Stealing the American Dream: The True Story of Brooklyn’s Lo Lifes Crew
There were so many of us, we would just rush the stores and take all that we could carry
By Thirstin Howl III with Tom Gould
It’s not hard to understand the ideology of a subculture if you know where it came from. On Rockaway Avenue on the 3 train in Brownsville, it was common to see a flash mob every morning waiting on the platform for the uptown express. Their daily missions or boosting sprees into the city were to get what none from the hood could afford.
They were known in Marcus Garvey Village (a housing project in Brownsville) as the United Shoplifters Association, and they always got the best at a five-finger discount. They stood out on the subway platform as a mix of bright colors that all stood together — a united front of Polo Ralph Lauren garments emblazoned with various patches, crests, and silks.
Across town in Crown Heights, the same thing took place every morning at the Utica Avenue 4 train station. They called themselves Ralphie’s Kids from St Johns Place. The thing these two crews had in common was their love and loyal adherence to boosting and wearing Polo Ralph Lauren. Soon they came together under the name Lo Lifes.
Like most big ideas, it started small. A group of guys who stole garments because society told them they couldn’t afford the American Dream, and they chose not to listen. They challenged classism by wearing Polo — taking something that wasn’t meant for them and making it their own.
As often as they were caught — if they got caught — they would just go back to get more Lo. Their names were listed together permanently on walls in holding facilities at every high-quality retailer in the Tri-State Area, every detention center in NYC, and of course, Central Booking, the last stop before Rikers Island.
Polo was more than a brand or a status symbol, it became a standard that these guys set. To be the best-dressed confederates that ever walked into the Empire Roller Rink on a Sunday afternoon.
For 30 years, this movement has grown and spread to neighborhoods, boroughs, cities, states, and several countries around the world. And it all started with an idea: to take more than what society will let you have, and then you’ll have the best of everything.
The name Lo Lifes came about in 1988 when I got caught talking to a girl after I just got another girl’s phone number. The girl said to me, “You’re a low life!” in a disrespectful manner. My reply ? “You’re right. I wear Lo every day and Lo is my life.” Then everybody said, “That’s right, we are Lo Lifes!” It was never officially voted on or anything, it was just the name we lived by.
Lo Lifes were originally comprised of two boosting crews from different sections of Brooklyn. There was the Crown Heights half, who were originally known as Ralphie’s Kids (Ralph Lauren’s Kids). That name was created by G-George, who lived on St Johns and Utica Avenue. Then there was the Brownsville half, who were originally called Polo USA (United Shoplifters Association). That name was made up by Ski Black and Pumpkin (RIP). The Brownsville half were all mostly from the Marcus Garvey Village housing complex, with others from Van Dyke projects.
I remember before we became Lo Lifes, we would see each other on the trains. We used to plot on robbing one another for the Lo items we were wearing, but it never came to that. It was on the Deuce (42nd St and Broadway, Times Square) when we first clicked together.
There were a lot of movie theaters and game rooms there, and mad girls from all over. One of the main attractions on the Deuce were the photographers with all the different designer backgrounds to take pictures in front of. We were stepping up to take a picture one Saturday night when Ralphie’s Kids were already on the Polo background, their wears were crisp but that was the one thing we had in common. So niggas was like, “Yo, let’s take this flick together,” so both mobs got in one flick. Little did we know it would make history according to Brooklyn streets.
When Lo Lifes first united, it was mutual respect from Brownsville to Crown Heights. We started using the world “Lo” after our names to signify the affiliation to the group and a lifetime of loyalty. We had our own language and gave the Polo designs their own names, like Cookies, Cross Flags, and Crowns, which ended up sticking with these garments for generations.
We did everything together — boost, fight, party, look for girls — and basically shared the same problems all inner city youths face. Every day was a fashion show and a shoplifting spree throughout upstate malls and Manhattan stores — even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s were hit. We stole everything, from our deodorant to our milk and cereal for breakfast. Sometimes we got mistaken for the Decepticons, but the only difference between us was the attire in which we stayed extremely dipped. Our whole mentality revolved around that—staying dipped. The Lo Life experience gave many their whole thinking pattern, showing them means of survival and ways to help moms pay the rent.
When we traveled, we would roll at least 50 or 60 deep and could be recognized by the rainbow of Ralph Lauren labels. By 1989 we grew and had members in the 90s (East Flatbush) and East New York. We would get all dressed up just to go out and commit crimes. Sometimes we would go to clubs wearing like five different Polo shirts each. We would wear one on top of the other and switch shirts all night while walking around the nightclubs.
Your prop status was rated on how much Lo you had and how big your heart was. Of course we always got the girls. They called themselves Lo Wives.
Boosting became a culture. We don’t claim to be the first to ever do it; all we are saying is that we made it go mainstream out on the New York City streets. Even out in Philly, Boostin Billy (RIP), an original member, established a whole other chapter of Lo Lifes. There were also the uptown Lo Lifes who were Chris, Ibit, Rob, and a whole bunch of Bronx heads that did crime so fast we used to have to race them to the victims.
We would terrorize 42nd Street on Friday and Saturday nights. We were always so deep we would never pay to go into the movies. There were so many of us you would be stupid to try and stop one. Even at the stores in the same area, we would steal every 40oz of Olde English 800 just by picking them up and walking out. We would be responsible for 75 percent of the crimes committed up there. As for the department stores we hit, Manhattan was a regular target. Macy’s, B. Altman’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Trump Towers, Century 21, BFO, and like I mentioned before, even McDonald’s. Our main target was Polo, either putting it in backpacks or stuffing it down girdles. Most of the time, when there were so many of us, we would just rush the stores and take all we could carry.
Empire Skating Rink in Brooklyn was where we met every Sunday. The rink would close about 5 p.m. Lo Lifes would unite out front and walk towards the subway, headed to Manhattan to get paid. After a while, other boosters knew where we were headed and what we were up to, so a lot of them followed us and added to the chaos. Everybody wanted to be down with us, and every Sunday was a repeat of the last week — except for one time when we said we would hit the stores in Manhattan before the skating rink opened. We had a quick rush at Lord & Taylor for all kinds of flavors of Polo bathrobes, then we went to the rink. There were at least 40 of us in the middle of the day at a skating rink wearing bathrobes.
One thing we all had in common was the love for true hip-hop. We would go to a lot of the most popular hip-hop clubs. We never paid for drinks, we would steal the bottles from behind the bar and stay drunk all night for free. We usually left the club after getting into some shit or taking somebody’s shit.
Stealing was a sport and a source of income, and from the way some turned out 30 years later, it is all they ever knew. In the streets we weren’t always the culprits, we were preyed upon by jealous people who wanted what we had (our Lo) and just didn’t know how to get it the way we did. This resulted in casualties on both sides — ignorant but the truth.
A lot of the things we did resulted in consequences. Many Lo Lifes have been in and out of jail for long periods of time. Regardless of whatever situation though, the Lo Life Ralph Lauren lifestyle remained the same. Official heads wore as much Polo in jail as in the streets. You had to be real to be able to keep your Polo in the prison system where inmates would rob each other for anything — especially expensive clothing.
Thirty years later, traces of Lo Lifes have influenced hip-hop culture and spread all around the world. We have evolved from the way of gangs and hoodlums to professionals and entertainers. Through events, music, film, and other art forms, Lo Life culture is continuously growing in the name of Love & Loyalty.