhood. In 1972, the Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption documented the long history of the NYPD’s involvement in the business and helped flush crooked cops out of the game. An unofficial moratorium was placed on low-level numbers arrests, thus depriving corrupt officers of their principal tool for shaking down runners. The game became so transparent that by the mid-1970s many gambling spots went so far as to advertise with signs in their front windows.

Yet the situation was highly tenuous. Lottery director John Quinn sent a proposal to Governor Hugh Carey early in 1977, advising that the state enter the business. In response, black and Latino numbers barons sent a telegram to the governor that read, “Mr. Governor, if you have this taken away from us we will all have to apply for welfare, which you say you don’t have a budget for. We do not intend for anyone to take numbers away from us because we invented it.”

A group calling itself the New York Commission for Amnesty, Legalization, and Community Control of Policy Numbers signed the telegram. The commission later offered to buy out all of the city’s off-track betting locations, hoping to keep their operations up and running. They were ignored by the governor, yet the lobbyists traveled to Albany and convinced enough members of the state legislature to hold off on the takeover until further study could be conducted on the potential impact on employment.

No study ever took place. The issue was raised again in 1980, as Governor Carey attempted to close a state budget gap. A bill was presented to the legislature, designed to enable the lottery to operate a daily numbers game. The technical and seemingly innocuous piece of legislation inspired lengthy and heated debates in the state assembly. Representatives from Harlem and Bed-Stuy gave impassioned speeches on behalf of their constituents, despite the snickering of their colleagues.

Assemblyman Arthur Kremer, a Democrat representing Long Beach (Long Island), spoke on behalf of the measure. “We need a way to pump up the lottery,” Kremer said, “because it’s a legitimate form of revenue.…As far as I’m concerned, it deals with the economic viability of the State Lottery, and if we want the lottery to survive, I think this is one measure which will keep it alive.”

Kremer’s position clarified the lottery’s new direction. In a public referendum in 1966, New York voters had approved the establishment of a lottery in order to fund education. Should interest in the lottery dwindle, the referendum did not make clear whether efforts would be made to “pump it up” by offering new games and advertising aggressively. But by the late 1970s, interest had ebbed. People weren’t playing the lottery, and the state took action to generate buzz and increase gambling. A well-established bureaucracy was in place by 1980, with a vested interest in seeing the lottery grow.

The city’s numbers workers feared for their jobs and made a last-ditch effort at political action. On April 29th, a citywide strike was declared, and numbers locations were closed for business. Workers from Brooklyn and the Bronx piled onto buses to attend a rally in the rain outside of Governor Carey’s Manhattan office. The Amsterdam News estimated a crowd of 2,000 illegal numbers workers, willingly exposing their identities to cameras and police.

Their signs illustrated how important off-track betting had become in the city’s low-income communities. “We the poor people now have something, why not be glad? But you want to take my mother’s job and tell her she’s bad,” one declared.

The calls of the protesters went unheeded, however, and the state lottery entered the numbers game. Within four years, sales quadrupled. During the assembly debates, the bill’s sponsor had repeatedly claimed that the lottery was entering the numbers business to compete with neighboring states that offered daily numbers. But one week after legal numbers went on sale, the lottery took out a full-page advertisement in the Amsterdam News describing the “new” game.

The lottery was making a direct attempt to cut into local action.

By offering legal numbers, the state lottery gained a foothold in New York’s poorest communities, and over time it has managed to introduce games with worsening odds. The odds of hitting the numbers today are 1 in 999, with a street payout of $600 and a state payout of $500. The odds of hitting the jackpot for Mega Millions are an astronomical 1 in 135 million. But the true junk food of state gaming is the scratch games. To win a payout of $500 playing the scratch game High Roller, the odds are 1 in 141,120. The payout is less than the street numbers, but the odds are 140 times worse.

Thanks to reasonable odds and good payouts, the local numbers game survived the state lottery’s entry into the business. But according to one numbers worker from the Bronx, “the pie got smaller, everybody got squeezed. It wasn’t amnesty that everybody was worried about. It was franchises. People wanted the opportunity to buy franchises and go legitimate. That’s why people were marching in the street.”

But the marchers were ignored. A state monopoly was chosen in favor of preexisting private enterprise. Local operations had invented a product and built a clientele. The state government chose to assert itself as the sole legitimate retailer of that product, and then proceeded to undermine the well-established clientele. The thousands of people who had worked in the industry, many in family-run operations that had been passed down over generations, were offered no pathway to legitimacy.

A game that could have been cleaned up instead became dirtier. During the 1980s the numbers game deteriorated into violence. A Cuban group known as the Corporation attempted a violent takeover of many numbers territories. Using firebombing and murder, the group is believed to be responsible for 31 deaths. The eventual response to the violence was a major crackdown on numbers spots led by Rudy Giuliani, first as prosecutor and then as mayor. The game is still alive, but it is now a shadow of its former self.

Meanwhile, the lottery has flourished. When sales tapered off in the early 1990s, the lottery identified the problem as “jackpot fatigue.” It discovered that the attraction of new gamblers requires jackpots in excess of $10 million. To cure the public of jackpot fatigue, the Lotto game was altered to have even worse odds, so that jackpots would “roll up” faster.

As the lottery offers games with increasingly bad odds, it continues to link itself to the noble cause of education. But a big year for the lottery does not mean a big year for schools. The lottery does not act as a supplement to educational funding; it is a substitute. The amount needed to fund the state’s schools is predetermined, and the money brought in by the lottery frees up funds to be allocated elsewhere in the state budget.

The lottery is a form of direct taxation, and it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the poor are the most likely to play. Meanwhile, what does the lottery provide for communities in Bed-Stuy, the Bronx, and Harlem? At present, people with foolish dreams of tremendous fortunes, inspired by clever advertising, are giving their money to politicians in Albany to build prisons and underfund schools.


Matthew Vaz


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2005

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