The Mob and The Rust Belt

The mob, a congressman, and the rust belt:

Today, the Mahoning valley is one of the most depressed corners of America. But it wasn’t economic bust that first brought the mob to the valley; it was economic boom. In the early years of the twentieth century, the valley–a thin corridor of land that twists and turns its way through northern Ohio–was the heart of an industrial empire. Steel mills stretched as far as the eye could see, their furnaces streaking the sky with 15-foot flames. For more than 50 years, their lights drew immigrants–Poles and Greeks and Italians and Slovaks who thought they had found the Ruhr Valley of America–as well as a burgeoning class of racketeers who thought they had found their own “Little Chicago.” Youngstown’s streets were lined with after-hours joints, where the steelworkers drank and played Barbut, a Turkish dice game, and where capos, dressed in white-brimmed hats and armed with stilettos, ran the numbers, or “bug,” as the locals called it. Youngstown in the 1940s wasn’t particularly unusual. Like Chicago, Buffalo, or Detroit, it had a teeming immigrant population accustomed to arbitrary and violent authority, a booming economy, and pliable local politicians and police–all the ingredients the mob needed to flourish.

But, unlike those larger cities, Youngstown was too small to have a mob family of its own. And, as a result, it turned into a battlefield. By 1950, as the rackets mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar industry, the Pittsburgh and Cleveland Mafia families began fighting for control of the region. Bombings began to ricochet through the valley–warnings to those who allied themselves with the wrong side. It got so bad over the next two decades that the local radio station ran public-service ads featuring an earsplitting bang and the slogan “Stop the bomb!” In 1963, The Saturday Evening Post dubbed the area “Crimetown U.S.A.,” noting: “Officials hobnob openly with criminals. Arrests of racketeers are rare, convictions rarer still and tough sentences almost unheard of.”

Shortly after Bob Kroner arrived in the valley in 1976 as a 29-year-old FBI agent, a full-scale war broke out. On one side was Joey Naples’s and Lenny Strollo’s faction, which was controlled by the Pittsburgh Mafia; on the other were the Carabbia brothers–known in town as simply “Charlie the Crab” and “Orlie the Crab”–who were aligned with Cleveland. “It seemed like you’d get up every morning and get in your car and hear someone else had been murdered,” says Kroner.

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