Brooklyn Gang Fatigue: Would You Like Crack With That?

03/16/2011 5:00 AM |

Late this January some 800 federal agents arrested 127 suspected members of the Italian Mafia in one of the largest-ever operations targeting the organization.

Attorney General Eric Holder made a trip to Brooklyn to announce the arrests, and the FBI moved processing from its lower Manhattan headquarters to a gym in Fort Hamilton to accommodate the overflow of defendants.

It was perhaps an appropriate shift in venue given the extent to which the Italian mob has dominated the borough’s underworld over the years—infiltrating unions, shaking down dockworkers, running gambling rackets, selling drugs—but while indictments from the investigation suggest the Mafia is still plenty active in the area, it’s also clear that compared to its mid-century glory days, the current incarnation of La Cosa Nostra is looking a lot less like Michael and a lot more like Fredo.

“The Mafia just doesn’t have a stronghold on crime and the streets like they used to,” says Lou Savelli, former commander of the NYPD Detective Bureau’s Gang Division Major Case Squad. “It’s really been diminished. There have been some very significant investigations [against them] by the FBI and the NYPD and the Department of Justice.”

Italian crime families continue to control stretches of the city’s waterfront and still operate from traditional strongholds like Bensonhurst and Ozone Park, but generally speaking, their power has been on the downslide now for close to half a century. Following on a 2008 bust that rolled up 61 members of the Gambino family, this year’s sweep is just the latest lurching step in the long, slow decline of the mob.

Which raises the question: Who, exactly, is running Brooklyn today?

The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on where you’re asking. In spots like Coney Island and Brighton Beach, for instance, the Russian and Ukrainian mobsters who pushed out the Italians several decades ago continue to dominate. In northern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and Brownsville, on the other hand, Bloods typically control the turf. Crips predominate in South Brooklyn areas like East Flatbush and Marine Park, while the Latin Kings primarily operate in parts of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Park Slope. Of late, the most significant change to Brooklyn’s criminal landscape has come from “the proliferation of Mexican gangs,” Savelli says, noting that as immigration from Mexico to New York has increased in recent decades, Mexican gangs like “18th Street” have emerged in areas like Sunset Park between 30th and 50th streets as well as parts of Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

More established, but growing at a similarly rapid clip, is the Dominican gang Trinitarios, which formed in Sing-Sing in the late 80s and counts Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Houses as one of its main power bases. From there the gang has spread to other New York neighborhoods like Washington Heights, as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware.

“They’re not new,” says Savelli, “but they’ve become very powerful on the streets. They’re pretty big on the radar right now.”

Being a big deal in Brooklyn, though, isn’t what it used to be. In fact, notes Ric Curtis, professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when it comes to gang activity, the borough—and New York City in general—is actually something of a backwater. It’s surprising given its carefully cultivated image as a rough-and-tumble town, but, Curtis says, the city “just doesn’t have much of a [street] gang problem.”

While places like Los Angeles and Chicago have struggled for years with well-organized, multi-generational groups of Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings, street gangs in New York and Brooklyn have typically been loosely-run, rag-tag affairs. Local outfits may call themselves Bloods or Crips, but they generally have little to no contact with those gangs’ national organizations, Curtis notes.