Thursday, August 17, 2017

An Odyssey to the Edge of City Life...,


vice |  In the second half of the 20th century, New York City saw a boom in organized crime, with New York and New Jersey at the epicenter of mob rule in the US. Meanwhile, the gay scene had exploded. 

The Mafia—which had a stranglehold on nightlife since the end of Prohibition—spotted a gap in the market. There was a whole new audience who wanted to go to a bar or nightclub to experience the then luxury of being among other gay people. In the aftermath of Prohibition, a new underground scene developed, and naturally the Mafia wanted in on the action. What followed was years of pimping, financial exploitation, the NYPD completely ignoring the LGBT community's concerns, and gossipy FBI files speculating about certain mobsters' sexualities. 

Phillip Crawford Jr., author of the book The Mafia and the Gays, argues that the Mafia were much more than proprietors of illegal nightspots; he says that they are in fact an intrinsic part of the LGBT movement, sparking the Stonewall riots and enabling the gay community to thrive. VICE called him up to talk about all that. 

VICE: Hi, Phillip. When did the link between the gay community and the Mafia begin?
Phillip Crawford Jr: The Mafia was behind many speakeasies in the big cities, such as Chicago and New York, during Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, state agencies regulated bars with vague standards against disorderly premises and moral indecency, which were interpreted to prohibit serving gays. Accordingly, the Mafia took its experience with speakeasies and used it to operate gay bars, which involved paying off the police departments and liquor authorities charged with enforcing these discriminatory laws. 

It seems like an unusual fusion...
Well, the Mafia didn't much care about enforcing societal mores or respecting government rules. Ernest Sgroi Sr, one of the principal fronts for gay bars controlled by mob boss Vito Genovese in Greenwich Village, obtained his first liquor license right after the repeal of Prohibition. He was involved with some of the most popular gay bars during the post-war years, including the Bon Soir and the Lion, which started off as nightclubs with live entertainment attracting both straight and gay patrons but ultimately became predominantly gay bars. The Lion was where Barbra Streisand made her first public singing performance in 1960. 

So do you think the Mafia exploited the gay community purely for their own financial ends?
The Mafia controlled most gay bars due to their illegal status, and extracted a monetary premium from the gay community. This recognized both the legal risk the Mob was taking and the near-monopoly status it enjoyed. After all, where else were gay folks going to meet? There were often high cover charges and minimum drink requirements. Moreover, gay men were at risk of blackmail from their Mob overlords. The Mob's exploitation of the gay community was among the reasons for the 1969 protests outside the Stonewall Inn. Indeed, after the Stonewall protests, once of the principal goals of the activist groups such as Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front was to get organized crime out of the gay bars.