Housed on the first floor of a residential public housing project on the north shore of Staten Island, New York, a stone’s throw from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, is the Park Hill Boxing Club.
Although the gym itself has been in existence since the seventies, a few years ago it was chartered as an official Police Athletic League (PAL) facility. Under the stewardship of retired NYPD detective Tommy Dades and Gary Stark Sr., whose son, Gary Jr., is an undefeated, blue-chip featherweight prospect, the gym is flourishing as an oasis for scores of neighborhood youngsters.
It was also the location where the cover for Teddy Atlas’s exceptional autobiography, From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man, was photographed.
“This is a dream factory,” said the heavily tattooed, 46-year-old Dades, whose work as a lawman was instrumental in the arrests of the so-called Mafia Cops, Lou Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who were convicted of being involved in numerous gangland hits. Their convictions were just overturned on a technicality.
Dades also worked on the case involving former FBI special agent Lindley Delvecchio, who was recently arrested for being an accessory to several mob murders.
“The kids come here to stay off the streets and out of trouble,” said Dades, “and I come here because it’s the only relaxation I get.”
“This is like therapy and meditation for me,” concurred the 47-year-old Stark, a retired New York City corrections officer, who, along with Nirmal Lorick, trains his son. “I love boxing and I love these kids.
“It’s good to see the kids here on a sweltering day like this,” he continues. “It makes you realize what a positive contribution you are making in their lives. They have something other than the streets to be committed to.”
Being involved in the gym is even more special for Stark Sr., because he had fought in the New York City Golden Gloves tournament four times in the late seventies and early eighties. The one year where it looked like he had a good chance of fighting past the quarter-finals was in 1984, but he had to drop out because he was in the correction’s academy.
“I pleaded with my captain to let me finish the tournament,” he said. “It still bothers me a little bit. Later on I fought a little on the police team, but I was working around the clock and couldn’t train properly. That’s why I don’t even consider this work. This is fun for me.”
Sixteen-year-old Paul Simpson Jr. recently won the 132 pound Empire State regional tournament, which was held at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. He next travels to Rochester for a state tournament.
“I look forward to coming here everyday,” said Simpson, an 11th grade student at McKee Technical High School whose father was also a successful amateur. “It gives me a sense of discipline and responsibility. It keeps me focused.”
Dades says that 19-year-old Watchi Hartley, whom he describes as being “as loyal to the gym as he is dedicated to boxing,” probably has the most professional potential of anyone at the gym.
“Coming here makes sure I don’t get into trouble,” said Hartley, who plans on turning pro when he is about 22. “In this neighborhood, it’s easy to find trouble.”
One can’t help but marvel at the hand and foot speed, as well as the thunderous power of 15-year-old Terrence Meyers. All of those skills will undoubtedly serve him well during the professional career he hopes to embark on in a few years.
“He’s been here since he was 12, and gets better and better by the day,” said Dades. “He’s got tremendous power and dedication. We even interact with his teacher, who has been coming to his fights. This kid’s the real deal.”
The gym, which is open daily from 5:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M., was christened in July 2004, when it was dedicated to undercover NYPD detectives Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin, both of whom were cold-bloodedly murdered by gun traffickers on Staten Island in March 2003.
A huge plaque in their honor hangs on the wall alongside fight posters and photos that span several decades. One poster advertises a late seventies main event featuring “Irish” Johnny Turner, a once red-hot Brooklyn welterweight who is still one of Dades’ best friends.
While the majority of members are amateur boxers, a host of luminaries from the professional ranks have either visited the gym or trained there. Among them are Mike Tyson, Emile Griffith, Curtis “Showtime” Stevens, Gary Stark Jr., Luis Collazo, Paulie Malignaggi, and Jaidon Codrington.
“When those kinds of guys come and visit, it is very motivational for the kids,” said 49-year-old contractor Tommy Caramanno, a former professional kickboxer who now trains several youngsters the rudiments of that grueling sport.
“After a long day on a job site, I come here to relieve stress. I love to train and I love to help out. I can’t get this stuff out of my system.”
Caramanno is also training his 16-year-old son Anthony for an amateur career. His unbridled enthusiasm and belief in the youngsters – coupled with that of Dades and Stark – is downright infectious. One cannot help but feel good when they visit the facility.
Dades, who now works as a civilian investigator for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, puts it all into perspective.
“In my day job, I’m around dirt and slime all day,” he said as he breathes heavily and sweats profusely after a particularly vigorous mitt session with Meyers. “Law enforcement is a dirty business. Everyone has their own agendas, there is a lot of backstabbing and jealousies, and what some of the perps do is unforgivable. At this place, at this level, there is none of that.
“The kids are pure, and the boxing is pure,” he continued. “To see these kids become competitive, and to see what it does to their self-esteem, there are no words to describe the joy that I get from that.”
(To see Park Hill Boxing Club photos)