The mafia's storied New York past has all but vanished.
The mafia was an unlikely victim of Brooklyn’s gentrification.
Hipster coffee shops and Edison string lights aren’t the whole reason South Brooklyn’s mob scene has faded away, but the arrival of upscale businesses and yuppies was a contributing factor, according to Frank DiMatteo, author of The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia. The mafia lifestyle centered around the clubs and restaurants of a given gang’s turf. Many of these were legitimate business fronts for not-so-legitimate organized crime. Others weren’t owned by the gangs, but had business relationships that funneled money back to them. The arrival of big chains in old neighborhoods scuttled many a family business, which in turned affected the family business.
The mafia was not always the way we think of it now: sleek, organized, and well-dressed, according to Lorcan Otway, curator at The Museum of the American Gangster. Otway and DiMatteo spoke about the mafia’s storied history in the borough as part of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Big Bad Brooklyn! event last week.
When they first sprang up, street gangs used to be scrappy and divided along purely ethnic lines, dressing in a way that reflected their class anxieties. Sicilians, for example, were called “mustachioed Petes,” dressing in wool and favoring heavy mustaches.“Brooklyn played an amazing role in the movement from ethnic street gang warfare to big business crime,” said Otway. Arnold Rothstein, whom Otway called “the father of organized crime,” suggested to the borough’s gangs that they needed to think bigger. Instead of small protection rackets, he advised them to build houses of prostitution and casinos. And he gave them the advice any good career counselor does: to dress for the job you want. As a result, Otway said, members traded in loud red plaid pants for three-piece suits.
Though organized crime moved its center of operations to Chicago—the city was a rail hub and close to Canada, which made it easier to ship in alcohol during prohibition—Brooklyn continued to play an important role. Al Capone, who was born in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and later grew up in Park Slope, would often return to his old haunts for business meetings.
Frank DiMatteo, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in the more recent past of the 60s and 70s, has seen a dramatic change since his childhood, when shootings were common up and down Atlantic Avenue and mafia social clubs were on “every other block.” DiMatteo’s father, Ricky, worked as a hitman for the Gallo brothers, who were part of the Profaci crime family. DiMatteo himself was involved in intimidation and drug trafficking.
DiMatteo pegs the changed landscape to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which dealt a severe blow to syndicated crime by allowing leaders to be tried for ordering a crime. As the heads of mafia families usually sent others out to do their dirty work, the act finally enabled law enforcement to crack down on the mafia from the top. It also helped federal officers make “rats” out of gang members, said DiMatteo, who saw members betray the gang to reduce their own prison sentences.
The city also tried other, more urbanist ways to get rid of the mafia. In 1975, the city claimed that the water pumps on President Street had stopped working, and subsequently condemned an entire block filled with the gang’s bars, restaurants, and homes. Now, “we have no more social clubs, nowhere we can hang our hat,” said DiMatteo. In his memoir, DiMatteo mourns the loss of his favorite hangouts, though many of the bars he mentions end up being the scenes of violent altercations. Slowly, through an influx of newcomers and the gang’s own decline in power, they saw their hold on the area diminish.
Though the mafia still exists in New York, it is a shadow of its former self. In an interview with Vice about his thoughts on the mafia today, DiMatteo said, “They have no idea what they're doing. They're young. They've got guys who don't know shit because a lot of guys are dead, a lot of guys are in jail.”
DiMatteo left the mafia behind decades ago, and for the most part doesn’t argue that Brooklyn was better when the gangs owned it. Both he and Otway acknowledge that the lives of street gangs and organized crime were bloody and brutal. If DiMatteo has one gripe about the changing neighborhood, it appears to be about the food: that so many of the authentic, old-school Italian bakeries and coffee shops vanished because, as he writes in his memoir, “the newbies, full of Wonder Bread and processed cheese food, didn’t like it.”