Did the mob ever rule the Bronx?
Even during its glory days, the mafia never ruled the Bronx. There has been a mob presence in the Bronx since the early days of the last century, but it never had anything like the stranglehold it had on Manhattan, Brooklyn and, with the rise of John Gotti, Queens. The forgotten borough, Staten Island, counts in mafia lore as the bedroom community for the bosses.
The Bronx has always been a true melting pot, and no single ethnic group has been able to control the district. When the mafia started to gain in power, the area was full of working-class Irish who had their own mob in the NYPD, and Jews who came to the borough to get away from what the mafia brought to the Lower East Side. In the 1960s, blacks and Latinos moved in with their own ideas of criminal enterprise.
The Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and the Mexican Mafia rule today's crime, and Latinos, the Bronx's new Irish, rule politics. The Bloods and other gangs are the new mafia, with control over projects and dozens of streets. While the old mafia has faded throughout New York, in the Bronx it's hard to find any Italian gangsters.
Maybe the borough was just too rough for a mafia family to rule. John Gotti was born and raised in the Bronx, but his family thought the borough too harsh, and they headed out to Brooklyn when he was 10 years old. You have to go back to the 1920s to find a mob boss living in the Bronx, when the Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz ran his illegal alcohol outfit on 149th St. Then there's Gaetano Reina, an early-era mafioso who backed his criminal empire with a monopoly on the ice business. Electric refrigerators would eventually put an end to his little empire, but not before bullets ended his life.
The fact that the five ruling families stayed out of the Bronx may have had more to do with their fear of the district than anything else. During the 20s and 30s, Bronx Irish gangsters gained notoriety and money by kidnapping mob kingpins and demanding ransoms. Cursed with the Irish gene of recklessness, they had no fear, because most knew they'd die young. But they had a good con going; since everyone was a criminal, no one could go to the cops. Survival of the fittest.
The boldest of the Bronx Irish kidnappers was Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll. Raised in miserable poverty in Donegal, he came to the Bronx as a young man and hooked up with a gang of likeminded hooligans. Together they snatched an old-world Italian gangster named Mustache Pete. (They sent his fingers and ears to the family to get ransom money.) In 1931, Coll sealed his fate when he attempted a drive-by of mobster Joe Rao. Rao survived, but Coll clipped a few kids in the shooting. Gangland had had enough of this lunatic, and in 1932 he was gunned down in a drugstore phone booth on W. 23rd St. His grave sits in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the East Bronx, his headstone not far from where the Lindbergh baby kidnappers picked up their ransom money in 1932.
Though no mob boss called the Bronx home, that's not to say there was no mafia to be found. My father once told me a story about his days as a fireman near Arthur Ave. in the late 1960s. He'd been injured in a fire and was put on light duty, walking around the area and ticketing cars parked in front of hydrants. My father knew the area was thick with mobsters and began his beat with a stop in the neighborhood's most popular coffee shop. He told the owner that he would be taking his coffee there every morning. Then he would head out to write the tickets. The men in the shop, understanding and appreciating the gesture, paid local kids to move their cars as my father sipped his joe. Only non-neighborhood people got tickets.
A lot of guys I grew up with in the Bronx claimed to be "connected." It may have been true, but I always suspected it to be an affectation. I went to high school with a very sharp Italian kid named Dominick. He scored a 1300 on the SATs, but when asked what he planned to do with his life, he'd simply answer: "I'm going to be in the mafia."
Dominick, I figured, really was a mobster in training, because if you wanted to bet on a football game, you went to him. He also had some extracurricular drug sales going and was big on cutting off parking meters?taking them into cellars and breaking them open with a sledge hammer. He made the Daily News when his body was found in the trunk of his car, chopped to pieces. The report surmised that he'd fooled around with a made guy's wife.
There is still a strong Italian presence in the Bronx. Unlike other white ethnics, they haven't completely fled the borough. Though Arthur Ave. probably hosts more Slavic residents than Italian, the businesses are largely operated by the latter, and Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck and Country Club still have plenty of Italians.
Around Arthur Ave. the Italian section is growing smaller, but the restaurants are still thriving. Recently I was in the neighborhood drinking a coffee and taking notes in an empty coffee shop. An old man with muscular forearms and white hair sat nearby sipping an espresso.
"You a writer?" he asked.
His name was Joe. He asked what I was writing about, and I paused. How do you ask someone about the mafia in a neighborhood once known for its mobsters? Joe was a local, had some miles on his face and was no doubt around during the mob's glory days.
"How are the Italians doing up here?" I asked.
Joe smiled, "All the young ones moved out. We are still here, but it is dying out because no one wants to raise the kids here. They go to Jersey, Westchester, anywhere but the Bronx. Can't survive without the young... I'm old and I don't care. I'm staying."
Joe had a New York Post in front of him. I saw my opening.
"You don't read much about the mafia in the papers anymore."
"Nah, only when they can dig up some crap from the past. Not much of that left anymore."
"They still around here?"
Joe gave me a sour look. "What do you think?"
He picked up his paper and put it in front of his face. I put my cup down and walked quickly to my car, turning around once before getting in. Just in case.
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