Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Mob Ties That Bind in Ozone Park

Standing in front of the old site of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park, Queens, you can see a few immediate differences between its appearance now and its appearance when it was home base for the John J. Gotti and his associates in the Gambino crime family.

First, the space, at 98-04 101st Avenue, has been divided into two businesses, a medical supply store and a pet groomer, and it looks a lot more welcoming now than it used to. Second, there was some faded graffiti on the front of the building. That is the kind of thing, people in the neighborhood said this week, that would not have flown when Mr. Gotti, who died in prison in 2002, was still around.

I was in Ozone Park to visit a couple of Mafia landmarks for the Dispatches feature in this week’s City section, and to see what people thought about the arrests last week of dozens of people accused of involvement with organized crime. One thing that’s clear is that Mr. Gotti and his compatriots really did, and do, have a following in the neighborhood. They put on fireworks shows and held barbecues at the club, and anyone was welcome. And, people said, they kept the streets clean and safe, and scared away street criminals.

That last point is one you hear a lot regarding the civic benefits of organized crime, but I couldn’t find any substantiation for it in the city’s crime statistics. There are two police precincts covering Ozone Park, the 102nd and the 106th, and in both, every category of crime that the police track is down substantially since 1990, which was two years before Mr. Gotti went to prison.

The numbers can’t tell the whole story, of course — the city in general was a more dangerous place all those years ago, and maybe things would have been even worse in the neighborhood if Mr. Gotti hadn’t been around keeping an eye on things. But empirically, it seems the most you can say is that some people in the area felt safer. Albert Gelb, the court security officer killed near his home in the neighborhood in 1976, certainly wasn’t safer, and neither was John Favara, Mr. Gotti’s neighbor in nearby Howard Beach, who accidentally ran over Mr. Gotti’s son and disappeared in 1980, maybe to wind up dead and buried in an Ozone Park lot.

Things are not what they used to be, anyway. The neighborhood is less Italian than it was, and its newer residents lack a connection to the Gambinos’ prime years and may not have even heard of Mr. Gotti. And a quick search for addresses of the people named in the 170-page indictment reveals locations all over the tristate region, often in tonier areas than Ozone Park, a modest neighborhood of small, shingled houses.
Black Hound New York
Some people in the neighborhood who remember organized crime figures are not interested in discussing them. One business owner, who had stopped by the pet grooming store in the former Bergin social club storefront while I was there, maintained a stony silence on the topic of Mr. Gotti. But then, he had arrived while I was standing in Mr. Gotti’s old bathroom with a notepad, trying to find the words to describe his odd-looking toilet, so the man’s discretion did make some sense.

Others were almost as circumspect, but revealed a bit more. A waitress at the Esquire Diner, where Albert Gelb once clashed with Charles Carneglia, the man charged in his killing, said she was sad to see the era of Mr. Gotti and his former associates come to an end. The way they socialized, she said, was a lot like the mobsters’ nights out depicted in Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” — being ushered to special tables in expensive nightclubs and spending large sums of money on food and drinks.

It’s tempting sometimes to conflate movie mobsters with their real-life counterparts, and generally that is a temptation worth avoiding. I couldn’t resist, though, taking a peek at the table-side jukebox mounted in my booth at the Esquire. Yes, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is in there — No. 2602.

Thanks to Jake Mooney

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