Where the Mob Once Found Its Members

Vito Genovese in the mid 1940s.

The Mafia has always recruited from the streets. Both Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino in the 1950s enlisted soldiers in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn from a Brooklyn street gang called the Jackson Gents.

Interestingly these street gangs are still around today, while groups like the Purple Gang and the Bath Avenue Crew, Italian mob-affiliated gangs that more closely resemble the Mafia and were considered farm teams, seem to have died out.

Overall, however, the street gangs today are working as partners with the Mafia, which is more strict about recruitment, having the mindset that blood trumps everything else. The Colombo family, in particular, was ahead of the curve in that they have long relied on blood-family relations for members more than anything else.

But it wasn't always that way. Used to be the Mafia recruited from street gangs -- teenagers running around in leather jackets, their hair greased back into a duck's ass, their thick-soled boots thundering along the pavement. (Think of "The Lords of Flatbush." Interesting footnote: the film was originally to have included Richard Gere; however, he and Sylvester Stallone disliked each other and got into a brawl on the set and Gere was fired. Stallone in a recent Q & A session with readers of Ain't It Cool News said: "Richard was given his walking papers and to this day seriously dislikes me. He even thinks I'm the individual responsible for the gerbil rumor. Not true... but that's the rumor.")

Several high-profile figures were recruited into the Mafia from street gangs.

The Dukes operated in East Harlem.

In May 2004, former Bonanno capo Frank Lino became an informant, testifying against Joseph Massino, the boss of the Bonannos. During the testimony, the prosecutor asked him questions that went far back into his life. Lino said he embarked on his life of crime when he joined a Brooklyn street gang called the Avenue U Boys.

The Avenue U Boys committed robberies and fought other gangs, including the Zippers, Ghosts, Dandies, Senators and Silver Aces. Lino became involved with the Mafia around this time by running card games for a soldier in the Genovese crime family.

Carmine Persico, boss of the Colombo family now serving life in prison, also was in a gang, either the Garfield Boys or South Brooklyn Boys – it seems there is no consensus as to which gang, specifically.

Persico was arrested for participating in the fatal beating of a rival gang member in Prospect Park in 1951, but charges against him were dropped.

A soldier from the Profaci crime family enlisted the young tough guy to assist in various criminal acts, which led to Persico becoming a made man (in what was to become the Colombo family) at the young age of 25.

Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso (Luchese underboss; he also is in prison for life) also started in a youth gang in the 1950s.
Anthony Casso and Burt Kaplan, before Jimmy Breslin called the Luchese
associate "The Good Rat."

Casso in his teens was a member of the notorious South Brooklyn Boys, a tough gang known for violence, battling other gangs along the docks in Red Hook with fists, knives, clubs and Molotov cocktails. As a member, Casso learned how to fire a pistol as well as rifle, and became a very good shot.

As Selwyn Raab noted in Five Families

... Casso gained a macho reputation for his cast-iron demeanor, and especially for his marksmanship with a rifle and a handgun. Using roofs as makeshift firing ranges with bull’s-eye targets pinned to chimneys, he had developed into a crack shot with a pistol, able to hit a soda can at a distance of about one hundred feet. A former detective, who was reared in the same section of Brooklyn, says that Casso and his chums evaded police scrutiny by rigging up homemade gun silencers with cotton and cardboard wadding. Roofs served as recreational areas in the densely populated neighbourhood, and a common hobby was tending pigeon flocks in rooftop coops. Young Casso’s shooting skills were in great demand by pigeon-fanciers seeking to protect their birds from predatory hawks. “People used to call me all the time, ‘Could you come over and get this hawk,’ he said in an interview. “I was like a doctor on call.”

Casso's South Brooklyn Boys formed in the 1950s and consisted of various Italian-American gangs from South Brooklyn. In the 1970s, the South Brooklyn Boys represented a loosely connected affiliation of neighborhood gangs, including:

  • SB DEVILS: (Union Street 4th Ave.)
  • GARFIELD BOYS: (Garfield and 5th)

According to the blog Stone Grease: "They all considered themselves part of the SBB, but only came together for big gang fights against the Untouchable Bishops (latinos) or the The Mau Mau Chaplains (blacks). Otherwise, they did their own thing and shared turf from Butler Street to 9th St. from 4th Ave up to 7th Ave."

Gang members weren't just thugs; they killed people -- here's a list of known gang killings that occurred in 1959, a year when Brooklyn gang murders seemed to skyrocket.

Eric Schneider, in his book Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York, writes about how the Mafia regularly recruited youths from street gangs such as the Red Wings from East Harlem and the Fordham Baldies from the Bronx.

The blog New York City Gangs, where much of this information is available, interviewed a former member of an Italian youth gang -- one from Williamsburg called the Jackson Gents.

As the blog notes: "He shall remain nameless, but he took the time to personally explain to me what it was like for the Jackson Gents being around the mobsters in the neighbourhood..."

Was the Mafia involved much in your neighbourhood? (Williamsburg)

... The Gambino and Genovese families were the main families in our neighborhood. Carlo Gambino came to my Grandmother's wake to pay his respects.

As far as the Mafia goes, this was Brooklyn in the '50s and early '60s, the wiseguys were everywhere. They knew us and we knew them, some of the fathers [of the members of the gang] were involved. Bookmaking and loansharking. We would all be mixed together in the pool rooms and bars. Sometimes we would be in the pool room and they would ask a couple of us to go along with them if they were collecting money from some deadbeat, sometimes for other things.

Did the Mafia tell you what to do or worry about your activities bringing unwanted police presence?

We were not affiliated with the mob. They did their thing and we did ours. The mob guys never told us to cool anything. They couldn’t care less what we were up to. As I said, they did their thing and we did ours. Gang violence didn’t impinge on their business, if it did we would have heard from them.

Did the Mafia look at the Jackson Gents as possible members?

They looked at us as a kind of recruiting ground and approved of our conduct. I don’t mean to give you the impression that they talked to us about it or told us what to do. They just liked the fact that we were tough kids and had the balls to do what other people were afraid to do. Some of our guys ended up with them, I was asked if I had any interest myself. His exact words to me were “You can’t be half a prick so think it over and you can come with me.” As far as the Mafia pecking order goes we knew wiseguys from every strata.

Did any of the Jackson Gents help the Mafia with some of their tasks?

I knew the wiseguys well and on occasion helped them, sometimes to collect money or sometimes to help scare some deadbeat. These guys were dual personalities. They were a lot of fun to be around, but when they were working they wore their game-face and they could be pretty scary.

While it is true that we helped them now and then it was very haphazard. I’ll give you an example. In those days the pool rooms opened at about 10 am. One summer morning I was shooting pool alone in Charlie Politos' pool room. When I say alone, I mean the place was empty save for the owner Charlie and me. I was practicing on the front table right near the door. A wiseguy pulled up in a tow truck, he stuck his head in the door and said “Hey ____ , take a ride with me.” Some guy owed him money so we drove up Graham Ave. and found him washing his car. It was a red ’57 Ford convertible, a real nice car at that time. When we drove up he saw us and ran away. We got out of the truck, hooked the cable to the car frame underneath the car, and turned it upside down in the middle of the street. He drove me back to the poolroom and we never spoke about it again.

The SBB still walk the streets today. Their crimes include assault, drug dealing and extortion -- as well as bookmaking and racketeering. They are said to work as allies of the Mafia, as well as a different kind of gang -- Italian organized crime groups that look and act more like Mafia crews than street gangs, and are specifically linked to certain Mafia Families.

The SBB is said to work with three such groups: The Tanglewood Boys -- a crew affiliated with the Luchese family that operated from the Tanglewood Shopping Center in Yonkers; the Ozone Park Boys -- a Gambino-affiliated crew from that part of Queens; and the Bath Avenue Crew, which operated in Brooklyn for the Bonanno family. None of the three crews is believed to still be in business. Then there is the East Harlem-based 116th Street crew, which existed as recently as 2010, which was affiliated with the Genovese family. Back in his day, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno based the crew out of the Palma Boys Social Club located on East 115th Street in East Harlem, Manhattan.

The East Harlem Purple Gang was a semi-independent group of Italian American hit-men and heroin dealers who were first affiliated with the Luchese crime family and later with the Bonanno and Genovese crime family; its remnants are now part of the 116th Street Crew.

Staten Island's New Springville Boys included leader Lee D'Avanzo, Ned Bilali, Robert Catanese,Randy (Randy The Jew) Gordon, Francis Costanzo, William "Big Billy" Fauci, Joseph "Fat Joe" Gambino, and Edward Shamah.

This list is not definitive. Italian mob-affiliated groups infested the five boroughs. Gerard Pappa had been a member of the Rampers, which also included Thomas Spero, Joe Vitale, Ralph Spero, James Emma and Sammy Gravano.