Louis Corsino is a professor of sociology at North Central College. He recently answered some questions about his book The Neighborhood Outfit: Organized Crime in Chicago Heights.
Q: Who were the “Chicago Heights boys” and what was their role in the Chicago Outfit?
Louis Corsino: The Chicago Heights “boys” were a group of Italians who organized a number of criminal activities in Chicago Heights (and the southern suburbs of Chicago) from the 1920s to the end of the century. The name “boys” was a term the Chicago Heights crew called itself and had its origins most likely from the floral display the guys in the Heights sent to the funeral of Frank Capone, Al Capone’s brother, in 1924. The inscription read “from the boys of Chicago Heights.” During the early years, the Heights operation was led by Domenic Roberto, who was Capone’s lieutenant and the boss over the criminal operations in the south suburbs. In particular, Roberto, after a considerable amount of bloodshed within the Italian community, helped organized the Heights as a chief production and distribution center of illegal alcohol during the Prohibition era. Roberto ran afoul of the law and was eventually deported and the control of the Heights operation fell to Jimmy Emery (aka Vincenzo Ammirati), John Roberto (Domenic’s brother), and Frank Laporte. Emery, Roberto, and Laporte guided the Outfit’s efforts in prostitution, racketeering, and extortion. In particular, by working with Chicago Outfit leaders ( Tony Accardo, Sam Giancanna, and others) they supervised the gambling operations which included, most infamously the illegal activities in Calumet City which in the 1940s and 50s was dubbed by Life magazine as the “busy Barbary Coast of Lake Michigan’s booming industrial plains.” The success of Calumet City as a “syndicate town” served as a model for the development of the Chicago Outfit’s takeover of Las Vegas.
Q: Your book draws connections between the Italian community and organized crime in Chicago Heights. How did social and cultural forces contribute to illicit activities?
Corsino: The connection between organized crime and Italians is not easily explained, though some have tried to make it so. On one hand, there is a long history in American culture which has equated organized crime with Italians. In the popular literature, law enforcement, and academic circles, arguments were advanced that organized crime is an inevitable outcome of Italian genetics, culture, or legacy. On the other hand, others have argued that there is no connection between Italians and organized crime—that organized crime is simply the result of a few “bad apples” that happened to be Italian. I have difficulty with both arguments. Certainly, organized crime is not pre-ordained by some mystical Italian-ness. By the same token, I believe organized crime was embedded in Italian communities more systematically than some are willing to acknowledge.
In particular, I argue that certain social and cultural forces at the beginning of the twentieth century placed Italians, especially southern Italians, in a most disadvantageous situation. At least in Chicago Heights, Italians experienced a wide spread cultural opprobrium, political alienation, and economic discrimination. This resulted in little social betterment or advancement for most Italians. At the same time, these forces relegated the great majority of Italians to an abiding residential segregation in the industrial, more impoverished “East Side” of the Heights. These forces, however, combined to create the emergence of organized crime. Specifically, the high levels of discrimination blocked many of the traditional avenues for achievement. Yet, these same forces created a great supply of social connections and interactions among Italians—in other words, a reservoir of social capital—which Italians could draw upon for non-traditional paths to mobility—ethnic businesses, mutual-aid societies, labor organizing, and—organized crime.
Q: While an academic focus dominates in your analysis of organized crime in Chicago Heights, you enrich your findings with your own personal experiences. What sources in your own life did you draw upon to add depth to your analysis?
Corsino: Writing this book was a difficult undertaking on several fronts, but most difficult in terms of finding the right balance between personal experiences and academic analysis. I grew up in Chicago Heights and my father, grandfather, family friends, among others were all “connected” to the Outfit in one way or another. None of them were at the core of the Outfit or were involved in the most nefarious activities, but they were a part of the daily operations of the legal side—for example, the juke box and vending machine companies run by the Outfit—and at times asked to do some of the more mundane aspects on the illegal side—for example, spiriting slots machines outside of a tavern in anticipation of a police raid. Along with their life-time connections to other Italians in the Chicago Heights operations, these connections gave me a rich source of information and access to a number of Outfit members.
Q: In your study you claim that “no special motive is required to understand an Italian (or any ethnic group) connection to organized crime.” Can you elaborate on how this assumption operates in your study?
Corsino: The traditional literature on crime and organized crime, in particular, has sought to explain this involvement in terms of a unique criminal motive. In other words, organized crime members were seen as so different, so alien from mainstream thoughts and behavior the goal was to find some special rationale that would explain this phenomenon. Dwight Smith, in his classic work the Mafia Mystic, challenged this assumption and sought to explain organized crime as simply a special case of an enterprise activity—similar in many ways to an entrepreneurial business. As I began to think through this, I saw that Italians in Chicago Heights pursued a number of non-traditional, entrepreneurial ways to achieve mobility—for example, ethnic businesses such as being a barber, a tavern owner, a grocery store merchant. I asked therefore, using the logic above, could we explain these non-traditional routes in terms of some special motives—a barbershop motive, a grocery store motive, and the like. This seemed absurd and worse could easily revert back to the stereotypes and ideologies surrounding Italians (and other ethnic groups) in the past. If this was so, then why do we still attempt to explain organized crime in this fashion? To me, the issue is more complex and cannot be reduced to a search for a singular motive. Such a search appeared to be inundated by a host of ideological assumptions.
Q: Why do you think the Chicago Heights branch of the Chicago Outfit, who contributed the most to the vitality of the Chicago Outfit, is the least researched and written about?
Corsino: Again, there are probably a number of reasons. At least early on it may have had to do with the distance the Heights was from Chicago—about 30 miles or so. It took a good hour or more to reach the Heights and given the means of transportation available this city just seemed far away from reporters and observers. In fact, Capone used to make a number of visits to Chicago Heights (to my grandmother’s house among others) because it was far away and served as a respite from the action in Chicago. At the same time, the Heights operation as a distribution center during Prohibition, in particular, was a more mundane part of the Outfit. It did not have the characters and action one found in Little Italy, Grand Avenue, and the like. Finally, the southern suburbs with its industrial, blue-collar reputation has always been less talked and written about than the North or West sides of Chicago. This was one of the reasons I wrote about Chicago Heights–to not only try to understand organized crime in context but also to tell the story of many immigrants and their struggles to survive.