Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Fear City: New York Vs. The Mafia’ On Netflix, A Docuseries About How The Mob Ruled The Big Apple — And How The Feds Brought It Down

During the “bad old days” of New York City, as it was in severe economic decline in the 1970s and ’80s, the mafia was dominant. The “Five Families” that ran organized crime in the city — Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese — dealt drugs, fenced stolen merchandise, ran numbers, controlled prostitution rings, maimed and killed people over not paying back usury loans, and did just about everything else that was illegal. And the FBI seemed handcuffed, only able to arrest lowly mob soldiers, unable to connect their crimes to Captains, Underbosses or Bosses like Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino family. A new docuseries details how strong the families were in their heyday, and how the feds used a new statute called RICO to bring them down.

Opening Shot: A reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we hear a voice going “Is that motherfucker there? Let me talk to him.”

The Gist: Fear City: New York Vs. The Mafia, directed by Sam Hobkinson, details how the mafia ruled the city during those decades, and how the feds ended up using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to round up entire organizations, leading to war between the families.

Interviews with former soldiers of the various families, along with the FBI agents that pursued them, reveal how impotent the feds were during the mob’s heyday of the ’70s. In 1980, when a criminal justice professor at Cornell offered feds a seminar regarding how to use the RICO statutes, the agents who took the seminar had an epiphany; they could use the statute to go after the entire structure of each family, all the way up to the top, even without direct evidence implicating the higher-ups in these crimes.

The first part of the 3-part series details how the feds tried to find the weak spots in the various families, and how they had to go undercover as cable guys and phone guys in order to install bugs in the house of, for instance, the right-hand man of John Gotti, then a Gambino captain. Once they got those bugs in, information linking the crimes from the underlings to the big bosses started flowing freely.

Our Take: Visually, Fear City: New York And The Mafia is mostly fantastic. They use dark and foreboding settings like bars and boxing gyms to interview the mafia soldiers, who have no problem detailing how rich they got doing illegal stuff. Hobkinson has everyone, whether they’re a mafioso or a fed, talk off to the side or out a window; he has Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa do his interview while getting a haircut. Combine that with the very violent footage of mafia murders, surveillance footage and photographs of the social club in Queens where many mob figures gathered, and some reenactments, it’s an arresting show to watch (pun intended).

However, it’s not really a story that’s particularly new or obscure. You don’t have to have memorized Goodfellas word for word to know about how strong the mafia was in New York during the city’s worst period, where the South Bronx was burning or in ruins, the government was bankrupt, and even what are now the toniest Manhattan neighborhoods were hotbeds of crime and drug use.

What struck us as disingenuous about the first episode is that all of New York’s problems during that period were thought to have their roots in organized crime. In fact, it felt like Sliwa came just short of saying that Son of Sam and the 1977 blackout were connected to the mafia. It’s hard to say that Hobkinson and the people he interviewed gave the mafia too much credit, because they were very dominant in the drug trade, the prostitution trade, and the illegal gambling trade. But the systemic racism, rampant poverty and powerlessness of the cops and feds were more institutional failures than mafia-caused problems.

That being said, the other two parts will detail how the feds used RICO statutes to take down the families, causing previously untouchable bosses like Castellano to be vulnerable to underlings like Gotti, who ordered the boss’ murder — then became the Gambino boss — without getting permission from the other four families. That process, even though it also is a fairly familiar story, will still be interesting to watch.

Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Sex and Skin: Not that kind of show.

Parting Shot: What the feds found out is that the Gambino family was going to start controlling the unions like the Teamsters with “our guys”. “You control the unions, you control the country,” says captain Michael Franzese.

Sleeper Star: How could it not be Curtis Sliwa? He’s got the institutional memory, he’s been a member of the media forever (he’s been a constant presence on New York radio for 30 years) and, despite being 66 years old, is as angry and belligerent as ever. He’s old-style New York in human form, and infinitely entertaining.

Most Pilot-y Line: The reenactments are a little cheesy, and the show had an apostrophe problem in its graphics, using the term “1970’s”.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Fear City: New York Vs. The Mafia may not be the most revealing docuseries, but the interview subjects and the subject matter are still fascinating enough to give this well-worn topic a revisit.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon,,, Fast,, Billboard and elsewhere.

Stream Fear City: New York Vs. The Mafia On Netflix

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