By Malcolm Gladwell | The New Yorker | August 2014
In 1964, the anthropologist Francis Ianni was introduced to a man in a congressional waiting room. His name was Philip Alcamo. People called him Uncle Phil, and he was, in the words of the person who made the introduction, “a business leader from New York City and an outstanding Italian-American.” Uncle Phil was in his early sixties, twenty years older than Ianni. He was wealthy and charming and told Runyonesque stories about the many characters he knew from the old neighborhood, in Brooklyn. The two became friends. “He spoke the lobbyist’s language, but with a genial disdain for Washington manners and morals,” Ianni later wrote. “He was always very good in those peculiar Washington conversations in which people try to convince each other how much they really know about what is going on in the government, because he generally did know.”
Ianni was by nature an adventurous man. He had two pet wolves, called Remus and Romulus. He once drove his young family from Addis Ababa to Nairobi in a Volkswagen microbus. (“I cannot tell you how many times we broke down,” his son Juan recalls. “I remember my father fixing the generator by moonlight, and the nuts and bolts falling into the sand.”) Uncle Phil fascinated him. At dinners and social functions, Ianni met the other families in the business syndicate whose interests Uncle Phil represented in Washington—the Tuccis, the Salemis, and, at the heart of the organization, the Lupollos. When Ianni moved to New York to take a position at Columbia University, he asked Uncle Phil if he could write about the Lupollo clan. Phil was “neither surprised nor distressed,” Ianni recounted, but advised him that he should “tell each member of the family what I was about only when it was necessary to ask questions or seek specific pieces of information.” And for the next three years he watched and learned—all of which he memorably described in his 1972 book, “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime.”
The Lupollos were not really called the Lupollos, of course; nor was Uncle Phil really named Philip Alcamo. Ianni changed names and identifying details in his published work. The patriarch of the Lupollo clan he called Giuseppe. Giuseppe was born in the eighteen-seventies in the Corleone district of western Sicily. He came to New York in 1902, with his wife and their two young sons, and settled in Little Italy. He imported olive oil and ran an “Italian bank,” which was used for loan-sharking operations. When a loan could not be repaid, he would take an equity stake in his debtor’s business. He started a gambling operation, and moved into bootlegging; during Prohibition, the business branched out into trucking, garbage collection, food products, and real estate. He recruited close relatives to help him build his businesses—first, his wife’s cousin Cosimo Salemi, then his son, Joe, then his daughter-in-law’s brother, Phil Alcamo, and then the husband of his granddaughter, Pete Tucci. “From all accounts, he was a patriarch, at once kindly and domineering,” Ianni wrote of Giuseppe. “Within the family, all important decisions were reserved for him. . . . Outside of the family, he was feared and respected.” The family moved from Little Italy to a row house in Brooklyn, and from there—one by one—to Queens and Long Island, as its enterprise grew to encompass eleven businesses totalling tens of millions of dollars in assets.
“A Family Business” was the real-life version of “The Godfather,” the movie adaptation of which was released the same year. But Ianni’s portrait was markedly different from the romanticized accounts of Mafia life that have subsequently dominated popular culture. There were no blood oaths in Ianni’s account, or national commissions or dark conspiracies. There was no splashy gunplay. No one downed sambuca shots at Jilly’s, on West Fifty-second Street, with Frank Sinatra. The Lupollos lived modestly. Ianni gives little evidence, in fact, that the four families had any grand criminal ambitions beyond the illicit operations they ran out of storefronts in Brooklyn. Instead, from Giuseppe’s earliest days in Little Italy, the Lupollo clan was engaged in a quiet and determined push toward respectability.
By 1970, Ianni calculated, there were forty-two fourth-generation members of the Lupollo-Salemi-Alcamo-Tucci family—of which only four were involved in the family’s crime businesses. The rest were firmly planted in the American upper middle class. A handful of the younger members of that generation were in private schools or in college. One was married to a judge’s son, another to a dentist. One was completing a master’s degree in psychology; another was a member of the English department at a liberal-arts college. There were several lawyers, a physician, and a stockbroker. Uncle Phil’s son Basil was an accountant, who lived on an estate in the posh Old Westbury section of Long Island’s North Shore. “His daughter rides and shows her own horses,” Ianni wrote, “and his son has some reputation as an up-and-coming young yachtsman.” Uncle Phil, meanwhile, lived in Manhattan, collected art, and frequented the opera. “The Lupollos love to tell of old Giuseppe’s wife Annunziata visiting Phil’s apartment,” Ianni wrote. “Her comment on the lavish collection of paintings was ‘manga nu Santa’ (‘not even one saint’s picture’).”
The moral of the “Godfather” movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. “Just when I thought I was out,” Michael Corleone says, “they pull me back in.” The moral of “A Family Business” was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O’Kane put it, the “crooked ladder” of social mobility.
Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was “conformity”: accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was “ritualism”: accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That’s the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society. There was also “retreatism” and “rebellion”—rejecting both the goal and the means. It was the fourth adaptation, however, that Merton found most interesting: “innovation.” Many Americans—particularly those at the bottom of the heap—believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn’t want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn’t conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.
All three of the great waves of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants to America innovated. Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians’ turn. They were among the poorest and the least skilled of the immigrants of that era. Crime was one of the few options available for advancement. The point of the crooked-ladder argument and “A Family Business” was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.
When Ianni’s book came out, there was widespread speculation among Mafia experts about who the Lupollos really were. One guess was that they were descendants of the crime family originally founded by Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio (Lupo) Saietta in the early nineteen-hundreds. (Lupo plus Morello equals Lupollo.) If that is the case, then the origins of the Lupollos were distinctly unsavory. Morello and Saietta were members of the Black Hand, the name given to bands of Southern Italian immigrants who engaged in crude acts of extortion—threatening merchants with bodily injury if protection money wasn’t paid. Saietta was thought to be responsible for ordering as many as sixty murders; people in Little Italy, it was said, would cross themselves at the mention of his name.
During Prohibition, the Lupollo gang moved into bootlegging. The vehicles that were used in the liquor trade became the basis for a trucking business. Gambling money went to family bankers, who directed the funds to Brooklyn Eagle Realty and other legal investments. “After the money from gambling is ‘cleansed’ by reinvestment in legal activities,” Ianni wrote, “the profit is then reinvested in loan-sharking.”
Ianni didn’t romanticize what he saw. He didn’t pretend that the crooked ladder was the principal means of economic mobility in America, or the most efficient. It was simply a fact of American life. He saw the pattern being repeated in New York City during the nineteen-seventies, as the city’s demographics changed. The Lupollos’ gambling operations in Harlem had been taken over by African-Americans. In Brooklyn, the family had been forced to enter into a franchise arrangement with blacks and Puerto Ricans, limiting themselves to providing capital and arranging for police protection. “Things here in Brooklyn aren’t good for us now,” Uncle Phil told Ianni. “We’re moving out, and they’re moving in. I guess it’s their turn now.” In the early seventies, Ianni recruited eight black and Puerto Rican ex-cons—all of whom had gone to prison for organized-crime activities—to be his field assistants, and they came back with a picture of organized crime in Harlem that looked a lot like what had been going on in Little Italy seventy years earlier, only with drugs, rather than bootleg alcohol, as the currency of innovation. The newcomers, he predicted, would climb the ladder to respectability just as their predecessors had done. “It was toward the end of the Lupollo study that I became convinced that organized crime was a functional part of the American social system and should be viewed as one end of a continuum of business enterprises with legitimate business at the other end,” Ianni wrote. Fast-forward two generations and, with any luck, the grandchildren of the loan sharks and the street thugs would be riding horses in Old Westbury. It had happened before. Wouldn’t it happen again?
This is one of the questions at the heart of the sociologist Alice Goffman’s extraordinary new book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.” The story she tells, however, is very different.
When Goffman was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she began tutoring an African-American high-school student named Aisha, who lived in a low-income neighborhood that she calls 6th Street, not far from campus. (Goffman, like Ianni, altered names and details.) Through Aisha, she met a group of part-time crack dealers and was soon drawn into their world. She asked them if she could follow them around and write about their lives. They agreed. She had taken an apartment close by and lived in the neighborhood for the next six years, profiling the lives of people who, in many ways, were the modern-day equivalents of old Giuseppe Lupollo, in his earliest days on the streets of Little Italy.
At the center of Goffman’s story are two close friends: Mike and Chuck. Mike’s mother worked two and sometimes three jobs, which meant that he was well off by the standards of the neighborhood. His mother’s house was immaculate. Chuck was a senior in high school when he and Goffman met. He had two younger brothers, Reggie and Tim, both of whom were devoted to him. Chuck had a harder time of it; he lived in the basement of his family’s derelict row house, where, Goffman writes, “sometimes the rats bit him, but at least he had his own space.”
Goffman immersed herself in the 6th Street community. Her school friends dropped away. Chuck and Mike—and occasionally another friend of theirs, Steven—eventually moved in with her, sleeping on two couches in the living room. She lived through a war between her friends on 6th Street and the “4th Street Boys.” One day, Mike came home with seven bullet holes in the side of his car. (“We hid it in a shed so the cops wouldn’t see,” she writes.) Goffman, Mike, and Chuck would text one another every half hour, to make sure each was still alive:
Chuck did not survive the gang war. At the end of the book, Goffman attaches a fifty-page “Methodological Note,” in which she describes the night that he was shot in the head outside a Chinese restaurant. The passages are devastating. She came running to the hospital room where his body lay. “I cried to him and told him that I loved him,” she writes. Then Chuck’s girlfriend, Tanesha, and his friend Alex arrived. “Tanesha was talking to him and telling Alex and me what she saw: how he moved his arm because he was fighting, he always was a fighter; how she had followed the ambulance here. How could he leave her and leave his girls? She noticed that his body was beginning to grow stiff.” Tanesha began to cry softly. “You are my baby,” she said. “Why did you leave me?” Finally, gathered around Chuck’s bed, Goffman writes,
we talked about bringing Reggie home from county jail on a funeral furlough. I said that if Reggie came home, all he was gonna do was go shoot someone, and Alex said, “Please—somebody gon’ die regardless,” and Mike nodded his head in agreement, and Tanesha too. Alex counted one, two, three, four with his fingers. The number of people who would die.
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