THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Rhode Island is Famous for You

Crimetown, and the problem of Providence's mob narrative

by Ella Comberg

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published April 4, 2019


 

My Italian-American father tells one of our family’s best stories. I heard it again recently after I asked him, mostly in jest, if we might have ties to the capital-F Famiglia. His answer, so fabled over the years that I can’t guarantee its accuracy, was as follows:

My father attended a family reunion sometime in the early nineties to the east of JFK Airport near Howard Beach, the Italian-American enclave where his mother grew up. He and his then-girlfriend arrived at the event in their Volkswagen Jetta. Upon entering the lot, he noted a Ferrari in the spot next to his. Over the hours that followed, my uncle would be thrown into a pool, fully clothed and unsmiling. My dad would rehearse small talk with distant relatives, yelling over the reverberations of low-flying planes landing at JFK. Most memorable was his great-aunt Gladys who, looking out upon the cabal of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Italians hanging onto the edges of the pool, would say “They’re beautiful, and they’re all crooks.”

 

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Despite its weakening influence these days, the legacy of the Mafia remains integrated into Italian-American life. This is in no small part due to the mainstream American cultural artifacts—popular films, television shows, and more recently, podcasts—that have dramatized white organized crime with usually impressive artistry: HBO’s The Sopranos has had a renaissance as it celebrates twenty years since it first aired in 1999; Jennifer Egan’s novel Manhattan Beach, which fictionalizes crime bosses in 1940s Brooklyn, was selected to epitomize New York City as the “one-book-one-city” pick in 2018; and Crimetown, a podcast about the mob in Providence, has held its own on the top of iTunes’ charts soon after it was released in 2016. For my grandmother and many older Italian-Americans like her, the criminal strand of their ethnic heritage—and especially the popularity of its fictionalizations—is disturbing. Likewise, when The Sopranos wanted to promote their show in Providence, a city known for its unusually large Mafia presence, former Italian-American mayor Buddy Cianci turned them down. “When I was a kid,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I always felt that [the Mafia] was a stain on Italian Americans.” But with little-to-no evidence of discrimination against Italian-Americans today, the shame Cianci and my grandmother once felt about the Mafia has been resurrected as a younger generation’s excitement at the possibility of familial closeness to the Famiglia: to me, it’s thrilling that I might be related by blood to a popular mythology.

The podcast Crimetown, however, renews the problem of the mob for 2019: this time, it stereotypes not an ethnic subculture, but the city of Providence. Produced by the beloved Brooklyn-based podcast network Gimlet Media, the show traces the recent history of Providence through the Patriarca clan, which headed the New England mob from the Coin-o-Matic, a vending machine storefront in Providence’s Federal Hill, for the better part of the 20th century. Over eighteen episodes, Crimetown’s hosts Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier dart back and forth across Atwells Avenue to interview former mob bosses in their Federal Hill triple-deckers. In post-production, they lace together the audio of these interviews with headlines from yellowing Providence Journal clippings and hyper-dramatic narration. Smerling and Stuart-Pontier, neither of whom is from Providence, told Interview magazine that although they initially thought the podcast would focus on the lives of a few former members of the mob, they then “stepped back and said ‘oh, we’ve got to tell the story of this whole city.’” But what made Crimetown so successful on a national level—its willingness to take on the big story and caricature its players—is also what makes it so grating to listen to when you live in Providence. The podcast set out to tell “the story of this whole city,” and it instead told only the Italian sliver, ballooning the antics of Federal Hill so extensively that the rest of the city’s identity is wedged into a corner, still lorded over by long-dead mob boss Raymond Patriarca in the same way Crimetown says it was when he was alive.

Current Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza seems to agree: in an apt revision of Mayor Cianci’s rejection of The Sopranos, Elorza called Crimetown “terrible for the city” in an interview with WPRI soon after the podcast was released. While the mayor cited real estate developers who are unwilling to build in Providence as long as the city has a Mafia-induced “cloud” hanging over it, the podcast might be bad for more than just the city’s business interests. If Smerling and Stuart-Pontier construe, for a massive national audience, a master narrative about Providence that’s grounded in Mafia lore, is there any room for a new, non-Italian story for the city? Will Federal Hill always stand tallest? Crimetown, which tells the easiest story Providence has to offer, seems to insist that the answer is yes.

 

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The bulk of Crimetown’s episodes guide us through the true recent history of the city and its mob: after decades of corruption in City Hall—usually in relation to Raymond Patriarca, whose underlings would get away with heists and murders by paying off and threatening officials—former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci would run as “the anti-corruption candidate.” The great irony of Providence, according to Crimetown, is that Cianci, who made his career as an anti-mob prosecutor before he was elected in 1974, would become the city’s most famous mayor not for draining the swamp, but for violence and corruption of his own. Notoriously, Cianci burned his ex-wife’s lover with a lit cigarette and bludgeoned him with a fireplace log at the mayor’s Power Street home. After his resignation and a stint as a local radio show host, he was re-elected for another three mayoral terms. Ultimately, it wasn’t the assault that brought Buddy down, it was RICO: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law passed to prosecute mob bosses that was often wielded against white-collar criminals like Cianci.

As former Providence crime reporter Ian MacDougall writes in n+1, public works projects like those implemented under Mayor Cianci some twenty years ago as part of the city’s so-called “Renaissance” (most notably, the uncovering and rerouting of the Providence River) “required the cooperation of the labor unions, and it was an open secret that some of them had deep mob connections, including the Laborers’ Union, widely believed to have been overseen by a shadow leader, Raymond Patriarca.” As Crimetown makes clear, proto-gentrification efforts undertaken by the city (then perceived as a necessary means of saving the struggling city from population decline and its desolate downtown) were deeply intertwined with the mob by way of the building trades. The mob and the mayor were, quite literally, building the city in their image.

Through union deals and other unethical business entanglements, the podcast draws out an unlikely parallel between Mayor Cianci and the men of the mob. Once his adversaries, they later become his counterparts. This narrative reaches its apex when Cianci and ’90s Providence drug kingpin Charles Kennedy become friends while both are incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey in the late 2000s. Before he was jailed, Kennedy lived in an estate in East Greenwich, Rhode Island that he termed Castle Dracula. “He drove a flashy black Mercedes convertible,” reads an NBC10 write-up on Kennedy. “Scantily clad women partied at his secluded…estate. His pets? Wolves, a pack of them.”

When the listener learns of Kennedy’s friendship with Cianci at Fort Dix, it’s both a sign of how the mayor had tumbled and pleasurable in the way, say, a video of a monkey riding on a dog’s back is: it’s an unlikely friendship. Crimetown milks this moment for all it’s worth. “Buddy Cianci,” reads Smerling, “in a prison cell with Rhode Island’s most notorious drug dealer…sitting side by side on a bunk, passing sections of the newspaper back and forth, making jokes that only another Providence political junkie would get.” Evidently, there’s a joyful vindication (at least for Crimetown’s hosts) in this scene. The parallel stories they’ve been telling over the course of the podcast have finally intersected in dramatic fashion: at a prison in New Jersey.

 

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The story of the mobster (criminal, low-life) and the mayor (upstanding, beloved) sharing a jail cell in matching tracksuits provides listeners with an undeniably entertaining image, but the comparison it sets up is ultimately faulty. In practice, the crimes that landed the two men in prison were dramatically different: whereas Kennedy orchestrated the smuggling of cocaine from Colombia to New England, making “10, 15 thousands [dollars] a week” for himself—a practice that funded his Gatsby-esque parties at Castle Dracula, attended by Foxy Lady strippers—Cianci’s graft was a more communal project, integral to the city’s urban development and economic revitalization. The mayor’s violent crimes against his wife’s lover were forgiven or forgotten by the people of Providence, who voted him back into office, religiously listened to his talk show, and bought his “Mayor’s Own” brand tomato sauce. They came out in droves for his funeral in 2016, and they’ve generally remembered him fondly since. His collaboration with the mob—that is, his corruption—is widely known, but like his Providence accent, his toupee, and his refusal to publicly chastise Shepard Fairey (then a student at RISD who vandalized a Cianci billboard), it’s just another item on the laundry list of the things that made the city love him. “He never stopped caring about Providence” read Cianci’s mayoral campaign slogan in 1990, and it’s true. He rerouted the river, paid off the unions, and went to prison so the rest of us could have Waterfire.

The false parallel that Crimetown draws between Kennedy and Cianci is similar to the quieter likeness the show elucidates between the fictional men of Mafia media and the real-life Mafia of Providence. They both work as a narrative techniques and fail as a political exercises. For the podcast to portray Patriarca as a Tony Soprano-type figure, Atwells Ave as a nexus of organized crime, and Providence City Hall as exceptionally corrupt is, by no means, a stretch. But to collapse the story of Providence’s recent history into a story of mafioso criminality—the very thing that makes the podcast good theater—is in fact harmful for the city writ large.

On the most basic level, Crimetown is annoying because it asks us to listen to two men from Brooklyn tell us what Providence is like (they say things like “this story, it really sums up Providence” when recounting how a mob boss’s sister sat on the jury for his trial). On a less petty level, equating Providence to its mob-centric narrative elevates the significance of Italian-American history in the city to the detriment of other ethnic histories. Organized crime may have, in material ways, ‘run this town’ in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—and Crimetown traces this history nicely—but it digs no deeper than to say that they did, and that the city’s dealings were corrupt in the same way the mob was. Despite the podcast’s willingness to deviate from objective reporting (the hosts constantly offer pithy reminders like, “this is Providence, where relationships go as deep as tree roots”), it refuses to probe the harder stories about Providence: that the mob was collaborating with the city’s Italian-American mayor, that the mayor was giving jobs to his family and friends, and that they were doing it in the name of reshaping the city’s built environment was ultimately a way for the city’s large, but by no means majority Italian-American population to maintain a white, old-country clamp on a changing—that is, diversifying—city. It’s not a coincidence that Waterfire, perhaps Cianci’s most lasting mark on the city, is a mock-Venetian festival complete with gondola rides and prosecco.

 

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In Providence, the mob held on as long as they could. But as RICO brought down the remaining living bosses, as the long-standing omertà (or, code of honor) collapsed, as Mayor Elorza beat out Cianci in 2014, and as the Hispanic population in the city more than doubled from 1990 to 2010, the mob began to fall. It went from operating as a fixture of political social life for Federal Hill residents and other Rhode Island-based Italian American communities to inhabiting the imaginary of a program like Crimetown. Today, 14 percent of the city’s population is Italian-American, and 42 percent is Hispanic, according to census estimates.

As the city’s demographics have changed, Mafia reminiscence has remained popular as ever. In his article “Mafia nostalgia...it’s a Rhode Island thing,” ProJo reporter Andy Smith traces the state’s tendency to remember its recent criminal past fondly, citing Crimetown’s role in renewing the city’s interest in this strand of its past. In that article, Tim White of WPRI told the ProJo that “every time he runs an organized crime story...he gets at least one phone call telling him the streets were safer when the mob ran things.” There’s no evidence to support this this claim; it’s imagined, not factual, that the Mafia was in any material way good for the city (although perhaps the families who Raymond Patriarca bought turkeys for on Thanksgiving would disagree). Still, nostalgia persists. “Somehow you can see yourself in it,” Steven O’Donnell, former Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police told the ProJo. “These are guys who grew up in the projects in Providence. It’s unusual and very relatable at the same time.”

Of course, to see yourself in Patriarca or Cianci or Kennedy, men who committed varying degrees of violent crime, is an exercise specific to white, usually Italian Americans. To claim, as so many older Italian-Americans do, that the city was safer when the mob ran things is, in no uncertain terms, a way to demonize other ethnic-based subcultures that commit organized crime—like the Black, Asian, and Latinx gangs of Providence today—while venerating their now-defunct Italian counterparts. In practical terms, today’s groups are almost identical to those of Patriarca’s day: bosses at the top puppeteer underlings below, who do the grizzlier work of committing murders, trafficking drugs, and holding up convenience stores. Still, despite their organizational similarity, in terms of perception in the city and criminalization by the state, the two groups couldn’t be more different.

In 1986, Joseph Bevilacqua, the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, was forced to resign after the ProJo published a photograph of the judge zipping his pants outside of a Smithfield motel that he had rented off the books for extra-marital rendezvous with the help of mobster Robert Barbato. Today’s courts, in contrast, are decidedly not in cahoots with Black gangs. RICO, the legislation that was used to bring down the Mafia, has only become more powerful with time. Prosecutors, using RICO against gangs, can now scour the internet for evidence. Daniel Small, a former federal prosecutor, told the ProJo that “rap videos, photos and social-media posts” can now be used as proof “that defendants were running an enterprise.” In October, six Black members of the Chad Brown gang, based out of the Chad Brown housing projects in Smith Hill, were indicted on racketeering conspiracy charges after the Providence Police Department employed The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, “a sophisticated data collection system to link suspects to patterns of violent crime.”

Gone, it seems, are the days when Tony Soprano—or, Raymond Patriarca—could simply kill any member of his clan who he suspected of wearing a wire to protect himself from prosecution. Indeed, as Crimetown makes clear, the mob was integrated into city government in Providence all the way up until the end of the 20th century and therefore insulated from prosecution until the feds intervened with RICO and Operation Plunder Dome, the investigation that sent Mayor Cianci to jail. In recent years, Rhode Island has cleaned house of organized crime in Providence City Hall and the Statehouse. But this shift not coincidentally parallels the emergence of today’s Black, Latinx, and Asian gangs that the state now seeks to criminalize with a force never wielded against the Patriarca clan.

 

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The mob, which originated in Sicily in the 19th century as a holdover of feudalism as the country transitioned to capitalism, carried into the United States as an informal alternative to the white, Protestant state. Its structure, then and now, is familial. The Patriarca crime family and New York’s Five Families are not related by blood, and neither are Italian-Americans like me to them. Still, all Italian-Americans have somewhat unwittingly been looped into the big family by way of the media that validates our cultural experience through the Mafia. When I watch The Sopranos and listen to Crimetown, I care less about the heists or the murders than I do the operatic soundtracks and what kind of cured meat the characters are eating, which harken back to a familial history I know I have but can’t quite reach. If in the Mafia’s heyday it maintained power by ‘taking care of its own,’ today’s mostly-defunct Mafia still functions as it’s supposed to through Crimetown, which indebts me to the cultural network it creates.

In Providence, where, as Ian MacDougall writes, “Italian-Americans had long been kept from power by the Yankee plutocracy,” the mob was a way to assert ethnic power: Mayor Cianci famously denied building permits to the University Club, a highbrow social club on the East Side, after he was not admitted as a member. “The toe you stepped on yesterday,” he yelled at the club’s management, “may be connected to the ass you have to kiss today.” To line Atwells Avenue with Italian-owned businesses, to fill City Hall with a 36 year-long parade of Italian-American mayors (Cianci, Lombardi, Paolino, Cicilline), and to carve out Waterfire, the city’s defining cultural event as an ode to the old country, was in many ways a magnification of the University Club incident. Italian-Americans claimed Providence as their city—and it stuck. In fact, it stuck so profoundly that Italian-American culture by way of the Mafia is now Providence’s dominant history. It stuck so insistently that today’s ethnic enclaves—which have supplanted Italian-Americans in the city’s economic and cultural margins—are effectively barred from inhabiting Providence’s master narrative when the one propagated by Crimetown stands so tall in contemporary imagination. We all seem to have been strong-armed into the big family of the Mafia, whether we want to be or not.

“It gives me some pause,” said WPRO radio host Dan York of Crimetown in an episode of his nightly talk show. “The weirdness of that series,” he said, is that “all the players  are now guests...doing a variety show. The FBI and the state police guy and the bad guys are all sharing the stage now andchumming about the old days...And you that doesn’t help. Nostalgia over bad behavior doesn’t help going forward.” York’s question of what Crimetown means for Providence’s future is a good one. Perhaps the city—via figures like York and Elorza—can slap Crimetown on the wrist. Perhaps, if we’re being optimistic and use Crimetown as our impetus, we can re-render an image of Providence that reflects the contemporary reality of life in this city. That reality is one where a new immigrant class has, despite serious suppression efforts by the state and the city’s white citizens, materially and spiritually remade the city in their image. But if you only listened to Crimetown, you wouldn’t know it.

ELLA COMBERG B’20 hopes she doesn’t get whacked for writing this piece.