By Sabina Mollot
Long before it became the birthplace of punk rock, and later home to a glut of luxury high-rises, the East Village was a stronghold of Italian-American mafia activity. The roughly seven-decade-long era began around 1920, with organized crime activity taking place at local haunts of the day like Luciano’s Palm Casino on East 4th Street as well as the more seemingly innocuous Di Robertis Pasticceria on First Avenue.
The local angle as well as the monopoly on crime in the area during this period – mostly heroin trafficking — was of interest to Thomas F. Comiskey, a Stuyvesant Town native who had a long career as a supervisor and investigator with the New York City Department of Investigations. Following his recent retirement, Comiskey wrote and self-published a nonfiction book on the subject, called The East Village Mafia.
“When I worked for the NYC Department of Investigations, my leisure reading was mob books,” Comiskey explained. “As I read them I noticed that over all the situations and dates and people and places and eras, there was always something inevitably leading to the East Village. It’s been told in a general sense, but I don’t think the importance of the East Village gangs was known.”
The neighborhood is where iconic mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was born Salvatore Luciana, became known as Salvatore of 14th Street as a teenager. He earned his moniker not because he went to school on this street (though he did), but because it was where he conducted his business – heroin sales, burglary and auto theft, mostly. He lived on East 10th Street. Then there was Joseph Biondo, who grew up on East 14th Street and eventually managed the narcotics racket for the Mangano (later Gambino) crime family.
“He is one of the best known, most powerful guys,” said Comiskey of Biondo. “He was in Lucky Luciano’s teenage gang. They were some of the highest level mobsters.”
Biondo, like Luciano, kept his business close to home.
As The East Village Mafia notes, “The East Village became the epicenter for the Mangano narcotics operation because that was where Joseph Biondo ran his crew of drug dealers.”
While doing his research for the book, Comiskey found census records that showed where all the mobsters lived. Looking through old photos revealed that many of them spent considerable time in the East Village and Lower East Side.
The following are just a few examples of organized crime activity:
A powerful boss and bootlegger Ignazio La Barbera lost his title in a rather permanent fashion on October 28, 1928, when he was executed in front of 211 Avenue A between East 13th and 14th Streets. This was just a few blocks north of his home.
In 1931, Tammany Hall famously became the domain of gangsters involved in prohibition liquor, drugs, gambling and prostitution. It is also where Luciano wielded considerable political influence during a time when the democratic machine’s connection to the mafia was common knowledge. This went on until 1937, when there was a government crackdown on racketeers and their elected enablers.
Another mafia den was Di Robertis Pasticceria, where Luciano ran his numbers game, also known as the Italian lottery. In 1935, police raided the place, resulting in the arrest of Mike Sabatelli, who’d been described by the Times as a leading banker of said lottery. Joe “Piney” Armone, who got his moniker from ripping off Christmas tree vendors, also ran his sizeable heroin racket there.
There was also the Shore View Social Club, on 12th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, which became home away from home to Joe Bonnano, one of the original dons. It was his favorite club and he frequently brought his son.
There was even a Stuyvesant Town connection, which is detailed in one of the book’s chapters. In March of 1971, NYPD Detective Joe Coffey began following Genovese family soldier Vincent Rizzo, who lived on Avenue A between 12th and 13th Streets. Coffey observed Rizzo when he met with colleagues, including Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, at The Shore View. Coffey and the Manhattan district attorney’s office eventually wiretapped the phone and bugged the barroom at Jerry’s Lounge, which was located on Rizzo’s block and where Rizzo conducted much of his loan-sharking and counterfeiting business. Detectives would then record the conversations between Rizzo and his crew from a listening post set up in a room in a Stuyvesant Town building. Coffey continued to bug Rizzo’s phones abroad in hotel rooms and eventually learned of a shocking counterfeit stock and bond scheme that involved the Vatican. Because of the Vatican connection, it turned into an international case.
“People got indicted, but of course no one from the Vatican did,” Comiskey said.
It was the 1990s that seemed to mark the official death of the East Village mafia, which had already been on the wane for some time.
“They had a 70-year run,” said Comiskey. “Post-World War II, they had the monopoly on drug trafficking. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had case after case. You have files that are so interesting.”
Asked what the author thought the connected men that once ruled the area might think of the scrubbed and sanitized East Village of today, Comiskey said he doubted they’d like it as they weren’t keen on change.
“The ones that didn’t go to jail or get killed moved out when it changed in the 1960s and 70s,” he said. At that time, Comiskey, who lived in apartment facing East 14th Street and Avenue A, recalled, the area was “an open air drug supermarket” no longer controlled by criminals who could be labeled as organized.
“I could hear the gunshots,” he said. “There were lines down the block to buy crack.”
Comiskey now lives in Scarborough, Westchester, but he grew up in Stuyvesant Town, living there from the 1950s-to the 1990s.
In his investigations career, he often looked into matters involving the Department of Education’s predecessor agency, the Board of Education, from allegations of sex abuse to major contract fraud. One of the cases uncovering blatant fraud within the school board election system made the front page of this newspaper.
He has released his book with Archway, a self-publishing arm of Simon & Schuster. Comiskey said he chose to self-publish, figuring his book, on the shorter side at 125 pages, wouldn’t be long enough for a publisher’s tastes. As for the length of the book, Comiskey said there was only so much he could have fleshed it out, considering that the subjects of this story are either in jail or dead.
Besides, as far as the author is concerned, “It’s going to be my only book. It was a labor of love.”
The East Village Mafia is available on Amazon for $11.99 in paperback form, $3.99 for the e-book.