Friday, October 06, 2006

Taste of Mob Life at Little Italy in New York

Friends of ours: Soprano Crime Family, Corleone Crime Family, Tony Soprano, Vito Corleone, Al Capone, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, "Crazy Joe" Gallo, Mickey Cohen, John "Dapper Don" Gotti, John "Junior Gotti

Once home to New York's huge immigrant Italian population and a hot-bed of mafia activity, Little Italy still draws crowds fascinated by mob life.

Now a popular tourist destination, there is little in Little Italy to back its violent history and visitors are unlikely to encounter anything more unusual than the smell of fresh garlic wafting from family-owned restaurants. But a recent exhibition, "Made In America, the Mob's Greatest Hits," gave fans of fictional mobsters Tony Soprano and Vito Corleone a taste of what the community used to be like with curator Artie Nash in talks to take the show elsewhere.

The exhibition housed in a small museum in Little Italy, featured a collection of original photographs and arrest warrants of some of the most notorious Mafiosos, including Al Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Luciano was the Italian-U.S. mobster behind the explosion in the international heroin trade on whom the character of Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" was loosely based.

Nash, curator of the exhibition, spent the best part of 15 years putting the collection together piece by piece, from both police department sources and from the estates of some of the most famous figures in organized crime. "I am mainly fascinated by the relationship that the American public have had with organized crime. It really has, over the last 75 years, permeated our popular culture to such a great degree," Nash told Reuters.

The mob enjoyed its hey-day during the backbreaking years of the Great Depression and Prohibition in the 1920's and 30's, when gangs all over the country carved out an existence in bootlegging, drug-dealing, blackmail and racketeering.

New York and Chicago were home to some of the most active branches of the mob and violent rivalries between different Mafia "families" often resulted in bloodshed.

Hollywood and the media have contributed in large part to glamorizing the life of the mobster, often depicted as fiercely loyal foot soldiers who struggled to protect their families.

The exhibit has attracted a wide variety of visitors, including students, high-ranking police officers, and even some current crime figures, Nash said.

Actor Leonardo Di Caprio even took a tour of the collection to check out the real "Gangs of New York," the 2002 Martin Scorsese film in which he played a gangster in the blood-soaked turf wars set in the 19th century in the notorious "Five Points" slum in what is now downtown Manhattan.

Popular items include a fedora worn by "Crazy Joe" Gallo, a ruthless Brooklyn-born killer, the day he was shot on Mulberry Street and a collection of silk pajamas from the lavish wardrobe of diminutive dapper Los Angeles don, Mickey Cohen.

The collection also features a series of gruesome photos of the victims of "Murder Inc," a crime organization that carried out hundreds of hits on behalf of the Mafia in the 1920's.

Public interest in the Mafia has been revived in recent years by hit TV drama "The Sopranos" and real-life events such as the trial of accused mob boss John Gotti, son of the late John J. Gotti, former head of New York's Gambino family.

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