Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Little Italy

At first, they settled into the Mulberry Street district in lower Manhattan, the largest Italian enclave in the world, since the area contained more Italians than even Rome or Genoa. The living conditions, however, were truly horrendous. Sometimes, 30 families would be crammed into one floor of a small tenement building. Fresh air was a luxury and there was little space for anyone. Sanitary procedures were non-existent, disease was everywhere and it spread fast. The streets were a teeming, jumbled mass of horses, carts, panhandlers, vendors, smoking cars, trucks and organ-grinders with their screaming monkeys. Horse manure frequently lay on the pavement for days until it dried into a fine powder, which the wind blew up into the air. People breathed in the dust and became sick. People were always sick. It was rare when at least one person in a family was not ill.

In addition to the wretched living conditions, crime was rampant. Gangs, like the Whyos and the Swamp Angels, controlled vast city blocks and preyed upon their own people. The notorious Brewery, a group of tenements that existed in the Mulberry Street district during the late 19th century, was famous for its diversified collection of prostitutes, drug dealers, con men and killers. It was said the Old Brewery alone averaged an incredible one murder per day for fifteen years. The Italian community had a fearsome reputation for violence, crime and filth. Rarely would anyone, other than the Italian immigrants and a few courageous police officers, dare to venture into the neighborhood.

Santo Zanza, 1911 Courtesy Westchester County District Attorney's Office
Santo Zanza, 1911 Courtesy
Westchester County District
Attorney's Office

After the Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, which connected Manhattan to Brooklyn, many Italians fled the crime-filled Mulberry District. In 1910, Cali, Zanza and Cona moved to the East Flatbush area of Brooklyn where they found a place with other Sicilians from Caltanissetta province. They spoke the same dialect, celebrated the same customs and when they had money, they could buy sopressata, ricotta, olio d'oliva and prosciutto in the small stores which were on every city block. With money, they could eat the old foods and drink wine from the old country. With money, they could buy good shoes, visit Coney Island and get any woman they wanted. With money, it was not a bad life. And the easiest way to get some cash was through Mano Nera, the dreaded Black Hand.

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