True to the wayward characters he writes about in his new book “Gangland New York: The Places and Faces of Mob History,” Anthony M. DeStefano preferred that a recent interview start with a walk past a few haunts the city’s mobsters made notorious.
Readers of his latest nonfiction (Lyons Press) might be tempted to retrace the history of the Bowery Boys, the Five Points Gang, the Jewish “Kosher Nostra” and the Italian Mafia. DeStefano, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter from his days at WWD (in 1977, he was part of a team that reported one of the paper’s landmark series on the Mob, Seventh Avenue’s “Silent Partner”), hopes Mafia buffs won’t be the only ones who use his printed words to seek out the places where various shootouts, stabbings, arrests and trials occurred.
“Everyone always thinks of the Italian Mafia. There are many more ethnic groups that have had their issues. I thought, ‘Let’s show the city from that perspective.’ It’s about organized crime but it’s also about the Irish, the Chinese, the Romanians. The Jews, of course, the Greeks – we could go on and on – each group had its own problem that developed with the migration — it’s still happening.”
After meeting outside One Police Plaza, which DeStefano knows well from his current job as a legal affairs and criminal justice reporter for Newsday, he set out for Five Points and then a pass through Chinatown. Five Points, the intersection of Worth and Baxter Streets, near the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Federal Courthouse, was once crime central for the city, but is now mostly made up of Columbus Park. West of the park once stood the Tombs, a jail where numerous members of New York’s original gangs and other murderers were executed by hanging from two sets of gallows. Walking through Chinatown, DeStefano said, “It’s so easy for me to walk the streets and see [historical] places. When I look around I see where crimes happened, where important personages hung their hats, but people don’t know. The history gets lost; I figured, preserve it in some way at least.”
The way DeStefano sees it, spots in Little Italy like Umberto’s Clam House are already well-entrenched in Mafia lore, but the same cannot be said of the long-since shuttered Pelham Café on Pell Street, where Irving Berlin got his first job under the watchful eye of Mobster Mike Salter. Interestingly, in the beginning of the twentieth century, New Orleans was the epicenter for what is now known as the Mafia, he said. In fact, each of the book’s five sections (one for each of the city’s boroughs) details criminal activities from the 19th century through today. He also details how in the Sixties and Seventies mafiosi like Bonanno, Gambino, Lucchese and others had legitimate interests in dress manufacturers while also making illicit profits through labor racketeering, loan-sharking and restraints of trade, particularly among garment truckers. “The city is changing. In many ways, this is an archeological trip through the past,” DeStefano said. “If you walk around the boroughs, a lot of that stuff is being covered up and facaded over.”
For reasons he can’t easily explain, nor can the fans he has asked at his book signings, the curiosity about organized crime doesn’t seem to diminish. To that end, he pointed to AMC’s “The Making of the Mob: New York” series and the 25th anniversary of “Goodfellas,” never mind “The Godfather,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire” and The Biography Channel’s “Mobsters.” “For newspaper editors, the Mafia is kind of a dead story, but the public has a real fascination with it.” said DeStefano, stressing that it’s not just Mob buffs debating minutiae.
“For some people, the Mafia has a notion of fellowship, honor and camaraderie, but money is really the Mafia’s driving force at the most basic level. It doesn’t create solidarity but it creates very tenuous alliances.” DeStefano said. “Money is what they’re looking for. They were not necessarily worried about a girlfriend or some kid from Sicily in the 1930s.” And as his book illustrates, again and again, organized crime is one bloody business.
Noting how the garment business became one of the longtime moneymakers for Mafia rackets (along with the docks, fish market, garbage collection, construction and trucking) DeStefano wrote, “hard-pressed manufacturers often had to turn to Mafia loan sharks for quick cash, trucking companies were either run by Mafiosi or were part of a restrictive agreement” and Mobsters like Thomas Lucchese were the go-to guys for help. Simply put, “Seventh Avenue became the Mob’s cash register.” he said.
“Everybody knew in some way. You would be cautious. You also knew who not to deal with if you wanted to stay away from that,” DeStefano said. “You had to pay them off in some way. If you needed money from loan sharks, you had to pay serious interest rates. You knew that was the cost of business. You knew you might have to surrender your business or take them on as partners like Gotti, who had a no-show job in the Garment District.”
He also delved into how for two years federal investigators led Operation Cleveland and Operation Detroit targeting loan sharks and Natale Evola, a trucker who became one of the bosses of the Bonanno family, gathering evidence against some powerful Mob captains. Roy DeMeo, a Gambino-tied criminal who died in 1983, earned DeStefano’s vote for toughest Mobster. “He was really the most vicious and it seemed like he relished the idea of killing and dismembering people, whereas most members of the Mafia saw the killing as the part of the cost of doing business.”
Like much of DeStefano’s highly researched work, many incidents have their own back stories. One of the grisliest was the account of garment executive Michael Pappadio’s murder in 1989. Federal investigators pegged Pappadio’s brother Andimo, a captain in the Thomas Lucchese crime family, to be a major narcotics operative for the Mob. With interests in Mafia-infiltrated garment trucking and manufacturing businesses, Michael Pappadio was spotted by police meeting Mob figures in Garment District restaurants. His last meeting, however, was in a Queens bagel store in May 1989, where he was bludgeoned and shot repeatedly in the head, according to the testimony of a participant-turned-FBI-informant, Al D’Arco. DeStefano offered a considerably more gruesome take — as are most of his written accounts — the net result of months spent poring over leather-bound newspapers and microfiche in New York City libraries and the lesser-known City Hall Library. “The details were so rich, the language was so over-the-top and forget about political correctness,” he said of some turn-of-the-century reporting he gleaned for his nine-month project.
As for what’s the greatest misconception about the Mafia, DeStefano said, “That it’s still powerful. I don’t think it’s as powerful as it was. I don’t think it’s as relevant for the economic life of the city or for the Italians. It used to be. The Garment District was [a] case in point. The old rackets that they had don’t really provide that kind of money anymore. The Garment District for that is really a dead issue — the docks also and Teamsters. Other crimes, especially white-collar ones like [Bernie] Madoff-type schemes, insider trading, make much more money and affect many more people than the Mafia did in its prime. The Mafia had economic clout back then but now some of these guys are dirt-poor.”