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As recent TV shows and movies attest, the Mafia is having a nervous breakdown. Robert De Niro has slipped from the Olympian heights of Don Corleone in The Godfather to the panicky depths of Paul Vitti in Analyze This. Since the Mob lives most vividly for us in its fictional representation, this narrative plunge in criminal fortunes is generally taken as fact. Of course, Hollywood didn’t just decide to throw the Mafia a crisis for plot’s sake; over the past decade Italian American organized crime has taken big hits from criminal justice authorities, as well as suffering unprecedented defections from within. If Puzo’s Godfather could put a horse’s head in your bed, in 1991 the real Mob could only manage to send the severed head of a German shepherd to a competing waste-hauler. (What’s next, Mob fans might wonder, a fax of a decapitated GI Joe?) Part of the story behind this deflation is efficiently told by James B. Jacobs, a professor of law at New York University, in Gotham Unbound.
While other cities like Philadelphia and Cleveland have to be content with one Cosa Nostra family, the Big Apple has five, and their rivalries and collective strength have fueled the epic crime tales which gave New York its reputation as the Mob town. New York’s crime families pretty much ran the city from the 1930s through the 1970s, using a wide network of industrial racketeering involving key business sectors such as the garment trade, construction, waste carting, shipping, food preparation, and entertainment. (Delay, caused by a Mob-instigated union slowdown, is fatal in each of these businesses. The price of this criminal extortion was passed along as a “Mob tax” to consumers.) Of course, these legitimate profit centers were more than supplemented by traditional activities like gambling, prostitution, drugs, and loan sharking.
In the city’s economic life, the Mafia functioned as a shadow government or “rationalizing force.” As Jacobs points out, many upper-world businesses welcomed Cosa Nostra participation because they “received protection against
competitors . . . license to fix prices, allocate contracts, and treat their customers like property.” Although fear motivated many to cooperate, Jacobs undermines one myth by noting “we have uncovered relatively few incidents of serious bodily harm exacted against legitimate businessmen.” Instead, he suggests, it was the Mob’s entrepreneurial energy as well as its restraint—Cosa Nostra was content to “wet its beak” rather than take over whole industries as it surely could have—that made it an irresistible force. As a
result of this economic muscle, ties to city government were particularly strong in the 1940s and 1950s—two mayors, William O’Dwyer and Vincent Impellitteri, were accused of having Mob connections. In short, New York City was the Rome of the Mafia empire.
At least until a certain paisan took on gangland. Although Jacobs warns it’s “dangerous to personalize history,” the inescapable conclusion from his account is that Rudolph Giuliani, as a federal prosecutor (1981 – 1989) and as mayor (since 1992), is principally
responsible for the Mob’s near demise as an industrial racketeering force in New York. As a U.S. attorney, Giuliani skillfully deployed RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which made it possible to bring to a single trial whole crime families. As mayor, Giuliani has introduced vigorous and innovative regulation to Mob-dominated locales like the Fulton Fish Market, the Javits Convention Center, JFK airport (the Mob’s “candy store”), and the garment district. His near-obsessional pursuit over nearly two decades has succeeded in, as Jacobs puts it, liberating the city from “the clutches of Cosa Nostra.”
The strong-arm mayor had considerable help. Advances in electronic surveillance technology, along with looser court standards for authorizing wiretaps, made it possible for cops and FBI agents to amass tens of thousands of hours of Mob talk. Also, the 1970 federal law establishing the Witness Protection program was crucial in eroding the Mafia’s code of silence, omerta, and by the 1980s high-ranking mobsters, like Sammy “Bull” Gravano, were bringing down their superiors with damning testimony. With so many top bosses in prison—John Gotti, Vincent “Chin” Gigante—the families have been left to rely on younger, less streetwise capos. John Gotti’s son, John Jr., the nominal head of the once powerful Gambino family, recently agreed to a plea bargain—a surrender which, prison tapes reveal, enraged his combative father.
With the Mafia’s golden era now passed, nostalgia (as evidenced by shows like The
Sopranos) is taking hold, and even a scholar like Jacobs can seem wistful: “Cosa Nostra stands apart. No other organized-crime group has shown anything resembling the business sophistication and acumen.” Even as we
read of the savings obtained as greedy
mobsters are driven from unions and businesses—fish prices 13 percent lower, the cost of shipping a pair of jeans has dropped from 40 cents to 15 cents—it’s hard not to feel such a paltry “Mob tax” was well worth its entertainment value. The tale of Carlo Gambino, the boss of bosses, sitting in a storefront in Little Italy doling out favors to residents who lined up around the block, stirs in us daydreams of unlimited power and prestige, but when his successor, John Gotti Jr., had to put up his own house as collateral for bail, we are merely reminded of our own unpaid bills. Gotham Unbound charts this morally salutary decline and permits us to make up our minds—Is a quarter extra for your pants too much to pay for the Mafia fantasy in which you never have to say you’re sorry?