Thursday, June 30, 2016


I used to watch crime dramas – most of them set in New York City or a backlot pretending to be NYC.  Brooklyn seemed like the headquarters for organized crime what with the waterfront, the construction unions and ghost payrolls, traveling dice games and the candy stores (more about that to come.).  The mafia was glamorized, although there were a lot of roly-poly guys.  

In researching and reading, I found there’s too much to put together with loads the different mobsters and their nicknames and where they lived and how they died.  I did cross paths with some Italians who might have been in the trade, but it sort of lost its luster when I met a man who grew up in Brooklyn and went to school with the sons of made men.  “They were bullies who liked to cause other people trouble because they could get away with it. And they are still bullies.”  He explained he was still was forced to hire people and do favors.  "You don’t say no if you want to stay in business,” he told me.

But still, it’s a part of Brooklyn history and while I can’t tell all of it, I did visit the graves of four mafioso who are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.  Lesser known gangsters may be buried there too, but I don’t know their names.  Along with that, there was a funeral home in Brooklyn that made double coffins from time to time.  A murder victim was placed in the bottom of a coffin.  A nice satin-covered false bottom was laid over the murdered corpse, and the person for whom the family actually purchased the coffin was then laid on top of that.  How many murdered victims were disposed of this way in Green-Wood Cemetery or at any other cemetery in Brooklyn is a question for a reality show. 

This was my private tour **:

John Torrio (aka Johnny the Fox 1882-1957) has a nice walk-in tomb with an altar and a stained glass window.  John got lift-off in organized crime when he caught the eye of the leader of the Five Points Gant, Paul Kelly whose real name was Paolo Antonio Vaccerelli (guess he was trying to pass as Irish).  Kelly taught him to dress nicely, stop swearing, and establish a legitimate business, perhaps the importation of olive oil, as a front for his criminal activities.  Torrio in turn mentored Al Capone.

Jim Colosimo was married to Torrio’s Aunt Victoria a former madam in a brothel (I never said these people were classy), ran a huge prostitution business in Chicago and recruited Torrio to help out.  Torrio moved to Chicago and prospered.  When the Prohibition Amendment passed, Torrio wanted to sell bootleg liquor.  Colosimo didn’t, so Torrio arranged to have him murdered.  Torrio started bootlegging and controlled the Loop in Chicago.  When he attempted to expand beyond – by killing the leader of another gang, - members of that gang shot him five times.  He recovered, was arrested for violating Prohibition and sent to jail for a year. 

After release from prison, Torrio briefly moved his family to Italy, and left the business to Al Capone.  Torrio eventually moved his family back to Brooklyn where he ran a bail bond company (with Dutch Schultz).  Would you jump bail on a mob bondsman? 

In 1957, Torrio had a heart attack while he was sitting in a barber’s chair and went to his final rest at Green-Wood Cemetery.  The Torrio tomb is easy to find as it sits on one of the many little roads in Green-Wood – Canna Path.

[Torrio’s tomb is on the Green-Wood Cemetery Walk #1 – see below].

Joey Gallo (aka “Crazy Joe” 1929-1972) was born and raised in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.  His father was a bootlegger and criminal who encouraged his three sons to develop their own criminal enterprises.  (What father doesn’t want that for his children?)  After an arrest in 1950, Joey was sent to the psychiatric ward at King’s County Hospital and thereafter had the nickname “Crazy Joe.” 

Joey became a top enforcer for the Profaci Family and worked gambling and extortion.  His headquarters was in his grandmother’s apartment in Red Hook. 
His career is really complicated with altercations with all sorts of members of various mafia families, but one notable event was the murder of a member of Joey’s crew, Joseph “Joe Jelly” Gioelli.  Gioelli’s clothes, stuffed with fish, were left on the sidewalk outside an establishment where Joey was sure to see them.  Later, a similar incident was described in The Godfather.

Joey went to Attica prison for ten years (1961-1971) for attempted extortion of a Brooklyn bar owner and was there during the Attica riot.  In prison he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.  When he was released, he moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, living at 7 West 14th Street where he met Sina Essary.  Sina had been in a convent and ready to take her vows when she got pregnant, left the convent, married, divorced and then met Joey.  They got involved in the culture of the Village hobnobbing with artists and actors, including actor Jerry Orbach of Law & Order and Broadway fame.  There is no record that they ever met, but Bob Dylan recorded a song called “Joey” presenting Gallo as a semi-hero:

Joey’s had enemies.  On his 43rd birthday in 1972 Sina, her 10 year old daughter, Joey’s sister Carmella and Joey stopped for a snack at the newly-opened Umberto’s Clam Bar** in Little Italy at 4 a.m.  While they were eating, Carmine “Sonny Pinto” DiBraise entered the restaurant with two other men and shot Joey, who staggered out to the sidewalk and collapsed on the corner of Hester and Mulberry Streets.  Thus Joey died.  

His funeral was a spectacle with hundreds of people lining the streets as his casket was driven to Green-Wood Cemetery.  Joey was buried next to his brother, Larry Gallo, a less colorful gangster who had died of cancer in 1968. 

The grave is a little difficult to find as it sits on a hillside which is covered in little bushes.

Joey Gallo claimed he murdered the 4th famous mobster known to be buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, .Alberto Anastasia

Anastasia was a founder of Murder, Inc., which operated out of a candy store in East New York, and arranged an estimated 400-1000 deaths in ten years.  Anastasia actually was seen killing several people himself, but the witnesses always disappeared, so he was never convicted.  While he was quite useful to the mob, Anastasia wasn’t well liked and he was shot to death in 1957 while he was sitting in a barber chair at the **Park Sheraton Hotel (renamed Park Central Hotel) at 870 Seventh Ave. in Manhattan.     

Anastasia had poorly-attended service at a funeral home – the Brooklyn Catholic diocese refused a church service – and he was interred on the flats of Green-Wood Cemetery with no friends or family buried nearby.  His grave is relatively easy to find because it’s off Lake Road, not too far from the main entrance.

I quit watching crime dramas because they just can't compete with the over-dramatised news which I don't watch either.

**There are self-guided tour books you can buy at Green-Wood – Torrio’s tomb is listed in Walk #1 and Anastasia’s grave is listed in Walk #2.

 **Umberto’s Clam House still exists and is located just down the block on Mulberry Street in Manhattan's Little Italy – I ate their once and recommend it.

**Gangster Arnold Rothstein was shot in one of the rooms of this same hotel.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


One of the greatest aspects of living in Brooklyn is that you get to meet a lot of native New Yorkers.  People for whom the City and all its noise, grime, frustration, danger, shabbiness, competition, union labor, cooperation, inventiveness, history, excitement, entertainment, and four complete seasons are just regular stuff that has been absorbed into their psyches to create their intriguing perspective.  Rich or poverty-stricken, educated or illiterate, old, young, and any ethnicity - no matter what – I find native New Yorkers to be interesting because they exude the City.  

I met Jimmy the Fish - not his real name, but similar  – one day on the boardwalk in Coney Island.  He was bald, muscular, Sicilian, and had a thick Brooklyn accent.  Jimmy was born, raised, and still resided in Bensonhurst which was mainly an Italian neighborhood in South Brooklyn, although transitioning, as it was being populated by Chinese and Russian immigrants.

Jimmy the Fish explained his 3-word name, telling me that when he was in high school, he and his friends aspired to get connected to a certain Italian-run organization.  Their dads weren’t capos or soldiers, so to get attention from the members of that organization, they created a nicknames for themselves.  Eddy the Fixer, Johnny Bats (not the animal, the weapon), Bobby the Shadow.  I’m not sure how connected Jimmy ever became. He didn’t wear a fedora or carry a violin case, but he told me that he made his income by loaning money a few weeks at a time and lived off the vig.

He shared a duplex with his mother which was not unusual for a native New Yorker, especially Italian, who was divorced.  Jimmy actually had lived in the same duplex when he was married.  Many people in Brooklyn married and lived in the same neighborhood or multi-family home with their parents.  Family ties were tight even if they fought all the time. 

I asked Jimmy if he would show me Bensonhurst and he agreed to do it.

On our first adventure, he took me to the Santa Rosalia Festival, an annual week-long festival that ends on Labor Day.  This is a celebration of Saint Rosalia who, for the love of God, went to live in a cave in Sicily and died there. During a time of plague, she appeared to a man in a vision and told him to fetch her bones from the cave, which he did.  He carried her bones around the town twice and the plague was cured and she was made a saint dear to the hearts of Sicilians. 

This festival, now dying out on account of parking and other problems, was a bit of a disappointment.  Mainly it was just about food – sausage and pepper sandwiches, funnel cakes – things you could pretty much get any time of the week at an Italian deli or donut shop.  I think there might have been ring toss and that game where you try to ring a bell by slamming a hammer on a circle.  But there were no men carrying a 2,000-pound statue down the street like they do for the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg that I wrote about earlier on the blog.  There were no stalls where I could buy bootleg mixes of old-time Italian crooners singing love ballads.  Jimmy and I didn’t stay long there because it was a hot, muggy August night, but long enough for Jimmy to ogle the teenage girls and tell me that he longed to be younger.

Next time, we went out to a diner.  I ate dinner.  He didn’t order anything for himself. .Jimmy told me this was a gathering spot, a hang out for him and his friends when he was in high school.  I’d heard about King’s Highway in Flatbush as a place where kids used to walk up and down on weekend nights.  I asked him if he ever went over there.  He said, “That wasn’t my neighborhood.”  Like it was a foreign country or something.  

That night, he taught me the Italian slang word. goumada which is what an Italian married man calls his girlfriend.  I’ve since looked it up.  Goumada derives from mumbling the Italian word comare which literally translates as godmother.  I guess it’s a joke, as in, “I’m going to see my godmother.”  I hope it’s a joke.

After the diner, we toured Bensonhurst in his car, driving past New Utrecht High School which he attended and which was the high school shown at the beginning of the Welcome Back Kotter series that brought John Travolta fame.   You can look at yearbooks of the high school online as far back as 1929 when Dr. Harry Potter was principal – maybe you'll see a

picture of Jimmy: 

You can buy a yearbook, too.

After seeing the school, we drove under the elevated D-train tracks that run along New Utrecht Avenue.  He told me this was where they filmed the chase scene in The French Connection.  We turned onto 86th Avenue where there were a lot of small specialty stores selling cheese, meat, and other foods designating an Italian neighborhood.  These stores are being replaced by chain stores that I won’t name.

Bensonhurst is not a high-rise kind of place.  Commercial buildings are generally no more than 3 or 4 stories tall.  There are plenty of residential streets with nothing but 2-story red brick duplexes or 2-story limestone row houses with the bay windows, or streets hosting detached houses with wood or aluminum siding – again 2 stories high.  Almost feeling suburban.

Reciprocally, a week later, I invited Jimmy to lunch at my apartment and made us a pot of tea.  I told him I pretty much only drank hot tea and water and asked if he wanted ice.  He did. 

When we went out for dinner one last time, when he arrived, Jimmy presented me with a crate of boxed teas.  All sorts of tea.  I asked him where it came from.  He laughed and said, “It fell off a truck.”  Who am I to judge God’s plan?  I accepted it.

We went to dinner at a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, a nice little neighborhood of curvy streets and quaint little stores on the waterfront where you can pay boats to take you deep-sea fishing. Again, Jimmy didn’t order anything for himself.  It’s not all that comfortable to eat with someone who isn’t joining you, but then, he was so busy looking at the pretty women who walked by. 

I didn't see him again after that night and I hope Jimmy has found a nice Italian girlfriend over 18.  (PS Jimmy had just turned 40)

Post by Alana Cash

Thursday, June 16, 2016


"...when you get up in the morning, the sweet aroma of the old Golwanus Canal gets into your nostrils, into your mouth, into your lungs, into everything you do, or think or say!  It gigantic Stink, a symphonic Smell...a vast organ-note of stupefying odor cunningly contribed, compacted, and composted of eighty-seven separate putrefactions..."  

 Thomas Wolfe, "No Door"

Having read that Thomas Wolfe description years ago, I wanted to visit the Gowanus Canal and smell it for myself.  I was a bit disappointed.  I tried to smell it.  I didn't smell it.  Of course, it could have been an unusual day for the canal.  And, I heard they plugged the hold in the sewer pipe that was leaking raw sewage into the cnal (does it flow directly to the harbor now?) and that may have explained the lack of olfactory sensation.

But still, I love a canal.  When I was a kid, I used to spend summer vacations at my grandparents home in Glasgow.  They lived on a hill and down below about half a mile was a canal.  Barges carried goods to and from the ships on the Clyde River.  In the afternoons, the canal glowed like a golden ribbon in the sunlight -- on days when it wasn't raining, of course, but who remembers those days at your grandparents' home.

The Gowanus Canal may not glow golden in the sunlight, but it has those oil patches that glow rainbow colors.

It also has five little bridges that cross it at different points in Brooklyn.  Four of them are bascule bridges
(they lift up) and the one at Carroll Street is a retractable bridge.  I don't know why I find those bridges fascinating and kind of beautiful.  Maybe because traffic has to stop and that makes the City feel a little smaller and kind of quaint.

There are little boats parked along the bank of the canal along with quite a few barges.  That is sort of like the Seine in Paris, but with a lot of junk added.

The best place to see the Gowanus Canal, if you don't want to get too close, is at Smith & 9th Street - for several reasons.  First of all, you can take the "F" train which will give you a really nice view of a lot of Brooklyn as you travel, and it will take you directly to the Smith & 9th station which is the highest subway station in the world.  From the platform, you'll get a low-flying birdseye view of the canal north and south.  And, there's a little bascule bridge at 9th Street where it crosses the canal.  I'm not sure how often that happens.  I only saw it once.

Construction of the canal was begun in 1849 with the purpose of expanding industry in Brooklyn.  Basically, the Gowanus Creek was widened and deepened to allow boats and barges to transport goods in and out of the manufacturing companies that began operating along the bank.  Manufacturing included lead paint, ink,
manufactured gas made from coal, and different types of refineries, including sugar.  For over 150 years, they've dumped - purposefully or accidentally - their leavings and residue into the canal.  Along with mercury, lead, dead bodies in suitcases, and other pollutants, there is now gonorrhea in the canal water.  I can imagine someone saying,  "Let me explain.  I fell into the Gowanus Canal."

On a map, you can find a neighborhood called Gowanus in the region of canal.  I have never heard anyone speak of that neighborhood or claim to live in it.  The Old Stone House (of baseball fame that I wrote about before) and so I was in Gowanus and didn't even know.  I sent no postcards.  That neighborhood is actually where the Dutch first settled in Brooklyn.  There is also a Gowanus Bay at the mouth of the canal in Red Hook.

Gowanus - it's an interesting word.

Post by Alana Cash

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


photo by Jim Henderson

One of the most iconic photographs of WWII is the Alfred Eisenstaedt picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.   Ships and sailing, sailors and ship building, ferries and water taxies have always been a defining essence of New York.  Of course, except for container shipping at the New Jersey ports, all that is sort of “Old New York” now.  Although, just walking past the old Brooklyn Navy Yard I got the feeling of what it must have been like when there were 10,000 people working there and a large Naval presence in Brooklyn.  The old quarters were still standing – the admiral’s house, the officers quarters – although they were just skeletal. 

The 6-block Vinegar Hill area around the Navy Yard has historic status which means you can walk around a neighborhood that looks pretty much the same as it was when shipbuilding was active.  These are relatively small, federal-style houses built in the early 19th century that I could imagine were boarding houses as well as family homes.  The cobblestone roads are still there, for now [it’s easy to trip on them when crossing the street even in sneakers – ask me how I know that]. 

There are some decrepit-looking, small saloons open for business that I could imagine filled with workers and Navy personnel.  I didn’t see any, but there must have been at least one shabby tattoo parlor for men – because it was a man-only, and not very respectable, proof of love of home or profession to have Mother or an anchor tattooed on a forearm in  black ink.  You don’t see those much anymore.

The US Navy Yard at Brooklyn – commonly known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard because you do not think of the federal or state government when you are in the City of New York except at tax time -  has a long history.   It opened in 1806, and until 1966 it was a place where ships were built for the US Navy.  During that 160 years, some famous ships were constructed there:

“Fulton” (1837) first steam-driven boat from Robert Fulton’s design

“Maine” (1875)  as in "remember the Maine” sunk in Havana Harbor starting the Spanish-American  War

“USS Arizona” (1916) sunk at Pearl Harbor

From 1968 to 1979 Seatrain Corporation used the Yard to create container ships, and the Yard was used as dry dock until 1987.  After that, the National Guard was housed there and they let the Brooklyn Navy Yard become a weed-choked 300-acre landmark until the real estate developers turned to Brooklyn. 
photo by Jim Henderson

Now, according to the official site:  Brooklyn Navy Yard is a modern industrial park with over 4,000,000 square feet of space.  Kinda loses its romance, but at least it’s still there.

And 3 of the 40 buildings have landmark status (as does the entire Ship Yard): 

1. The Commander’s House (Quarters A) is a wooden structure designed by Charles Bulfinch who also designed the US capitol in Washington DC.  Admiral Matthew Perry lived in that house.  Not the actor, this man:

2. The Surgeon’s Residence (Bldg. R1).  You can see some really nice pre-restoration photographs of that here:

3. The Naval Hospital, (Bldg 92), a 3-story brick building plus basement constructed of hand-made bricks, was thankfully saved.  It now has a large glass and steel extension building and is called the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center.  You can go there for free and see photos of the history of the Navy Yard  - behind glass, lit with track lighting and you can see and touch a big anchor.  You can listen to 90-second lectures about stuff like how to build a battleship or something.  Personally, I’d like to hear how they made those bricks.

[Reminds me of visiting Ellis Island which is a tour of a very big empty building with extra large photographs. Why not leave the benches that 1000s of immigrants sat on?  Why not leave the desks with reenacting or wax statues of bureaucrats that you could choose to face?  Why not have displays of the medical equipment they used to find excuses to turn people away?  Or a large screen in that room with a movie of people moving through the lines and what they experienced?  Why not some experiential remnants of the will-I-make-it terror of Ellis Island?  Anyway, the Ellis Island Tour is now online and interactive – you don’t even have to go there at all.] 

But I digress - A movie studio makes use of 20 acres of the Navy Yard and, ironically, has a back lot where filmmakers can recreate Old New York. 

There is a 65,000 square foot “farm” on the roof of one of the buildings at the Yard, which is interesting.  I wonder if they change out the soil every couple of years to keep it fertile and how deep it is and whether with a heavy snowstorm that roof will cave in.

 There’s also a place called the Refundry that makes furniture and hires former convicts, training them for working in that industry.  New York has a “Work for Success” program encouraging businesses ($$) to hire former felons and the City of New York is very active in that hiring program.  The former Riker’s prison guard who was convicted of a few hundred instances of selling drugs to inmates is now re-employed by the City of New York.

Post by Alana Cash