Friday, May 8, 2009

Crazy Joe's Red Hook

The Mad Ones is a new book about Brooklyn's Beatnik gangster, Crazy Joe Gallo and his boys. The book's author, Tom Folsom, is giving a walking tour tomorrow of Gallo's old Red Hook stomping grounds. The tour is sponsored by Freebird Books and you can find the info here. I interviewed the author over e-mail and here's what he had to say.

Who was Crazy Joe Gallo and, of all the mobsters out there to write about, what makes him such an interesting character to you?

People know the name Crazy Joe Gallo, but not many know his full story and the extent to which his revolt was central to the dramatizations of The Godfather. Dylan fans know him from the outlaw ballad “Joey.” Tourists know him as the guy who got whacked outside of Umberto’s Clam House. The more I researched Joey—how he went to the mattresses with his brothers in an ill-fated revolt against the Mafia, how he made the rounds of high society with Jerry Orbach—I realized his wild tale fit right into the manic idealism of the 1960s. In the turbulent decade, as America was undergoing a revolution, Crazy Joe waged a revolution against the Mafia.

Voraciously consuming books and films, Joey yearned to be more than a common hood. He immersed himself in the counterculture and read Camus and Sartre, heroes of the beatnik coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, and twisted the spirit of the times to meet his own criminal ends. He saw himself among history’s great revolutionaries. He craved fame and made regular headlines in the tabloids. The Gallo brothers even let Life photographers do a photo spread on them.

Tell us about the Red Hook tour--what stops will you make, what can people expect?

We’ll see the sights of the infamous Gallo gang wars of the 1960s and 70s, the sites where the Gallo brothers went to the mattresses. Joey Gallo, if you go by Bob Dylan’s “King of the Streets” line, reigned on the Columbia Street waterfront with flash and crazy bravado. For better or worse, the Gallo brothers were part of the neighborhood’s fabric for thirty years, even as it was carved up by the BQE, experienced suburban flight and urban blight, and saw the decline of stevedoring. We’ll see the old docks, the shop-lined streets where Mondo the Midget, official Gallo “mascot” walked Joey’s pet lion, one of the stories that inspired featured in Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Straight. We’ll also visit the funeral home where Joey lay in state.

Do you think guys like Gallo could ever make a comeback in Brooklyn today?

With the economy heading south, the gritty streets may be making a comeback. That was where Joey thrived—although I’m not sure what he would make of the hipsters, strollers and IKEA store that have invaded his turf in Red Hook. Today, with American Apparel and Dolce & Gabbana a few blocks away from where Joey got gunned down, tourists in Little Italy still ask to see the bullet holes at Umberto’s (since moved down the block). Maybe they’re nostalgic for Joey’s gritty world.

In The Mad Ones, I tried to bring back a larger than life New York City, a dangerous place full of possibility, where you could get whacked in a barbershop chair while getting a hot shave. Nights were alive with showgirls, smoky supper clubs and Village jazz joints. The Mad Ones couldn’t have happened anywhere but the mad, mean streets of New York. As for a comeback for a guy like Joey, I don’t think so. I don’t think he could get away with now what he got away with then.


Melanie said...

I grew up near Union Street and one day people were saying "a lion is loose in Brooklyn" another said "oh-it's Joey Gallo's"...

EV Grieve said...

Would love to know what Joey thinks of Freemans Sporting Club!

Really enjoyed this Q-and-A....