Epicenter of the Mafia
New York gained a lot from the immigrants that streamed into the country at the turn of the twentieth century — future business leaders, politicians, doctors, and so on. As discussed in previous chapters, there was also the dark underside of the Mafia. New York was the breeding ground for thousands of mobsters over the years. It was a natural place for the mob to work their trade. As an economic powerhouse, New York also had a strong union presence, easy pickings for the mob. With two of the busiest airports in America, coupled with an extensive port facility, the mob had a ready supply of goods to hijack and sell. And with various ethnic neighborhoods spread across all five boroughs, it was easy for the gangsters to recruit young talent.
The heart of New York City was the first major home of organized crime. Along Mulberry Street in Little Italy, among the street vendors and restaurants, were social clubs where mobsters gathered to discuss schemes over drinks and cards. Just across Canal the Asian gangs ruled, but the two groups didn't intermingle often. Just east from Little Italy was the Lower East Side, the once predominantly Jewish neighborhood that gave rise to some of the infamous early Jewish gangsters. The last place where the gangsters grew up was East Harlem. Now dominated by Latinos, it was once a large, thriving Italian neighborhood and home to large-scale narcotics dealers. It was also the headquarters of Genovese boss Fat Tony Salerno, the stereotypical gangster with a permanent scowl and a half-lit cheap cigar hanging from his mouth.
The Outer Boroughs
Brooklyn was home to some of the largest mobbed-up neighborhoods in New York. The Brooklyn accent is the one most people associate with the stereotypical mobster. The necklace of neighborhoods of South Brooklyn, including Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Gravesend, and Canarsie, were fertile grounds for the mob. Not only did they recruit from there and run their rackets, but they also lived in the neighborhoods.
Queens was home to mob boss John Gotti, who lived in the close-knit neighborhood of Howard Beach, located near Kennedy Airport. Queens was also the home to influential members of the Lucchese families. Continuing eastward, out into suburban Long Island, all five families had representatives who chose the life of middle-class suburbia over the crowded rat race of “the Volcano,” a term Joe Bonanno used to describe New York City.
The Bronx, traditionally a symbol of urban decay, actually had a significant mob population. The area around Arthur Avenue was a mobbed-up neighborhood. And currently there is a significant mob presence in the Pel-ham Bay/Throgg's Neck section of the borough.
Staten Island has always been the forgotten borough, but some wise guys chose to live there. It was an easy commute into the city. Mob boss Paul Castellano lived in a garish white mansion on the Island. Staten Island also had a lot of young wise guys operating there over the years.
Of course, the mob was an extremely small portion of the population of these neighborhoods. And while some people viewed them as Robin Hood–type protectors of the local populace, the fact was these neighborhoods were as much the victims of Mafia crime as other areas of the city.
Bensonhurst was home to dozens of mobsters, including Sammy “the Bull” Gravano. During the 1970s Bensonhurst and nearby Bay Ridge were the centers of the disco scene popularized in Saturday Night Fever.