There Really Was a Mafia on the Upper West Side

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11/03/2019

Neighborhood: Featured, Upper West Side

In the early 1960s, as a recently married City College professor the closest I’d come to the Mafia was in movies and newspaper articles. Back then, New York City was rocked by Mafia scandals as investigations revealed that the police and other municipal unions were cooperating with mobsters in numbers rackets, loan sharking, business shakedowns, and other crimes. In October 1963, Genovese family foot soldier Joe Valachi testified before a U.S. Senate Committee, acknowledging for the first time the existence and activities of La Cosa Nostra. Daily headlines evoked a darker side of the city, a world far apart from mine.

At the time, my first wife, Adrienne Rappaport, an artist who painted as Adrian Rappin, needed a studio with north light that was also close to the galleries on Madison Avenue. We found the perfect studio in a pair of buildings at 12 and 14 West 68th Street in Manhattan, which we bought in February 1965. The buildings were in disrepair, and the neighborhood was still a slum; we bargained the owners down to $140,000 dollars with only $10,000 down. That may seem like peanuts today, but as a young couple living on a college professor’s salary, we had to scramble to raise the money.

In our first week of owning the property, two garbage collectors confronted me outside the buildings. “So you’re the new owner,” one said. “The owners on this street do well by us.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“We’re city employees and they don’t pay us well.”

To which I replied, “I’m a city employee, too!”

The next day our garbage was strewn all over the sidewalk and the police fined us fifty dollars for littering.

We quickly discovered why the owners had been eager to sell. A rent-controlled tenant in 14 had moved to Atlanta and sublet her apartment at a high rent. This was against the law, but the law was hard to enforce. The previous owners had rented a ground floor apartment to a Mafia guy, Johnny C., in order to harass the subtenant into leaving.

As soon as I bought the building, I got a call from Johnny demanding $40,000 to vacate his apartment. He told me he worked for a Mafia boss or capo who “owned” 34th Street—he controlled the garbage pickups and took payoffs from merchants for “protection.” I said I had nothing to offer him because I’d just bought the building with all the money I had. So, Johnny took action. He smashed the glass entrance door at 14 and spread oil on the floors and in the elevator. He followed Adrienne to her studio, hoping to scare her. He even called the dean of City College and said he was a police officer and was coming to arrest me. Each time he pulled a stunt, I called the police. They told me not to worry; they’d meet with him and take care of it. After meeting with him in his apartment, the cops said, “There’s nothing we can do, but let us know if he does anything.”

Johnny invited us to meet in his apartment to “settle the matter.” As we opened the door, he picked up a sledgehammer from a chair and swung it toward Adrienne. That did it. Adrienne’s mother told us to phone an attorney, Bobby D., who was considered the black sheep of her family. Bobby told us, “This isn’t a landlord-tenant issue, it’s criminal.” He filed a criminal complaint, obtained a hearing date, and told us to meet him in court. When I asked how I’d know him, he said, “I’m the biggest guy you’ve ever seen.” As soon as I walked in, I recognized him. He was seven feet tall and weighed at least 300 pounds. As character witnesses, I brought two professors from my department. After three hours, our case was called. We stood before the judge—my lawyer and Johnny’s lawyer in the middle, and me and Johnny on the two sides. “Hello, Bobby,” the judge said. “What’s the story?” The other lawyer yelled, “This case doesn’t belong in criminal court! It’s landlord-tenant!” After a few minutes of this, the judge turned to Bobby and asked, “What’s the problem?” Bobby said, “My client is a professor at City College and this man has been throwing paint in the lobby.” The judge said, “Let’s not waste the professor’s time. Why don’t you go into the hall and settle this?” After fifteen minutes, the lawyers returned and said they wanted another date because the tenant, Johnny, wanted to change his lawyer. We all left.

 

Shepard Hall, the City College, CUNY. NYC, New York, USA

_________________________________________

I went back to work in my lab and received a call from Bobby: “Meet me tonight in my office with Johnny. He wants to settle.”

“For what?” I said. “I don’t want his money, and he can stay in the apartment. But I’m not going to pay him forty thousand dollars because he signed a crazy lease with Herman Levine to live there rent-free for years. I refuse to meet with him.”

Then Adrienne’s mother called and said, “You meet with him! He’s been accused in court of murdering people.”

Undaunted, I called Bobby and said, “I’m not going to meet with this guy.”

He said, “Don’t worry, just come; we’re going to make a deal. But your wife can’t come because Johnny says she has the evil eye.”

I agreed to go. Johnny and I sat down in Bobby’s West 72nd Street office, exchanged a dollar in front of Bobby, and signed a contract. As soon as the contract was signed, Johnny turned to Bobby and said, “I didn’t eat crow, did I?”

Bobby said, “No, Johnny, not at all.”

Johnny then turned to me and said, “I didn’t know you knew good people.” Now that he felt respected, he was practically purring. He started to tell me how he had joined the Mafia, and showed me his scars from gunshot wounds. He confessed that he’d notified people in the underworld that we had valuable paintings in the building so they would rob us, and that he had paid the super to put sand in the boiler.

He said, “Now we can stop giving each other Christmas presents.”

“Christmas presents?”

“I do things to you and you do things to me.”

What I had done to him was that I kept calling the cops, which was “expensive” for Johnny: Ten bucks to make a cop go away; twenty for a detective.

Johnny concluded, “Any favors the professor needs, I’d be happy to do.”

Bobby said, “Johnny, the professor doesn’t need the kind of favors you do.”

After Johnny left, Bobby told me what had actually happened. He explained that he was a “mouthpiece” (an attorney who represented the Mafia) for Joey Trio in New Jersey. He said that Johnny’s boss worked for the Genovese family in Brooklyn. That morning, Bobby had called Johnny to make a settlement, and Johnny said, “Are you that big fat guy representing Haines?”

“Yeah,” Bobby said, and Johnny continued, “You’re going to wind up in a pine box, like Haines.” 

Bobby then phoned Trio and said he’d been threatened by a guy from the Genovese family. It’s a no-no in the Mafia to threaten a mouthpiece. Trio contacted Vito Genovese, who was serving prison time in Atlanta. Genovese had his local boss call Johnny to tell him to quit “this meatball operation” of demanding $40,000. I’m sure the call scared the wits out of Johnny.

Later, I ran into Johnny on the street, and he bragged that he was clearing out a building on West 65th Street on behalf of the Jewish Guild for the Blind, using scare tactics like putting dead dogs in the staircase. Finally, I heard that Johnny was gunned down in the lobby of the Empire Hotel at 62nd and Broadway, which at that time was a fleabag hotel.

In buying the buildings, we’d had no idea what we were getting into. Luckily, we knew the right person to help get us out of it. The incident made me aware that there’s an underworld in New York City that you rarely see—a slice of the New York experience. 

***

Tom Haines has lived on the Upper West Side since 1953; from 1965 to 2009, he and his family owned and lived in two small apartment buildings, 12 and 14 West 68th Street. Tom has just published, with Mindy Lewis, his memoir: A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist (Post Hill Press, August 2019). It’s the story of how he grew up in the Graham School, the first private orphanage in New York City, founded by Eliza Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton. With a BS and MS from CCNY, and a PhD from Rutgers, he taught chemistry and biochemistry at CCNY and the CUNY Graduate Center. In 1973, under President Robert Marshak, he set up the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, now part of CUNY Medical School, where he taught biochemistry until retiring in 2007. www.thomashaines.org

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§ 2 Responses to “There Really Was a Mafia on the Upper West Side”

  • This piece is just wonderful, especially since I live a couple of blocks away from the buildings Tom Haines writes about. I moved here in 1972, just as the neighborhood was gentrifying. When my fiance & I invited our East Side friends for our first New Year’s eve in our new apartment, they asked if it was safe to be in the area after dark? They were worried they would not be able to get a taxi late at night! Hard to fathom at this point as the area has become a NYC destination.

  • Barbara Dolan says:

    Witty and scary. I time gone by?
    Maybe not.

§ Leave a Reply

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