By Amanda Julius
On the hottest day of the year in this neighborhood of sun-bleached, flat-roofed houses and pastel beachfront food stands hawking seafood and pina coladas, 97 pigeons are sheltering in a shaded coop on Neptune Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Stillwell Avenue subway. Mechanics are sitting out on the sidewalks, shouting casually across the road to one another. On the rooftop of the radiator repair store where he works, Anthony Martire has one eye on what’s happening down on the street, and one eye on his pigeons.
Martire is one of Brooklyn’s homing pigeon experts, having won numerous races and raised and flown one bird that entered the National Pigeon Association’s Hall of Fame, which he talks about with reverently glassed-over eyes. Along with fellow pigeon enthusiast and Bedford-Stuyvesant native Antonio Velazquez, Martire is preparing his birds for the September racing season, when they will race other pigeons over distances of 100 miles. The two men keep their shared pigeon outfit in an outdoor chicken-wire coop, which opens up into an indoor allotment made of whitewashed wood, where each bird has a particular nesting spot. Directly above it is a sizeable, egg-yolk yellow plaque advertising home demolition. Matire spends much of his time scraping pigeon excrement off the coop’s floors. “See how clean it is,” he said proudly. “It’s a job. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year.”
The Radiator Loft has sat on the same Coney Island roof since 1947, when Martire’s father, Lawrence, first began to keep pigeons. “I got a lady next door who complains about the feathers,” Martire said, “but I says, ‘Listen miss, the birds have been here longer than you!’ ”
This morning, his thoroughbred birds are hopping about, shuffling their wings, and stumbling in and out of the shade. “Coney Island used to be big for pigeons, coops on every other block,” he said, pointing down the block. “There’s no young blood coming in now though.” Martire has two sons in their 20s but, he said, they’re more concerned with girls than pigeons. Martire himself has combined both interests by naming his favorite pigeon after his wife, Anne-Marie. “How ya doin’ Anne-Marie?” he coos, picking up the bird. “See how nice she stays? My little babydoll.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why younger generations are less enthusiastic about their parents’ and grandparents’ hobby. It’s an expensive and time-consuming pastime. Feed — a mixture of oil seeds and barley housed in a rusting Maxwell House coffee tin — costs $40 each week. It’s cheap to buy an average pigeon, somewhere from $2 to $5 for a common bird, but the highest quality pedigrees of the pigeon world can set you back $3,000 (or more in Taiwan, according to Lawrence, where he was once offered $10,000 for a winning homing pigeon.) The Taiwanese, he says, are crazy for pigeons. So too the Spaniards, who Velazquez wistfully says give out gold necklaces with pigeon charms instead of trophies.
Training the young birds takes months of constant attention and dedication. “You have to starve them to break them in,” Martire said, explaining that the birds are trained to treat food and water as a reward. Once they learn they will be fed and given water at a particular pigeon coop, they will always return to that coop, no matter where they are flying from. Doves released at weddings are trained in this way, and are a moneymaking side gig for many of the borough’s pigeon keepers. Anthony C. who works across the street from Martire, and who requested his last name not be published, describes a different use for this homing training. He explains how his uncle trained his pigeons to transport heroin from Coney Island to New Jersey in the early 1960s. “It took three generations of breeding to get them to do it,” he said proudly. “They’d fly back and forward between the coop here and the coop over there,” he said.
Interest in pigeons revived briefly in Coney Island after news broke of Mike Tyson starring in an Animal Planet program at his Brooklyn pigeon loft. Martire was asked to participate in the series, but was ruled ineligible at the last minute because the birds he was flying were too young. “They wouldn’t let me be in it!” he exclaims indignantly. “They used Tyson because he’s a celebrity, but the real truth is I’m the celebrity in racing pigeons!” Martire said, gesturing to the many trophies and pigeon diplomas that line the walls of his shed. Behind him, Velazquez solemnly attests, “I call him the doctor because he’s so good with birds.”
Martire and Velzaquez are members of a 30-strong local homing pigeon club on Stillwell and Avenue Z, just around the corner. The group’s members race their pigeons against each other, as well as in regional competitions across New York. Martire nodded at an official schedule, explaining that everything is organized months in advance. He already knows where he will be on Oct. 7: competing against “the guys from the Bronx” in the memorial race at the World Trade Center. “All the pigeon guys spend time together. We hang out here on Saturdays and argue about who flies the best,” he said. Tending to a group of birds on top of the coop, he added, “I’ve been around pigeons my whole life, you start sounding like them.”
Lawrence parked himself in a shaded deckchair and looked up at his son. “Just mind you don’t start looking like ‘em,” he said.