November 4, 2015
by John Surico
In a city like New York, the past dies a fresh death every day. As you read this, something special is being built over, transformed, forgotten, or turned into a Pret a Manger. That's the consequence of constant change: Nothing is permanent, and what memories we have are destined to be demolished by, or for, our descendants.
We're now building faster than we ever have before, and the sheer breadth of differences separating today's New York from what the city was 30 or even 15 years ago is extreme. One could argue that there has never been a time in New York where its incoming citizens have been more detached from—or completely unaware of—the city's recent history.
What was and what now is are nearly unidentifiable twins. And one of the most visible examples of this can be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that enjoys a storied legacy of organized crime and Mafia activity.
"It was not necessarily the center of a lot of violence, but it's where many future bosses got their start."—Christian Cipollini
As anyone who has ever read the New York Times style section is well aware, Williamsburg is now synonymous with a hodgepodge of conflicting labels: hipster, yuppie, gentrifier, bourgeoise. In a way, the fire last year at a Williamsburg archive became an unfortunate symbol of the times: Developers have essentially pressed the restart button on newcomers' consciousness. You don't need to remember shit, just make sure you've got first and last month's rent.
Condos glisten above the once-abandoned East River waterfront; empty warehouses are now "loft-inspired luxury townhouses," and Bedford Avenue, a thoroughfare once littered with syringes, is now swarming with selfie stick–carrying tour groups and SoHo-style boutiques. But before it was a playground for real estate brokers, Williamsburg was a mob stronghold. In fact, the Brooklyn neighborhood stretching from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway down to Grand Street—now known primarily by the broker-invented monicker of East Williamsburg—was not only a hangout for members of the five families of New York, but also one of their original locales.
"It was not necessarily the center of a lot of violence, but it's where many future bosses got their start," Christian Cipollini, a well-known mob expert and editor of Gangland Legends, told me. "When they came to America from Sicily, they chose their spots. And a lot of them came and settled in Williamsburg."
Long before Whole Foods announced plans for a block-sized store there, the Castellammarese crime clans called Williamsburg home. And at the tail end of Prohibition, a bloody war broke out between those loyal to a man named Salvatore Maranzano on one side and Joseph "the Boss" Masseria on the other. Both men were killed in 1931, and Charles "Lucky" Luciano stepped in to help establish five distinct crime families and offer some sense of structure to the American Mafia.
"What began in small places, like Williamsburg and Brownsville, spread across the country," Cipollini continued. "It changed the face of organized crime in America."
On a recent jaunt in Williamsburg, I stepped into Fortunato Brothers, an ornate Italian cafe on Manhattan Avenue, for a cup of coffee. The place itself is a rarity in New Brooklyn, where overpriced coffee shops are the rule, not traditional pastry makers with an autographed photo of Tony Bennett on the wall. And that showed in the spot's clientele: Mostly Italian-speaking residents ordered at the counter, and no one plugged into a Macbook was spotted anywhere near it.
For those who pass it on their way to the L train, it looks like an ordinary Italian bakery full of artifacts from the homeland, rainbow-colored cookies, and cannoli. Nowhere, of course, does it say that the co-owner of the place, Mario Fortunato, was once chargedand convicted for the 1994 murder of a loan shark named Tino Lombardi at the San Giuseppe Social Club just up the block. (The conviction would later be overturned on appeal; in fact, Fortunato won a $300,000 settlement last year.)
But the man's status as an alleged Genovese associate is apparently still so entrenched that the lawyer of a handicapped woman who sued the bakery for not providing an access ramp dropped the case this past June because he was concerned "for [her] safety," the woman told the Daily News. "I used to make a joke about the men standing outside," she told the paper. "I called them 'The Godfathers.'"
Michael D'Urso, a cousin of Tino Lombardi who was wounded in the shooting that killed the loan shark, later handed the government 500 hours worth of tape, leading to the arrests of 45 alleged Gambino family goodfellas in 2001. By doing so, D'Urso, who was known for hanging out at social clubs in Williamsburg, became one of the most prolific rats in Mafia history.
At the time, the Daily News described East Williamsburg as "an old-fashioned Italian-American neighborhood, with pork stores stocked with plump salamis and fresh smoked mozzarella and cafes that serve espresso." Now a tattoo spot sits next to Fortunato Bros., and the sound of jackhammers at new condo sites can be heard along the street outside. The social club where bullets once flew is long gone, and the bakery's sign looks a bit decayed.
...even the mob can't afford the rent anymore.
Yet the Italian-American energy of the area lingers. Longtime residents hang red, white, and green flags from their windows, while restaurants' doors remain plastered with signs for upcoming Italian festivals. Graham Avenue itself is alternatively called "Via Vespucci," and you can overhear Italian on some corners. Still, the ethnic enclave seems strange for a neighborhood as developed as Williamsburg is now. The immigrant is increasingly out of place here.
Up Graham Ave, I met an older man named Jimmy, who told me he moved to the neighborhood in 1952, during the post-war boom, and has lived there ever since. He pointed to all the stores in front of us—a hummus market, an "urban puppy hotel," another damn coffee shop—and said, "None of this was ever here before." The area, he added, was "much more Italian"; now it's prime real estate. "Everywhere you go, there's a condo being built. It's terrible."
The corner on which I spoke to Jimmy features an architect's office and one of those expensive old-school barbers that are popular now, but was once a well-known crime family headquarters called the Motion Lounge.
It was there that Joseph D. Pistone, the undercover FBI agent better known as Donnie Brasco, infiltrated the Bonanno crime family for six years. That's the same clan at the center of the trial of Vincent Asaro, an alleged participant in the Lufthansa heist ofGoodfellas fame. The undercover operation ultimately led to more than 100 convictionsof capos, soldiers, made men, and wiseguys, and a pretty decent movie starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
I asked Jimmy if he remembers how long the Motion Lounge, and the Mafia life it brought with it, had been closed. "For a while now," he replied. "It left with the rest of the neighborhood."
Apparently, even the mob can't afford the rent anymore.
Graham Avenue Meats & Deli, just a few buildings down, also began to fade from the collective memory last year. The now-shuttered spot was once notorious to old-timers and newcomers alike for its enormous sandwiches—"The Godfather" being one of them—and was run by an alleged Bonanno wiseguy named Michael "the Butcher" Virtuoso, who died after pleading guilty to running a loan sharking business out of the back of the store.
According to FBI testimony, Virtuoso had a Rolodex of mob contacts there, with entries that are just fun to say out loud: "Vinny Gorgeous," "Johnny Sideburns," "Little Anthony," to name a few. He faced two and a half years in prison at the time of his death.
But local business owners I spoke with were completely unaware. They had only heard the owner passed away—not that he was apparently deeply entrenched in a Mafia crime family as of last year. No one seemed to know, really. When I asked a young guy at a cafe about it, he shrugged, and looked back down at his phone. Others followed suit.
Based on my observations, it was safe to say that the young woman jogging by, wearing a shirt that read, "The gym is my happy hour," probably has no idea that this used to be an area where you could get killed if you saw something you weren't supposed to see.
In the times I've dined at Bamonte's Restaurant, the last stop on my mini Williamsburg mob tour, it felt like I was transported back to the scene in Goodfellas, shot from Henry Hill's point of view, when he's introducing the litany of mobsters to the viewers ("And then there was Johnny Two Times...."). The women still come in wearing flashy fur coats, with blown-out bobs, and the men are in slick suits, carrying thick accents. The food is great, too.
"I used to go there three, four times a week," Anthony "Fat Tony" Rabito, the alleged consigliere of the Bonanno family, told a friend in 2009, according to the New York Post. "They got great mussels."
After being released from prison for racketeering and extortion, Rabito was reportedly told by the feds in 2009 that he could no longer dine at Bamonte's, nor three other New York Italian restaurants, because they were "hot."' Prosecutors said then that the Williamsburg hang, which is nestled near McCarren Park and now boxed in by high-rises, was where Rabito held court to discuss mafioso matters, although the restaurant itself didn't have any crime ties. But the location makes sense: Rabito was one of the many mobsters who were booked back in the day by Donnie Brasco, in his case on drug charges.
Peering inside Bamonte's window, I was surprised to see a bearded bartender on the younger side, cleaning up before the day's work. I had this weird sense then that this is how the mob relics of the neighborhood will continue to function— as a culinary institution, not a hangout—while organized crime becomes less and less compatible with the city in 2015. Even if some ephemera are fresh, it's safe to say the Mafia has largely been outmoded by modernity, completely avoidable to those moving through the safer, glitzier neighborhood.
Still, the Mafia persists in some form in modern New York—increasingly toothless, perhaps, after years of prosecution, but functioning in different modes. In Williamsburg, the remnants of the former nabe are pretty deeply buried. It's not the seedy past of a neighborhood that we ought to romanticize or long for, but it is something we would do well not to forget.
"Of course, you need that change to happen," Cipollini, the mob expert, told me. "But really, you're losing a part of the city's history. And you have to ask yourself: What legacy did they leave behind?"Follow John Surico on Twitter