Providence, You’re Looking Good

At first glance, Luigi Manocchio looks like any retiree. Louie to family, the 85-year-old wears his gray hair slicked back from his balding pate and favors understated herringbone sport coats. As a younger man, after World War II, he did a brief stint in the Army. For vacations, he tends toward places like Italy and Florida. Until recently, he lived in an apartment, described by some as “small,” on the upper floor of a white clapboard house on the edge of Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy. On its ground level is a laundromat called Addie’s. He’s known to be a regular next door, at Euro Bistro, the kind of small Italian restaurant one finds all over Federal Hill.

Look a little closer, and he starts to stand out from the blue-plate-special crowd. Before his retirement, Manocchio claimed a variety of disparate professions on passport applications—real estate agent, restaurant manager, jewelry worker—but there’s not much evidence he ever actually had a job to retire from. His brother Anthony, with whom he is close, has said he “was a salesman at one point,” adding, for good measure, “but I don’t really know.” A federal investigation into his finances turned up only one asset in his name: a prepaid funeral plan. And then there’s his criminal record. In 1969, Manocchio was indicted on charges that he masterminded a brazen daytime hit that left two men dead. He fled the charges and spent the next decade on the lam. By some accounts—though evidence is thin—he dressed as a woman at one point to elude law enforcement. Manocchio returned to Providence only after Alzheimer’s had so ravaged the memory of a key witness against him that, after a protracted court battle, he wound up serving only two-and-a-half years in prison. As for Euro Bistro, its appeal may not be its early-bird buffet. Manocchio’s niece owns the restaurant, and according to court filings it’s a place of business for the octogenarian who until 2009 was, federal prosecutors say, the head of the leading family in the New England mob, the Patriarca clan.

Manocchio was arrested in early 2011, shortly before I moved to Providence to cover cops and courts for a news agency. He was eventually charged with extortion and racketeering. Here, in Providence, he’s known as “Baby Shacks”—one of several underworld aliases prosecutors and mob investigators tack onto his name atop indictments. Conventional wisdom has it that the alias refers to his baby-faced good looks and his propensity for “shacking up” with women. That reputation isn’t entirely surprising. In photos from his younger days, Baby Shacks’s dark eyes radiate a movie-star brightness, his coy smile conveying charm across the years. His unflappable style—call it mob-boss cool—can’t have hurt his popularity with the fairer sex. But figuring out mob nicknames is an imprecise science, and some people think that actually his nickname is the more sinister “Baby Shanks,” as in someone who shanks people. In 1996, a state police detective named Brendan Doherty, who had just arrested Manocchio, asked him to clarify the confusion. In handcuffs, Manocchio looked at the detective matter-of-factly and said, “Brendan, what does it really matter?”

As I watched Manocchio’s case start to work its way through federal court in Providence, his prosecution seemed to me representative of the city’s recent transformation. For more than a decade now, Providence has made regular appearances on a smattering of “best city” lists. In its November 2010 issue, GQ called it one of “the coolest small cities in America.” That same year, Providence was ranked the second-best American city for theater and performance art, after New York, and third-best for “neighborhood joints and cafes” in a Travel + Leisure  survey. In 2010, the magazine named it the tenth-best city in America for singles, making particular mention of Federal Hill. (Baby Shacks might have agreed.) In order to transform itself into an up-and-coming arts mecca and a good place to meet singles, Providence first had to shed its old reputation—of being a corrupt and dying city and a good place to meet mobsters. Small cities, which tend to dress up political and social insularity as local solidarity, are slow to change. That makes the extent of change in Providence all the more remarkable.

In 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano met a tribe of coastal Algonquin Indians—the Narragansett—near the hilly shoreline on which Providence would be built. “These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage,” he wrote of the encounter. “Their manner is sweet and gentle, very like the manner of the ancients.” By the time of Providence’s founding, in 1636, European disease had decimated the Narragansett, and the East Coast increasingly was populated by refugees not from declining Italy but from increasingly powerful Great Britain. The city’s founder was Roger Williams, whose religious beliefs had gotten him kicked out of Puritan Massachusetts. This early emphasis on religious freedom attracted all manner of individualists—including, in time, sea pirates, who found the long, narrow Narragansett Bay an ideal place to hide from the law. Privateers and smugglers came to call the city home. Industrialization replaced them with a different kind of crook: robber barons, who tended to be blue-blooded Protestants, made millions running textile mills and factories on the backs of underpaid Catholic immigrants, mostly from Italy and Ireland. In 1905, muckraker Lincoln Steffens visited Rhode Island for McClures Magazine and found it “a state for sale.” Steffens conceded that a state run by a corrupt “oligarchy” was hardly unusual. But Rhode Island was unique for the poll taxes that remained in place long after most Northeastern states had lifted them. “There is one peculiarity about the Rhode Island oligarchy,” Steffens wrote. “It is constitutional.” Eventually, those kept off the voting rolls—chiefly Italian Catholic immigrants—began to find other ways to improve their lives.

The Mafia in the US grew out of a confluence of four strands that came together in the early 20th century: first, mass immigration from Italy to large and mid-sized American cities; second, discrimination against immigrants by the native Anglo-Saxons; third, the Prohibition against alcohol passed by Congress in 1919, which put an enormous industry into the realm of illegitimacy. The fourth, more controversial strand, historically speaking, was the tradition of the Sicilian Mafia, which had first formed—as Eric Hobsbawm writes in his book on the subject, Primitive Rebels—in the anarchic cauldron of Italian unification, when local networks of authority began to fail but federal power had not yet reached the island. (A process, some would say, that is still ongoing.) As per Hobsbawm, too, the early American Mafia saw itself at least partly as a form of social rebellion. Especially in a place like Providence, where Italian-Americans had long been kept from power by the Yankee plutocracy, this description of the mob has particular validity.

Of course none of this predestined the increasingly powerful Italian street gangs of the 1920s to become a giant nationwide organization, with a strict set of rules and procedures. That achievement was largely the work of one man, New York’s Charles “Lucky” Luciano (who is, incidentally, a character on Boardwalk Empire, portrayed as a younger man by Vincent Piazza). In 1931, Al Capone, then among the nation’s richest and most powerful gangsters, hosted a nationwide mob meeting in Chicago, a lavish affair that by some accounts included a closing dinner of Roman proportions, orgy and all. There, Luciano proposed what he called the Commission. The Commission was, as Selwyn Raab puts it in his seminal mob history, Five Families, at once analogous to a Mafia “national board of directors” and “an underworld Supreme Court.” The Commission consisted of representatives from New York’s Five Families, as well as the families in Chicago and Buffalo and, later, New England. They laid out general policies for mob families across the country. They decided, for instance, whether families could be involved in selling drugs and who could be involved in which drugs where. They also adjudicated disputes between families, both territorial and personal. Luciano was a true Mafia innovator. At the same time as he set up the Commission, he also introduced the code of silence, the omertà, a concept borrowed from the nineteenth-century Sicilian Mafia, and the hierarchy that persists today—a boss, an underboss, and a consigliere to serve as an internal counselor and a diplomat in dealings with other families. One of the key aspects of the omertà was that the very existence of the Committee had to be denied. From a law enforcement perspective, it was one thing if some Italian-Americans stole a truck full of goods or illegally imported liquor, in which case you locked those guys up for a while, and quite another thing if those guys were part of a national criminal syndicate, in which case you needed to look further up. It was therefore vital for the Mafia to continue to insist that the Mafia did not, in fact, exist.

In the beginning, the Mafia was mostly involved in illegal businesses: bookmaking, numbers games, fencing stolen goods, protection rackets, loan sharking. Later on, as the labor unions that were formed in some of the same historical currents as the Mafia—immigration, urbanization, and industrialization—became bigger and more powerful, the mob infiltrated those as well. They also moved into truck hijackings, liquor during Prohibition, and then the drug trade. They operated in businesses that were explicitly illegal and on the edges of businesses that were legitimate. Of course even the apparently legitimate tended toward the illegitimate. In Providence over the years, Mafia-run businesses bribed city property tax assessors to bump them down a few brackets. Contractors bribed city inspectors to overlook the fact that they smashed up the sidewalks the city would then pay them to fix. Mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca’s legitimate vending machine company—Coin-O-Matic—laundered dirty cash on the side. The mob’s goal was to get its hands into as many revenue streams as possible, then divert a small part of those streams for themselves. They functioned through violence, coercion, and guilt-tripping. Patriarca’s son, also Raymond, summed up the method in a Mafia induction ceremony he presided over in 1989, which was caught on a federal wiretap: “If I’m in the garbage business and you own a dump, before you go to ah, BFI, and go do business with them, if you know anybody at this table can aid you in a business, legitimate or illegitimate, your obligation is to come to us first.” If you knew the Patriarca family and certainly if you were an associate of the Patriarca family, it was incumbent upon you to see if maybe the Patriarca family couldn’t “aid” you in the business—by negotiating a better deal with your customers, for example, or by helping you cut some corners, or—you name it. They were there to help.

Providence was fertile ground for the Mafia because of its large Italian-American population, its thriving port, and its location. It was close enough to Boston and the rest of New England without being Boston, where the sizeable Irish community produced a powerful Irish gang presence. An underboss—a Mafia family’s second in command—was retained in Boston to preserve that faction’s loyalty.

This hierarchical principle emerged under the elder Patriarca, the first truly powerful boss of the New England Mafia and whose name it now bears. Patriarca grew up on Federal Hill and rose quickly through the ranks of an ill-defined New England mob, which he took over in 1954. As cover for his criminal enterprise, Patriarca bought the Coin-O-Matic vending machine company on Federal Hill. (The family got its alias, “the Office,” because Patriarca ran his rackets out of the back office.) Patriarca had a reputation for being a fair but ruthless leader. He was politically savvy, forging close ties with New York’s Five Families, whose disputes he was known to arbitrate, and buying Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials of all kinds.

Although Patriarca’s reach grew long, he never took his eye off Providence. As retail stores and theaters followed the demographic shift to the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, Patriarca sought to expand Mafia entertainment operations, horse racing and gambling. Exercising his local influence, he got the governor to approve nighttime horse racing, over widespread public opposition. When the head of the state police cracked down on illegal gambling, Patriarca had the governor replace him. At the same time, Providence’s industrial base—its textile mills and machine tool factories—also fled to the suburbs, where land was cheap and newly accessible by the interstate highway system. Patriarca sought a piece of what commerce remained, seeking control, for example, of a car rental company and a fish delivery firm. As the city responded with redevelopment efforts, Patriarca mobilized government and union connections to keep business swift among Mafia associates in the construction industry. Mob manipulation surely did little to get Providence back on its feet.

Still, Patriarca and his heirs are remembered fondly by some citizens, who view him as a patron of the Italian-American community. One afternoon, standing outside the courthouse after a bail hearing for Manocchio, an older man in a Borsalino hat approached me, having wandered over from a park across the street. He asked who was in court. I told him.

“It wasn’t so bad when they were in charge. Things got done,” he told me. Meaning what? “Ah,” he muttered, “the economy’s gone to shit.” True enough, but what did that have to do with the mob? “Where are you from?” he asked me. I told him Virginia. He waved a hand in the air, dismissively, and headed back toward the park.

Interstate 95—I-95—blasted an elevated concrete path through Providence in the late 1950s, dividing the city’s wealthy East Side and its struggling West Side. College Hill, home of Brown University, clapboard New England houses, and narrow, leafy streets, was on the East Side. Federal Hill, the Italian neighborhood, with its one- and two-story houses and storefronts filled, at the time, with pool halls and liquor stores, was on the West Side.

“The Mayor of Providence,” as Patriarca was sometimes called, ruled from the West. An FBI wiretap of his office in the 1960s revealed that he had politicians, judges, police, and union officials in his pocket. In 1985, the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, who had officiated at the wedding of Patriarca’s chauffeur, would resign over allegations of deep mob ties. Patriarca’s reach was remarkable. He owned a horse track in which Frank Sinatra had an ownership stake and was a silent partner in the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. The Mafia was a legitimate national force. One allegation, never corroborated, held that the CIA had approached Patriarca and other dons in 1960, offering them several million dollars to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro.

By the 1960s, though, there was trouble on the horizon. In 1957, state police raided a meeting of high-level Mafiosi, including Patriarca family members, in the upstate New York hamlet of Apalachin, sending dapper criminal masterminds skittering across soggy meadows like high schoolers from a busted keg party. The raid forced national law-enforcement skeptics—longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover foremost among them—to acknowledge the Mafia’s existence. A series of Congressional hearings, some nationally televised, and further investigation left little doubt that the Mafia existed as a nationwide crime syndicate. The trouble was that the structure Luciano set up insulated the upper tiers of mob families from prosecutable wrongdoing. The money might ultimately flow to them, but by the time it wended its way there, often through serpentine laundering operations, it was hard to prove that it was money stemming from criminal activity. The orders went out from lower-level capos. They left no paper trail to follow. Famously, the feds could only get Al Capone on tax evasion. His successors proved just as difficult to indict.

In the wake of these revelations, Senator John L. McClellan, a Democrat from Arkansas, began drafting legislation to fill the legal lacunae that allowed mob bosses to operate with de facto immunity. McClellan had spent the 1950s on subcommittees investigating what at the time was called subversive political activity—though objecting mightily to McCarthyism—and illegal activity within labor unions. He had found that the labor unions—not to mention other business enterprises—were shot through with Mafia influence. With the Soviets sharpening their tractors across the ocean, the integrity and superiority of the American workforce became a matter of domestic and international political legitimacy.

Although the legislative process took time, McClellan’s successes were twofold. First, in 1968, Congress passed legislation drafted by McClellan that created a process for obtaining legally admissible wiretaps, letting the FBI dig beneath the stonewall even low-level Mafiosi erected when asked to breach omertà. Hoover’s FBI had been using wiretaps for years, but despite the mob-boss wrongdoing they revealed—including that of Patriarca—a patchwork of federal laws and US Supreme Court decisions left the evidence derived from wiretaps largely inadmissible in court. Then, in 1970, Congress passed McClellan’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. RICO effectively made mere association with a criminal enterprise, like the Mafia, a federal crime, with each member potentially liable for the crimes of every other member. The mob hierarchy had insulated itself from criminal liability by delegating oversight of its dirty work to capos. Dubbed “the godfather law,” RICO exposed that hierarchy to a range of criminal charges—and lengthy sentences—unimaginable before the passage of RICO. Prosecutors would take time to grasp the profundity of the complex RICO statutes, but the message of their passage was clear: Dismantle the mob from the top.

Patriarca faced RICO only in the last years of his life—he was charged with labor racketeering—but he died, of a heart attack in 1984, without standing trial. Still, he was no stranger to courtrooms. Much of the early mob prosecution occurred in state court, and that’s where Patriarca found himself in the early 1970s, facing an accessory-to-murder charge. The Rhode Island assistant attorney general running the case was a young lawyer named Vincent Cianci, Jr., who preferred to go by Buddy. An ebullient man with a round face and a receding hairline, Cianci failed to secure a conviction, but his work, which included discrediting Patriarca’s alibi—courtesy of a friendly Catholic priest—won him esteem all the same. It wasn’t every day a prosecutor went after “the Mayor of Providence.”

Less than two years later, that prosecutor would be elected the actual mayor of Providence. Running on an anti-mob, anti-corruption platform—and capitalizing on a rusting, mob-friendly Democratic machine stalled by infighting—Cianci entered City Hall in 1975 as the first Republican elected to the office since 1938, and the city’s first-ever Italian-American mayor. He inherited a postindustrial city in deep decline. Railway lines ran like a fracture through downtown; mills and factories stood empty, cracked monuments to the pre-WWII boom years, when Providence churned out everything from cotton textiles and costume jewelry to steam engines and rubber catheters. The city was hemorrhaging people. Even God was deserting Providence. “The American Bible Society, one of the last successful businesses we had, had packed its Bibles and moved out of town,” Cianci writes in his recent memoir. Over the next twenty-five years, Cianci would oversee what came to be called the Providence Renaissance. He moved the railroad tracks, which had hampered development downtown, and set up a commission to help private developers put the newly liberated heart of Providence to use. Like a municipal god, he relocated the rivers that run through Providence, removed the cement that had covered them for decades, and laid down idyllic promenades along their banks. He shepherded the construction of a convention center and a shopping mall, refurbished the city zoo—from which animals were literally escaping the night of his election—and put in place tax policies and subsidies that encouraged Rhode Island School of Design graduates, and artists generally, to create arts spaces out of the city’s many unoccupied lofts. Cianci became expert at getting the city’s hands on federal funding, which he deployed to convert old industrial zones into commercial districts replete with fancy restaurants and boutiques. He launched initiatives to fix sidewalks and roads.

Cianci took a break from office after he pleaded no-contest, in 1984, to torturing a man he believed was sleeping with his ex-wife, burning the man with a lit cigarette, hurling an ashtray at him, and threatening to murder him. He didn’t have to go to jail, though, and his popularity was undiminished, so Cianci regained office in 1990, keeping the Renaissance humming along. Still, allegations of corruption plagued his first administration—some of his associates were convicted of selling no-show city jobs—and although he escaped direct scrutiny the first time around, he wouldn’t the second. In 2001, federal prosecutors indicted Cianci on RICO charges. The indictment laid out more than two-dozen counts, alleging the mayor took kickbacks for awarding city contracts, sought to sell city jobs, and extorted bribes from tow-truck operators. A media circus surrounded his trial, at the end of which he was acquitted of all but one RICO charge—conspiring, in the words of federal prosecutors, to run City Hall like an organized crime enterprise. (And the mob wasn’t too far off. One of Cianci’s co-defendants was a reputed associate of the Patriarca family.) Released in 2007, after serving a five-year prison term in Fort Dix, which Cianci called “a federally funded gated community,” the fallen mayor’s former constituency has reinstalled him, crowning him a different kind of urban prince—one of the city’s top-rated talk radio hosts.

Nobody has ever proved that Cianci had direct ties to the Mafia, and given the record, I think it’s unlikely that he reached out to them directly, unlike some of his predecessors. However, Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton notes in his biography of Cianci, The Prince of Providence, several incidents of mob involvement in the activities of city officials and Cianci associates during his time in office. One alleged mobster, William “Billy Black” DelSanto, was a city sidewalk inspector. Another, Frank “Bobo” Marrapese, was awarded city snowplowing and paving contracts, despite Cianci’s prosecution of him in the 1970s. (The trial included colorful testimony from Marrapese’s girlfriend: after she fed him Italian wedding soup infused with her own urine in retaliation for him hitting her, Bobo broke her arm.) Such contracts apparently stemmed from the appointment, in 1980 (five years after Cianci became Mayor), of Del Santo’s brother and Edward “Buckles” Melise—both known to law enforcement as mob associates—to top positions at the city Department of Public Works. All those beautiful projects—the WaterPlace Park lagoon and WaterFire, where dozens of large cressets set in the river are lit on Saturday evenings throughout the summer and fall—got their start with the help, or the hindrance, of the old Providence mob.

Cianci calls the Mafia links to his administration the product of the “inbred corruption that went on in every major city in America, and there was very little the mayor could do to stop it.” That may be true. And Cianci’s antipathy toward the mob seems genuine. When asked as mayor to help promote The Sopranos in Providence, Cianci declined. “When I was a kid, I always felt that [the Mafia] was a stain on Italian Americans,” he writes. “I got sick and tired of seeing the Italian stereotypes.”

And yet it’s hard to believe that a former mob prosecutor was unaware of the mob ties of his top public works officials. It’s particularly hard to believe given the importance of public works to his administration. The first step in cleaning up Providence was fixing its sidewalks and roads, which Cianci did in 1982 through a million-dollar campaign called “Providence, you’re looking good.” Again, Melise and Marrapese were involved. Did they inspect the sidewalks and pave and plow the streets better than anyone else could have? Maybe; maybe not. Probably not. But their participation may have been the price extracted for another kind of help. A large public works project like this 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.

On its face, then, Cianci’s appears to be a municipal Jekyll-and-Hyde story. With one self—plump, smiling, hair piece set just so—Cianci pumped hands and secured funding for many of the initiatives that remade Providence during his reign, converting a depressed, postindustrial dump into an arts and culture hub. Meanwhile, his other self—corpulent, snarling, face bathed in the sinister red glow of some neon sign downtown—spent evenings rubbing his hands together, plotting to turn City Hall into the nexus of a citywide network of rackets. But the truth seems to be that Buddy did what he had to do. By the time Cianci was elected, the way prosecutors would later accuse him of getting things done was, simply, how things got done. The only way to change that was to clean up the city, and to clean up the city, one had to play the game. Cianci turned the game into a double game, reforming with one hand while racketeering with the other. But as a city grows nicer, it also grows less tolerant of its old corrupt ways, and Cianci had to go.

While Cianci was cleaning up Providence—or sullying it, or both—gradually, patiently, Luigi “Baby Shacks” Manocchio was working his way through the ranks of the Patriarca family, rising to the top in the middle of the 1990s. It was a long, slow climb from relative obscurity, and just as he reached the top, the bottom fell out. The FBI and federal prosecutors had, in the mid-1980s, figured out how to use RICO, with its lengthy sentences and broad reach, to bring down Mafia families, and they were going about it with aplomb. By the 1990s, omertà had collapsed. In New York, underbosses had become cooperating witnesses. The bosses of the Five Families were in prison or on their way there. But Manocchio was undeterred. In 1992, he set about shaking down the Cadillac Lounge, a strip club in Providence where visitors can find, the club’s website boasts, “real girls in real situations with the flavour of vision and fantasy.” Under threat of retaliation, Manocchio had the owner of the club hire a mob associate, Thomas Iafrate, as bookkeeper. His real job was to set aside $125 per day. The money came from what the girls brought in, girls with stage-names like Austyn and Haze and Gemini, who when not slipping out of bikinis on stage, sometimes pose for the club’s wall of fame, draped topless over vintage Packards and Merkel motorcycles. The racket, according to court filings, came to include an adult bookstore and another strip club, the Satin Doll, owned by the same proprietor.

Manocchio was arrested while on vacation in Florida. I first saw him in a federal courthouse in Providence, awaiting the first of several days of bail hearings. Just before the hearing, a prosecutor had filed a seventeen-page memorandum in an effort to show why Baby Shacks, given his fugitive past, should be denied bail. To illustrate Manocchio’s deceptive style, the memorandum noted that his cell phone number is registered to a 43-year-old Warwick, RI resident named William Smith, incidentally the name of the federal judge assigned to Manocchio’s trial. As she looked over the filing for the first time, Manocchio’s attorney swept her bangs off her forehead compulsively.

Manocchio “enjoys remarkably good health and is well known for his dedication to remaining physically fit,” the prosecutor had written in his memorandum. It showed. In a green prison jumpsuit, his corona of gray hair fastidiously slicked back, Manocchio moved with the ease of a man half his age. He didn’t look much different than he did in decade-old photos of him I’d seen. His eyes retained their screen-star brightness, and I could still make out Baby Shacks’s baby face, which betrayed no emotion as he took his seat.

His lawyer, still fussing with her bangs, whispered something to her client and passed him the prosecution memorandum. Manocchio shrugged and started reading. Page after page, he remained impassive. The biography contained in the document—granular details of his travels, his habits, his relationships—evidently did not surprise him. Then Manocchio hit something that gave him pause. His eyebrows arched in surprise, and he let his mouth fall open slightly. Turning to his lawyer, he pointed at the paper in front of him. “That’s my number!” he exclaimed. His lawyer said something to him quietly. Manocchio leaned back in his chair, the brightness drained from his still-wide eyes. He stayed this way for a while, staring into the middle distance or, maybe, into a future less certain than he had thought.

The detection of his phone number wasn’t the only thing that caught Manocchio by surprise. The FBI, it emerged, had planted a bug in the back office of the Cadillac Lounge. One day in court, prosecutors played some of what the bug had picked up. In it, a bouncer at the Lounge who was charged with being Manocchio’s enforcer screamed expletive-laced threats over the phone at an unknown interlocutor. A nervous-looking man in his fifties with a thinning ponytail, the bouncer, who was in court for a bail hearing, winced as the tape played. It’s a sad state of affairs when even the muscle is over the hill. Sadder still was having to watch a young girl in the gallery, his daughter, cry quietly as she listened to tapes of her father threatening to slit another man’s throat. Whether she cried because she had never heard her father this way before or she cried precisely because she had heard her father this way before, I don’t know.

Manocchio, meanwhile, was denied bail.

“What we have here is a defendant who has in the past fled,” a federal judge said before ordering him held pending trial. “Don’t forget Bulger. Whitey Bulger. How long has he been gone?”

“Long time,” Manocchio’s lawyer said.

Then, in February, after two co-defendants plead out, Manocchio admitted not only to racketeering, but to his role as a former Patriarca family boss. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the extortion charges. His admission—a major betrayal—surprised me. Maybe Manocchio came to realize that Providence’s future isn’t Providence’s past. Betrayal is of no great consequence if there’s nobody around to avenge it. Indeed, after Manocchio’s arrest, several other Patriarca family members were indicted in the strip club protection racket. Hardly any remain free. Manocchio, serving his time in a low-security prison in North Carolina, is scheduled for release on November 4, 2015, at the age of 88.

Hobsbawm writes of movements like the Sicilian Mafia that they are “exceedingly primitive, not only in the ways originally defined, but also in so much as they tend to disappear as soon as more highly developed movements arise.” In America, the more highly developed movement was not, as in Italy, new forms of social and political protest as embodied by the huge political movements of the 20th century, communism and fascism. Here, it was capitalism. As a former NYPD mob detective says in Raab’s Five Families, “At one time, not so long ago, there was a supply of young Italian-Americans who wanted to be in the families. Now, they want to be CEOs of legitimate corporations.” Michael Corleone would have known what to make of that word, “legitimate.” It’s a good racket if you can get into it, the legitimacy racket. Just ask the big banks.

Still, the change in Providence Cianci oversaw had an effect. A cleaned-up Providence, whose small size leaves organized crime with fewer options than its larger counterparts, like New York or Chicago, is today inhospitable to mobsters. Without a culture of corruption and graft to inspire them, the politicians, the union leaders—those left anyway—the judges, and the cops aren’t so easy to buy off. And if you can’t buy them off, how’s a crime family to pay the bills?

The answer was to shake down two sad, bunker-like strip clubs for a few thousand dollars a month. The desperation may run deeper still. Even after Manocchio’s indictment, other Patriarca family members, now in prison or awaiting trial, tried to continue shaking down the strip clubs. Idiocy might be to blame, but a more likely explanation is that, as one FBI agent put it, these “are people with no money, living scam to scam, and just trying to get by.”

With the citywide ambit of mob enterprise contracted to the dingy confines of a couple of strip clubs, even the old mob stronghold, Federal Hill, is cleaning up its act. Young mothers park baby strollers outside cute bakeries where men in dark suits once parked black Coupe de Villes. Bookish Brown students sip iced lattes where wiseguys in undershirts once played sidewalk pinochle in collapsable lawn chairs. Arts spaces have replaced safe houses. It’s pretty sad—if also pretty nice.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author