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Coleen Friel kept a watchful eye on her doorstep while researching Gotham Unbound: How New York City Was Liberated From the Grip of Organized Crime—lest she step out one morning and discover a dead fish sitting on it. Fortunately, she never found one. But one night, when Friel was walking through New York’s famously mobbed-up Fulton Fish Market trying to do some on-site research, she had to scramble to escape a barrage of frozen fish and ice thrown by workers protesting anti-Mafia reforms.
Though Friel wasn’t a direct target, she’d walked into a very unhappy place. “Members of the fish market liked the status quo—they all benefited from it,” says Friel, who for the last year and a half has worked as an associate at the D.C. law firm Covington & Burling. “But I was assured by the FBI that I wasn’t in any real danger.”
Thanks to the fish market’s court-appointed trustee, who is charged with ridding it of mob influence, Friel wound up visiting the place several times. She also immersed herself in the goings-on at another institution with a history of mafia influence: JFK Airport’s air-cargo operation. In the end, Friel, 29, survived to see Gotham Unbound roll off the presses late last year. (Atypically for an academic book, Friel and her fellow research associate, Robert Radick, received co-authorship credit on the cover, along with their New York University law professor, James B. Jacobs.)
Friel and Radick began their three-year project by studying official documents and newspaper clippings dating back to the turn of the last century. They then interviewed scores of prosecutors, FBI agents, government regulators, crime-beat journalists, political operatives, industry executives, judges, and union officials, almost all anonymously. Friel avoided taking notes in her interviewees’ presence so as not to make them nervous; like a latter-day Woodward & Bernstein, she proceeded to scribble down everything she could remember as soon as she was out of their sight.
About the only people Friel didn’t talk to were mafiosi. “We did talk to some victims of intimidation—would-be competitors, rank-and-file union members,” she says.
One of the more striking conclusions Friel and her colleagues draw is that New York’s La Cosa Nostra rarely had to resort to violence. “There were very few complaints, because there was an economic self-interest involved,” she says. “If you cooperated, it was very profitable—you were able to fix prices, eliminate competition, and have labor peace. Even after you paid off the mob, the profits were astounding.”
But now, in the age of The Sopranos, La Cosa Nostra finds itself in its weakest position in decades. Today’s most worrisome gangs, Friel notes, hail from places like Russia, Asia, and the Caribbean. For better or for worse, these gangs, unlike La Cosa Nostra, have shown little interest in infiltrating “legitimate” businesses, preferring drug-running and other illicit (and more violent) endeavors. For law enforcement officers, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. —Louis Jacobson