Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Dispatch from a Disappeared Brooklyn
I joined author Tom Folsom and nearly 50 fellow Brooklynites last Saturday for a tour of Carroll Gardens and Red Hook that offered sites and stories from the legendary Gallo-Profaci/Colombo mafia war of the 1960s. The event was part of a monthlong series to promote Folsom's new book The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld, which, while I haven't read it yet, sounds like a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining piece of local history. Folsom was engaging and energetic in person and knew his material inside and out, so much so that he frequently interrupted one good story with another, and the day was perfect, as a late-May day can be.
The tour, which started in Carroll Park and wound down to the waterfront, took a little over an hour and was comprised primarily of vignettes and anecdotes about the years of Joe Gallo and his gang. There were plenty of pulpy tidbits for mob/mafia enthusiasts, including a fantastic rundown of Gallo gang nicknames (Punchy, Big Lollipop, Little Lollipop), and several interesting cultural references: Joe Gallo modelled himself on Tommy Udo, a ganster from the Richard Widmark flick Kiss of Death, and in turn inspired a whole movie (The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight) and several pieces of mafia lore that were canonized by The Godfather (released in the year of Crazy Joe's dramatic death in front of Umberto's Clam House). Folsom was at his best telling these stories, cracking us up with portraits of lethal mobsters puttering around setting up their coat racks in tenements that they used as barracks.
Leaving all of this aside (go buy the book for more!), the tour was made as interesting by what we didn't or couldn't see as by what we did. After a few blocks in bucolic Carroll Gardens, enough to see the funeral home where Joey's casket lay, we crossed the exhaust-spewing trough that is the BQE (first photo) and ambled into what remains of "Brooklyn's Little Italy." We stood on the corner of Columbia and Union Street (second photo) while Folsom described a bustling commercial avenue at the terminus of a trolley line that connected Red Hook to the rest of Brooklyn. What's left today is the amputated arm of what was once the biggest port in the United States, a perfectly nice place to live but no longer a hub, with nearly as many open lots as buildings.
On the waterfront (third photo), as Folsom explained the various connections between the longshoremen and stevedores unions and the mob, we stood in what is today almost completely an industrial ghost town. Though a few operational container cranes remain, the last in Brooklyn, they sit far away behind locked gates and serve ships with a minimum number of skilled laborers, a far cry from the Brooklyn waterfront as Brando or Arthur Miller depicted it.
Our tour guide saved the starkest contrast for last--on President Street, where the Gallo boys "went to the mattresses" (coining the term) in a tenement owned by their grandmother, Folsom stood spinning tales admidst a low-rise development of brick townhomes with verdant lawns and leafty trees overhead. As Folsom described a lethal stockpile of grenades, shotguns, and ammunition that the gang hoarded in the tenement, a young girl rolled by on her scooter in a rainbow-colored bathing suit while her neighbor and his father chased a soccer ball in our direction. President Street also housed the abandoned (now demolished) Catholic Church where Joey's funeral mass was held.
The unlikihood of the girl in her striped swimsuit was no accident: what happened on the Red Hook waterfront nearly 50 years ago is consigned to history along with the possibility of repetition. By pulling apart a neighborhood, the BQE pulled apart the longstanding ties that made "going to the mattresses" in your grandma's building possible. Unsentimental planners and policemen were doubtless happy to see the area (deemed a slum during urban renewal) revamped and re-invented, but changes of that magnitude can't be accomplished without losing something. The Mafia isn't exactly what we think of when we think "community organizations" today--they're a reminder that "community" is a neutral word, and can describe parochial inwardness as quickly as it does cohesive continuity. But regardless of what you think of them, they are history, at least as Brooklyn knew them half a century ago, for the place that birthed them is no more.