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New York Mafia

How the Mafia turned New York City into "Fear City" in the 1970s.

Published onApr 29, 2022
New York Mafia


For most of the twentieth century, New York City was a ticking time bomb for a mafia takeover. In the 1970’s it exploded, turning New York City into what many would come to know as “Fear City”. The five mafia families of New York used business like organization skills, supplemented by violence, and intimidation to turn one of America’s greatest cities into a haven for theft, murder, and corruption.

Thanks to hit TV shows like The Sopranos, the mafia is mostly known by people today for their hand in the sanitation industry but their reach of power extended far greater than garbage collecting in 1970’s New York.

Italians came to America to escape fascism, and they came in large numbers. From 1900 to 1914, 3 million Italians immigrated to New York City. They faced heavy discrimination upon arrival, and lived in dirty, overcrowded neighborhoods. At the time of the influx of Italian immigrants, prohibition was at large in America. Because of the negative connotations of being Italian, it was incredibly hard to find sustainable work, so many turned to bootlegging liquor so that they could make ends meet. This is how the New York Mafia got their unofficial start.

On the up and up

The reason the Mafia transformed 1970’s New York into “Fear City” was that once they infiltrated the labor unions and legitimate business in the city, they controlled everything. They would force businesses into paying them for “protection”, then they would bleed the business dry and burn it to the ground (sometimes literally for the insurance money). They were able to control almost all construction companies in the city, all of the trucking in the city, and most popularly, the sanitation industry in the city. This put the entire city at the will of the Mafia. The mafia controlled the everyday aspects of everyone's life. In the 1970’s, going to a restaurant, having a building put up, and something as simple as taking trash out meant that they would be involved in some way with the Mafia.

Hierarchy of violence

They organized themselves in a way that the man who called the shots was so far away from what was happening, authorities were never able to link that person with crimes. The way the Mafia was structured was the boss, underboss, capos, then foot soldiers. Foot soldiers were the men who committed the crimes. The capos, or “captains” were in charge of a type of squad of foot soldiers and they would go to him, then him the underboss. The underboss was the supervisor of the capos, and handled business that wasn’t big enough to take to the boss. The boss was like the king. He was the one who ordered all the hits, robberies, arsons, and violence. But, he would never actually do anything other than collect the money his men collected, then send it back down keeping his cut. The right hand man of the boss is the consigliere. This was essentially the boss's advisor who would offer his ideas without bias. At the bottom of the totem were what’s known as associates. Associates weren’t directly in the mafia because they were not of direct proven Italian descent, but they still worked with, and for the families.

Playing catch up

This worked because in the 1970’s there was nothing that authorities could do to link the crime of a foot soldier to a boss. If a foot soldier committed a murder, they would arrest him, full knowing who ordered the murder, but if he didn’t do it, they can’t arrest him. This foot soldier would quickly get replaced and business like usual would go on, and the Mafia would continue to grow, leaving authorities hopeless, and able to do nothing.

One would think that by arresting a foot soldier, they would be able to get a confession from them on things that would link the boss to their crimes. However, all mafia members had a sworn code of silence. They referred to this as “omertà”. Omertà was a  blood oath that one would swear to that meant they would never help any sort of law enforcement, even if it meant great personal gain for them. The consequence for breaking omertà was death. 


The city government lost complete control of the city, and were at the mercy of the mafia. Nothing could be done to stop them. The New York City mafia controlled who made money, who lived, what buildings were put up in the city, what trucks brought what goods into the city, if the streets were going to fill with trash or not, and most importantly, who was going to die. Welcome to Fear City.

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