Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The First Family by Mike Dash
The Italian district of New York, centered around Mulberry Street, was still in its infancy in 1893. It had been predominantly Irish as late as 1890, when Mulberry Bend, a kink in the road a few blocks north of City Hall, was the most reviled slum in the city: rife with disease, thick with litter, and home to communities of the most desperate and destitute with names such as Bandit's Roost and Bottle Alley. "There is not a foot of ground in the Bend that has not witnessed some deed of violence," wrote the reformer Jacob Riis, whose after-hour visits to the rotting lodging houses and drinking dens of Mulberry Street produced some of the most memorable images of old New York. Among the horrors Riis described were homes so caked in filth they would not burn when set on fire and "stale beer dives" in windowless, earth-floored cellars, where patrons desperate for oblivion drank rotgut whiskey and the flat dregs of empty beer barrels discarded by saloons.
It was largely thanks to Riis's eloquent campaigning that the worse excesses of Mulberry Street were swept away in 1890, leaving the district to the next wave of immigrants from southern Europe. Three years later there were already tens of thousands of men, women, and children crammed into the seething streets around the Bend, a population larger than most Italian towns.
Conditions in the tenements of Little Italy were grim, though certainly not worse than they had been at home. Most of these dilapidated premises had been built before new zoning laws improved the standards of New York housing. They typically sprawled over almost the entire lot, so there was little light and no room for recreation; in the absence of gardens and public parks, children played on the rooftops or in the streets. Almost every building was cold and damp in winter, when the walls became so saturated with damp they steamed whenever fires were lit. In summer the same apartments baked, so much so that even Sicilians, well used to infernal heat, preferred to sleep out on the rooftops or the fire escapes.
Privacy was nonexistent in the district. Bedrooms doubled as parlors and kitchens as bedrooms; every toilet, down the hall, was shared by fifty or sixty people. There were no bathing facilities; washing meant a visit to the public bath. There was no central heating; the only source of warmth in some apartments was the kitchen stove. Those lucky enough to have fireplaces in their rooms stockpiled coal on the floor, in corners, under beds, making it impossible to keep things clean. Every tenement, in any case, was infested with cockroaches and bedbugs. All had rats.
"More than anything I remember the smells of the old neighborhood," said one old Corleone Mafioso of the Little Italy of his youth.
You can't believe how many people lived together in those old houses. There were six of seven tenements on Elizabeth Street where we lived and in those buildings, which were maybe five or six stories high, there must have been fifteen or sixteen hundred people living. And everybody took in boarders too. A lot of the guys who came over from Sicily were not married or had left their families in Italy. They were only there at night since they were out working all day, and at night there must have been another seven or eight hundred guys sleeping in the building. We had it plenty good because there were only four of us in three rooms, but in some other apartments you had seven or eight adults and maybe ten kids living in an apartment the same size.
Some of the smells were good. I can remember, for example, that early in the morning, say five o'clock, you could smell peppers and eggs frying when the women got lunches ready for their sons and husbands. But more than anything else I remember the smells of human bodies and the garbage. There was no such thing as garbage collection in those days and everybody just threw it out in the street or put it out in the hallways. Christ, how it stank!
Poverty was an everyday reality for most of the families of Elizabeth street, just as it had been at home in Italy. Higher incomes in New York where it was possible for even an unskilled laborer to earn $1.50 a day- a sum thirty times the five-cent wage typical in Sicily- were offset by the higher cost of living, and many families willingly endured privation in order to remit larger sums to relatives at home. Pasta and vegetables formed the staple diet, meat remained a luxury. Few people owned more than the cloths on their backs and perhaps a single item of Sunday best. Even sheets and blankets were scarce commodities. Joe Valachi remembered that "for sheets my mother used old cement bags that she sewed together, so you can imagine how rough they were."
Simply finding accommodation in the overcrowded tenements of Little Italy was hard enough. Work, good work with decent conditions and some prospects, prove a good deal more elusive. Mnny emigrants, hundreds of thousands of them, had been lured across the Atlantic by tales of immense wealth of the United States and so arrived in New York filled with hope that they too, would accumulate an easy fortune. The reality proved different. The only jobs available to unskilled Italians were the filthy, menial ones that Americans though were beneath them. Rag picking- sorting through heaps of stinking garbage in search of bottles, bones, and cloth that could be resold for a cent or two- was one source of casual employment for men. Others labored on sewer repairs, did construction work on the new subway, or manned the city's garbage scows. Women worked in dimly lit sweatshops, ruining their eye by staring at the fat-moving needle of a sewing machine for nine hours at a stretch, or labored stripping feathers for mattresses and pillows in workshops that brought on lung disease.
This sort of casual work was monotonous, poorly paid and frighteningly insecure. Men were hired by the day to labor on contracts that might last for a week or two, rarely longer. Women did piecemeal work, perhaps gluing envelops at a rate of three cents for every thousand, and lived with the threat that any dip in productivity would result in dismissal. The endless stream of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island meant that there was competition for even the basest work, and for many Italians the solution was to go to work for a padrone, an overseer who spoke English and who contracted to supply cheap labor to a variety of businesses. The more fortunate- those with some wealth, some skill, or some connections - got help from friends and relatives who had already settled in the United States. This is almost certainly what Bernardo Terranova and Giuseppe Morello did. Small colonies of Corleonesi already existed in the New York of 1893, one in Little Italy and another in East Harlem. Terranova had some skill as an ornamental plasterer, and he and his stepson most likely got at least some temporary employment in this way.
Whatever the men of the family tried, though, it soon became apparent that it was not enough. The American economy was stalling. Fewer and fewer were able to find even temporary jobs; by summer there was almost no work to be had anywhere in New York. The American economy, foundering since 1890, was sliding into full-blown depression. It was the worst economic crisis yet experienced by the United States. The great crash of 1893 was on.. Morello and his family found work as farm laborers in Georgia and then share-croppers in Texas.
By the time they moved back to New York in 1897- with perhaps $500 in savings- the Italian neighborhood had changed considerably. Overcrowding had become an even greater problem, in some districts the population density was worse than in Bombay but the economy was flourishing again. In 1897, according to one estimate, the inhabitants of Little Italy were making so much money that $30 million a year was being wired or carried back to friends or relatives at home. A much larger sum was being earned and spent on the streets of New York.
With money came the prospect of a better life but for the petty criminals of the Italian district, the burgeoning wealth of many immigrants meant more and better opportunities to prey on their fellow men. In the course of the 1890s, the sorts of incidents that had characterized Little Italy in the earlier years- mugging, petty theft and knife fights- began to give way to new and more sophisticated forms of crime. The first protection rackets had begun to flourish in the Italian quarter by the last years of the decade. Then came determined attempts to target the Wealthiest of the districts immigrants: extortion, backed by threats of violence, and the seizure and ransoming of children. As early as 1899, there was a "kidnapping craze' among the Italians of of Brooklyn.
Bombs were the favored tool of the extortionists. They were anonymous, created a terrifying effect, and were easily assembled- it was a simple matter to steal dynamite. They could even be used outside the streets of little Italy; A new Jersey justice of the peace, who had convicted seeral members of one gang, was "literally blown to pieces" by a parcel bomb delivered to his office. But high profile cases of this sort were few and far between. Wealthy and influential Italians simply caved into the extortionists demands.
To many New Yorkers the most compelling feature of these cases was the bizarre decorations that adorned letters of extortion. Demands were accentuated with crude drawings of skull, revolvers, and knives dripping with blood or piercing human hearts. Many also featured pictures of hands, in thick black ink, held up in a universal gesture of warning- a "Black Hand". It was a short step from there to the idea of the Black Hand as a distinct organization, with its own leaders and hundreds, if not thousands of members scattered through the country. The notion of a powerful, professional criminal conspiracy did seem to answer many questions, not the least explaining why the authorities found it so difficult to make arrests. The police, led by Joe Petrosino, did what they could to ridicule the idea, but without success. Conviction that a Black Hand society actually existed soon took root.
From the perspective of most New Yorkers, the Black Hand was at once a thrilling sort of entertainment and a symbol of just how desperate uncivilized Italian immigrants could be. For the men and women of the Sicilian quarter, who lived with the threats of the extortionists every day, it was a reminder of how little had really changed since they crossed the ocean, to be preyed upon in the U.S. as they had been preyed upon at home. For Giuseppe Morello*, though, the success of Little Italy's extortionists was if anything an inspiration. For if unorganized amateurs, lacking skills and experience, could make a success of such illegal enterprises, what opportunities must there be for real criminals, men who would not scruple at bringing far greater destruction down upon their victims, enemies or disloyal associates? How much money was waiting to be made by the ruthless? What, in short, were the prospects for an American Mafia?
* first "boss of the bosses", aka "Clutch Hand" (after his deformed, one-fingered right hand) "There was nothing of the buffoon about Morello. He had a parched, gaunt voice, a stone face and a claw" said the terrified second-generation Mafia boss Joe Bonanno. Morello was finally murdered by rivals in 1930.