Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Chicago Way - The Al Capone Story Part I, Born in Red House Brooklyn

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"  -The Untouchables

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”  President Barak Obama as quoted in ‘We Bring a Gun’ The New York Times Caucus Blog on June 14, 2008

Note: Red House Brooklyn refers to a song lyric in "Joey" by Johnny Thunders not Red Hook Brooklyn.

On November 4, 2008, America changed. On that day, the Chicago Machine went national with the election of Barak Obama to the Presidency of the United States. While the media largely failed to examine the implications of this, the Chicago Way style corruption of our core institutions once almost ripped the very fabric of our society apart.

The Chicago Way Series - The Al Capone Story

This is a multipart series devoted to examining the adoption of Chicago style power practices nationally. While the Chicago Way is most closely associated with politics, it actually involves the corruption of multiple institutions. The Al Capone story focuses on the corruption of the American business model by one of the foremost practitioners of this method. Along the way, we will also take the opportunity to explore other aspects of machine style corruption and its influence on American life. This is the first post in this series

The Chicago Way

An elite class that maintains power and extorts money  via the corruption of various institutions including political parties, the judiciary, public services, governmental bureaucracy,  unions and business.

Here Leon Despres defines the political aspect of the Chicago Machine:

Leon would know, he was a Chicago City Alderman who clashed with Mayor Daley for 30 years. He was also a communist that, like our current President, cloaked his nefarious agenda by veiling it as an effort to promote equality for minorities and the disadvantaged. When one looks closely at his agenda, he was not against the Chicago Machine so much as co-opting it for his own socialist purposes under the guise of equality.

Here is a glowing obituary from NPR (notice how they do not mention that he was a Communist):

Leon Despres, Icon Of Chicago Politics, Dies

After Daley died in 1976, and his legendary machine began to splinter, the independent coalition Despres helped create and unite, made up of white lakefront liberals, young anti-war demonstrators and minorities emboldened by the civil rights movement, paved the way for the election of Washington in 1983. A little over a decade later, in 1996, the remaining pieces of that coalition helped elect a young community organizer named Barack Obama to the Illinois Senate.

 In a statement Wednesday, President Obama said, "Through two decades on the Chicago City Council and a long lifetime of activism, Len Despres was an indomitable champion for justice and reform. With an incisive mind, rapier wit and unstinting courage, he waged legendary battles against the corruption and discrimination that blighted our city, and he lived every one of his 101 years with purpose and meaning. I have been blessed by his wise counsel and inspired by his example."

...in the year of who knows when

While the Brooklyn of Capone's youth has largely disappeared, the rackets remain. While they now hide their dark intent under veils of equality and progress, Capone would recognize them for what they were: An elite corruption of basic institutions for profit and power at the expense of the lower and middle class. 
The Capones Come to America

Father, Gabriel, and mother, Theresa, emigrated to America from Castellammare di Stabia, Italy in the Province of Naples in 1893:

View LargeVr Map

Al Capone came from a family of boys:
Gabriel Capone - Father
Theresa - Mother
Vincenzo (Jimmy) - Brother born 1891 in Italy
Raffolo (Ralph) - Born after the family  arrived in America in 1893
Salvatore (Frank) - Born 1895
Alphonsus (Al) - Born 1899
Amadeo Irmano (John) - Born 1901
Umberto (Albert) - Born 1906
Matthew - Born 1908
Rose - Born 1910, Died in infancy.
Mafalda - Born 1912

Barber's Son

Unlike many Italian immigrants at the time Gabriel Capone, Al's father was both literate and skilled as a barber. His literacy qualified him to work in a grocery until he could save up money to open up his own barber shop. The shop he opened up may have looked something like the below picture. Nothing remains of it today:

Vinegar Hill - Irish Town 

When the Capone family lived there, the Vinegar Hill area was a predominantly Irish area dominated by the Navy Yard and the Hudson Avenue elevated train line:

Mellow One Brooklyn Elevated Railways

Today, nothing remains of the neighborhood where the Capone family originally lived.
The neighborhood has been obliterated by:

1) The replacement of private housing with large scale public housing.
2) The dismantlement of the elevated train and streetcar network with an elevated freeway.
3) The closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
4) The building of the Con Edison Power plant.

In many ways, the obliteration of the original Al Capone old neighborhood is a microcosm of the rise of machine fueled corruption and the obliteration of America as a whole. Please allow JohnQuincy this brief opportunity to elaborate on how machine corruption of housing and public works has impacted American life:

Public Housing The Living Machine

"A house is a machine for living in"

"A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe"

- Le Corbusier

 "the proposed city appeared to some an audacious and compelling vision of a brave new world, and to others a frigid megalomaniacally scaled negation of the familiar urban ambient." -Norma Levinson

The once vibrant neighborhood where Capone lived has been replaced with barren public housing inspired by the ideas of a Swiss Architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.
He is perhaps best critically summarized in the essay, Reflections on Cities of the Future, by James Howard Kunstler:
"Le Corbusier [was] ... the leading architectural hoodoo-meister of Early High Modernism, whose 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris proposed to knock down the entire Marais district on the Right Bank and rece it with rows of identical towers set between freeways. Luckily for Paris, the city officials laughed at him every time he came back with the scheme over the next forty years – and Corb was nothing if not a relentless self-promoter. Ironically and tragically, though, the Plan Voisin model was later adopted gleefully by post-World War Two American planners, and resulted in such urban monstrosities as the infamous Cabrini–Green housing projects of Chicago and scores of things similar to it around the country."
Another fascinating read on the subject of Le Corbusier and his hold on post war American planners is Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid By Mardges Bacon
Fortunately for Parisians, even the French government laughed at Le Corbusier. Unfortunately, for Soviet citizens and urban dwellers in the United States, he was taken seriously.
Reader Test: Choose which structure below is a Soviet era apartment block and which one is a US government sponsored housing project.

This video provides a good/horrifying glimpse of what Le Corbusier's vision of public housing has meant for New York:

NY City Map provides a cool tool to view how a neighborhood across time.

As you can see in the below map of this area, it was once teeming with vibrant neighborhoods:

For a few laughs, compare the below housing projects that now dominate this area, circled in red below, with arial photos of prisons: Prison Arial Views


*The University Towers were/are technically not a public housing project. They were created as student and faculty residences for the adjacent Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. They were mismanaged by the university and allowed to run down. They have since been bought out several times by private management companies that have been hamstrung in their efforts to renovate the place by rent control laws and lax record keeping by the university making it hard to establish who is/was actually a legal resident. The latest owner seems to have finally had some success in turning the towers into a co-op.

Of course, American are mere amateurs when it comes to public housing compared to the Socialists in Europe. Check out the plans for this Danish Prison:

Danish State Prison by C.F. Moller Architects

The design creates an urban environment, interacting with the landscape on both sides of the six-metre tall perimeter wall. For this compact, urban structure means that there is also left space for natural and cultivated areas, areas for animal husbandry and for the integration of sports facilities in the landscape within the perimeter wall.

On the serious side, with our current government's Orwellian drive towards equality, you can soon expect more of this type of prison chique inserted into our lives. JohnQuincy has already dealt with this in two posts:

One detailing the spike in crime and murders due to the use of section 8 vouchers to disperse residents of these projects into the suburbs and the other detailing with government research in breaking our society via this method:

Crime and Poverty: An American Tragedy in 13 Parts
This Mortal Coil: Shangri-La & the 2nd Death

If you do not think it can happen to you, think again. JohnQuincy has had two vivid experiences with Government dependents intruding into his life. Both of them vividly demonstrated the fragility of our society and how rapidly it can come apart:

Elysian Fields

To those of you familiar with Greek Mythology, you know that this refers to Elysium, a section of the underworld where the virtuous and heroic reside.

It is also famous in American history as the Birth Place of Baseball or one of the birth places.

When JohnQuincy moved into a basement apartment across the street from it, Elysian Fields meant terrifying nights waiting for hordes of Puerto Rican youths from the nearby housing projects to kick in the door. I remember the drill of wrapping jackets around arms to better ward off blows with my room mate grabbing his flick knife and me a butcher knife. We would both stand on each side of the door, while one of the gang members would jump into the door from top of the stairs, hoping it would hold, shouting that the apartment was occupied and that we were armed (a lie). Luckily, the door always held and the gang(s) would leave soon after hearing our shouts.

Contrary to popular imagery, the Puerto Rican gangs at that time wore what appeared to cheap Hawaiian style flowered print shirts with matching flowered knee length shorts. The image to the side is the closest that I could find showing what they wore at the time just substitute the paisley for an even more garish flower print.


Many years later, after much effort to obtain a university degree and professional license. I decided to established my family in an area with good housing and schools so JohnQuincy found himself in Katy Texas. JQ seized on moving to Katy Texas after it had come up tops in several Internet searches for: Excellent Schools, Affordable Housing, Great Job Market, Low Taxes and Low Cost of Living.

It was a shock to learn that all my years of effort were wasted when my daughter started coming home upset because her school had been upended with Katrina refugees who had taken to living long term in hotels up by the freeway using government supplied vouchers.

Like most Houstonians at the time, JohnQuincy naively thought that taking in the refugees was the right thing to do. The refugees rapidly disabused us of that notion:

Katrina Evacuees' Welcome Wearing Thin in Houston

Some 21,000 students from Louisiana now attend southeastern Texas schools, including roughly 6,000 in Houston. Across the state, Louisiana children scored considerably worse than Texas youngsters on a state exam and thousands could be held back, imposing even higher costs on overburdened districts that are still awaiting federal reimbursement for helping the storm victims.

Katrina Refugees Shoot Up Houston

This city of nearly 2 million has experienced a marked uptick in its homicide rate since more than 100,000 of New Orleans’s displaced residents flocked into town in late August and early September. While Houston’s murder rate is up 23 percent for all of 2005, it spiked 70 percent in November and December compared to last year’s levels

Houston police arrest eight from New Orleans

A multilevel gang task force in Houston yesterday announced the arrests of eight hurricane refugees from New Orleans — a group Houston police say is responsible for at least 11 slayings and numerous burglaries and thefts in the metropolitan area since November.

“We’re talking about what appears to be a rivalry between two groups of individuals who were associated with two different housing projects in New Orleans,” Houston police Capt. M.D. Brown told The Washington Times. “Their rivalry began several years ago — certainly prior to Katrina — and carried over to Houston.”

Owners far away as complex decays

By late 2005, owners were eager to lease to hurricane evacuees, who had their rents guaranteed by the government. But that guaranteed source of income promised by the government came with a catch: The owners were not allowed to screen their new tenants based on criminal or rental history.

"The Katrina people, they came in, and everybody thought it was the savior for the property, because we were going to fill it up," said Bill Strickland, a California real estate investor who estimated he lost about $250,000 — and most of his net worth — when banks foreclosed on his four vacant buildings.

"That was one of those places that was crazy, to be honest with you," said Roderick Williform, a city worker assigned to a task force that helped evacuees find housing through a rent voucher program. "One guy came and told me, 'They took my commode. They took my cabinets.' "

Public Works - Breaking Some Eggs 

''I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.'' - Robert Moses

"It inspires loathing, resentment, anger,"  - Surfjan Stevens referring to the BQE

In 2007, Surfjan Stevens performed what will probably be noted as one of the most important pieces of new music for the 21st century, BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway). He wrote this surprising work after being commissioned by the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) to write a symphony about his adopted home, New York.

Here is a link to the BAM site that includes film of the original performance:

BAM - BQE (2007)


Robert Moses - God of Public Works

For someone who is not a household name, Robert Moses is one of the most influential and controversial figures in 20th century America. It is to him we owe, depending on how you look at the subject, a debt of gratitude for large scale public works managed and funded by quasi-governmental agency with little oversight by democratically elected officials or the public.

Here is an excellent obituary from the NYT: 

Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92

Here is another good article from the NYT that explores some of the controversies surrounding him: A Tale of Two Cities

While there are some longer and better documentaries on Robert Moses out there, this one does a great job a summarizing the controversies surrounding him:

Below is a picture of the Cross Manhattan Arterial Expressway that eventually curtailed, Robert Mose's plans and led to the rise of the community activist:

Moses' plans for the expressway were contested by Jane Jacobs.

She fought to save Manhattan from the Corbusien dreams of Robert Moses and won.

She also wrote one of the most influential books on urban planning the refuted many of the arguments being used to destroy American cities at the time: The death and life of great American cities

Below is a good summary of the book:

Why do some neighborhoods attract interested and responsible populations and why do others degenerate? Why are Boston's North End and the eastern and western extremes of Greenwich Village good neighborhoods and why do orthodox city planners consider them slums? What alternatives are there to current city planning and rebuilding? Conventional city planning holds that cities decline because they are blighted by too many people, by mixtures of commercial, industrial and residential uses, by old buildings and narrow streets and by small landholders who stand in the way of large-scale development. Such neighborhoods, they insist, breed apathy and crime, discourage investment and contaminate the areas around them. The response of con-ventional city planning is to tear them down, scatter their inhabitants, lay out super-blocks, and rebuild the area accord-ing to an integrated plan, with the result, as often as not, that the crime rate rises still higher, the new neighborhood is more lifeless than the old one, and the surrounding areas deteriorate even more, until the life of the whole city is threatened.

She was too late to save the neighborhood that the Capones's first moved into.

The Capone's First Place on Navy Street

Their first home in America was in a tenement at 95 Navy Street, Brooklyn NY.

It no longer exists

95 Navy Street, Brooklyn, New York, NY

Here is a description of the flat where they lived from Capone: the man and the era By Laurence Bergreen

It probably looked something like this on the inside:

He was baptised at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic church. According to this link http://mysite.verizon.net/timdesmond/files/churches.htm , the church closed a long time ago:

St. Michael the Archangel (Italian) [1891; Closed 1942] - Lawrence & Tillary {4th ward}

It was on the corner of Lawrence and Tillary. As you can see, from the below map Lawrence and Tillary no longer intersect:

View Larger Map

His first home intersected Sands Street the main road leading into the Navy Yard. As one can imagine, this was a street notorious for saloons, dance halls, flop house and tattoo parlors:

The below map shows the route from the Capone family apartment to the entrance to the Navy Yard on Sands Street:

View Larger Map

While written sometime after Capone's family lived there, the below WPA Guide gives a good feel for Capone's early neighborhood:

Brooklyn Navy Yard - From the (1939) WPA Guide to New York City:

The Navy Yard District, spreading south and west of the yard from the East River, is a shapeless grotesque neighborhood, its grimy cobblestone thoroughfares filled with flophouses, crumbling tenements and greasy restaurants. It is bounded on the west by the Manhattan Bridge; while beyond the dull waters of the East River looms the New York sky line, like the backdrop of a stage set. In the nineteenth century the region was a residential district known as Irish Town, because of the predominantly Irish population. After the turn of the century, business and industry took over parts of the neighborhood and the pleasant homes fell into neglect. The population now is largely composed of laborers from local factories and the Navy Yard.

Sands Street is the principal thoroughfare, extending westward from the Navy Yard to the head of Brooklyn Bridge. Once this street, with its saloons and gambling dens, came close to establishing itself as New York's "Barbary Coast," and during the Prohibition era parts of it were patrolled to keep Navy men away. Today Sands Street still caters to sailors and Navy Yard workers. Shop windows display outfits for sailors; bars and lunchrooms, quiet during the day, become alive at night as their customers arrive. The area north of Sands Street toward the river is crowded with industrial plants, warehouses, and factories which charge the air with their mixed aroma of chocolate, spices, and roasting coffee. Scattered among them are ramshackle frame houses--notorious firetraps of squalid appearance. South of the Navy Yard is a residential district of only slightly better character.

For a good tour of the general area along with some history, please visit one of JohnQuincy's favorite sites Forgotten New York:

Forgotten New York: Past Vinegar Hill

Soon after Al's birth, the family moved to a nicer apartment above the Gabriel Capone's barbershop. The house was located at 69 Park and was right around the corner from the Navy Street flat:

View Larger Map

First School: John Jay P.S. 7 @ 141 York in Brooklyn NY near the Navy Yards

It no longer exists:

141 York Street, New York, NY

Here is a brief  portrait of his time at the school from Capone: the life and world of Al Capone By John Kobler


Park Slope

First to 21Garfield Place and shortly thereafter to 38 Garfield Place, Brooklyn, New York, NY in the Park Slope section of the city.

Here is a map showing the route from the Navy Yard apartment to 38 Garfield.

The 21 Garfield Place wood frame house no longer exists. It was up for sale as recently as the summer of 2006. It appears that a developer bought out that section of the neighborhood and has torn down the structures in preparation for a much bigger building. A good picture of the place can be found at this link:  NY Times - For a Mobster’s Home, a Cool $1 Million
The 38 Garfield Place residence still exists. Here is a shot of it:

38 Garfield Place, New York, NewYork

He attended William A. Butler, P.S. 133 at 355 Butler Street, which is still a working school:

355 Butler Street, Brooklyn, NY

Here is a  brief caption from Capone: the man and the era By Laurence Bergreen that summarizes his school days and gives background on his reasons for dropping out at age 14:

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series: The SideWalks of New York

Addendum - A New York - Irish Interlude

Let me close with a video showing the New York musician, Johnny (John Anthony Genzale) Thunders mixing it up with the Irish :

Born in Red House Brooklyn

In the year of who knows when
Opened up his eyes
To accordion

Joey Joey Joey
King of the streets
Joey Joey Joey
Can’t get no relief

Johnny Thunders -Joey Joey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what a douche you are