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Feature Articles


December 2005

Life And Death In The Bronx

By J. R. de Szigethy


     It is the setting of incredible natural beauty; wildlife abounds there, including America’s symbol the Bald Eagle, and the more adventurous of the human species are known to raft and canoe down the three rivers that run through it.

     It is also the setting of incredible ugliness; in recent years, motion picture directors seeking location shots that resemble the ruins of bombed-out sections of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II have photographed burned-out sections of the area.

     It has also been the home of world-famous artists and world-famous athletes. And, for many decades, it has been the home of members of the American Mafia and their corrupt politicians and law enforcement cronies. It is called ‘The Bronx,’ and it is a Borough of New York City. For over a Century, it has been a place where it’s residents have been confronted with choices, decisions that would determine, in many cases, who would live, and who would die in The Bronx.

     Such choices were those confronting Chazz Palminteri as he grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s. With each passing year, the Bronx grew more deadly, as escalating crime and failed social policies took its toll on a decaying urban metropolis. Young Chazz was confronted with opposing figures as role models; his father, who worked hard to meek out a living for his family, and the Mafia wiseguys in the neighborhood who made significant incomes pushing prostitution rings, gambling rackets, drugs, and murder.

     New York City, then as now, had a reputation nationwide for providing sub-standard education to its students in the public school system. There are, of course, always exceptions, and one such was DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. The school had a long-standing reputation as one that nurtured the creative processes of its students, its alumni including Oscar-winning writer Paddy Chayefsky, playwright Neil Simon, and Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. Such a climate of appreciation for artistic endeavors was the opportunity that Palminteri seized upon while attending the renowned school.

     Further evidence of the old adage "it’s not what you know but who you know!" is presented in Palminteri’s case when he crossed paths with a Canadian nightclub owner named Peter Gatien. In 1983 Gatien turned an abandoned Episcopal Church in a downtrodden Manhattan neighborhood into the Limelight Disco. The nightclub was an instant success, quickly becoming the "Studio 54" of its time, attracting the famous, near-famous, and those who wanted to be famous, even if for only the paltry "15 minutes" Andy Warhol had promised everyone in the modern era.

     In the late 1980s, Peter Gatien accepted the invitation of a young man named Michael Alig to share Christmas Dinner with him in his decrepit Bronx apartment. Alig was a misfit from Indiana had come to New York as so many young people do with dreams of making something of himself. Alig saw in Gatien the person who could help him achieve his destiny. At the dinner, Alig presented to Gatien his vision of creating a ‘scene’ at the Limelight that would provide publicity that would further the reputation of the club as THE nightclub of Manhattan. All Gatien had to do, Alig proffered, was to hire him as a party promoter at his club.

     Soon, Michael Alig’s ‘Disco 2000’ parties were the hit of the Manhattan nightlife, spawning a new urban phenomenon, the "Club Kids." Gatien soon owned four successful nightclubs in New York, the Limelight, the Tunnel, the Palladium, and Club USA. By the mid 1990s Gatien was raking in millions.

     Peter Gatien’s taking a chance on Michael Alig betrayed his talent for discovering those with creative potential. At the Tunnel, Gatien employed as a bouncer a young man who would later become the movie star Vin Diesel. At the Limelight, Gatien had aspiring actor and writer Chazz Palminteri working the door. After struggling for years to break into the entertainment business, Palminteri got his big break when Peter Gatien agreed to bankroll his play "A Bronx Tale," an autobiographical story of a young man growing up in the Bronx, inspired by both his hard-working, honest father and the Mafia wiseguys who ruled the streets.

     The play was a critical and commercial success. By 1993, Gatien had amassed enough income to independently produce the play as a motion picture. Actor Robert DeNiro, famous for portraying Mafia figures in movies which some believe glorify organized crime, chose the project to make his directing debut. DeNiro also played the lead role in the film of the honest father who tried to steer his young son away from the Mafia wiseguys that raked in considerable amounts of dirty cash. Chazz Palminteri played the main Mafia character.

     In pre-production, the makers of ‘A Bronx Tale’ sought an actor who would need to be around 17 years old and bare a resemblance to DeNiro. On a beach outside New York City, a casting agent spied young Lillo Brancato, Jr. Born to Columbian parents, Lillo had been adopted as an infant and raised in a traditional Italian home just North of the Bronx. Already a fan of DeNiro’s from his movie roles, Brancato had the right mix of what the movie makers were looking for.

     While 1993’s ‘A Bronx Tale’ did not become a huge commercial success the movie made instant stars of Palminteri and Brancato. Both actors became somewhat typecast, going on to play Mafia figures in other venues. Brancato played a Mafia associate on ‘The Sopranos’ until his character got murdered. Palminteri appeared in "Analyze This," DeNiro’s comedy in which he satirized his previous Mafia roles, and "Boss of Bosses," in which Palminteri portrayed former Gambino Family Godfather Paul Castellano. Palminteri also portrayed Italian Mafia Prosecutor Giovanni Falcone in the movie "Excellent Cadavers." Falcone was assassinated in 1992 by a car bomb outside Palermo, Sicily.

     ‘A Bronx Tale’ found appreciation with audiences in Middle America who have long held a fascination with an American city that is so alien to the typical American experience. The city received its harshest Hollywood treatment in the 1981 film "Fort Apache: The Bronx," which opens with the brutal murders of two Police Officers in the burned out ‘war zone’ of the city.

     In the past two decades those neighborhoods in the Bronx have been transformed into something unrecognizable from the 1981 film, most notably due to the efforts of two men; one, a tough Mafia Prosecutor and the other the brother of a Mafia Godfather. Reverend Louis Gigante, a Catholic priest, is the brother of Genovese Mafia Family "Oddfather" Vincent "Chin" Gigante, who for many years escaped prosecution by feigning mental illness. As a champion of the poor, Father Gigante founded a non-profit organization called the Southeast Bronx Community Organization, which has provided affordable housing to thousands of Bronx residents.

     Former Mafia prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, the son of a Mafia soldier, further transformed the Bronx upon becoming Mayor of New York City in 1993. 8,000 people were murdered during the four year reign of Giuliani’s predecessor David Dinkins. During that time, Gambino Godfather John Gotti held an annual Fourth of July party outside his headquarters, the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park, which was capped by a massive, illegal fireworks display, protected by members of the NYPD. Upon becoming Mayor, Giuliani sent a message to the Mafia by sending scores of cops into Ozone Park each Fourth of July to stop once and for all the Gambino’s blatant symbolic disregard for the law.

     Mayor Giuliani appointed three tough Police Commissioners in succession, William Bratton, Howard Safir, and Bernard Kerik, who succeeded in transforming one of the most dangerous cities in the United States into "the safest large city in America." Those policies have continued into the Administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with crime in New York City at unprecedented low levels. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for most New Yorkers to perceive they could walk safely through Times Square, let alone the average street in The Bronx, yet that is the perception many New York residents and tourists hold today in regards to the Big Apple.

     Thus, the events of December 10, 2005, in which a police officer was murdered on the streets of the Bronx, stunned all New Yorkers. On the evening of December 9, Lillo Brancato and his friend Steven Armento, a former Genovese Family associate, began a night of drinking and drug abuse at a strip club called the "Crazy Horse." In the early morning hours of December 10th, a stoned Armento and Brancato broke into the house of a Bronx resident, hoping to score some drugs they had previously secured from the home’s owner.

     Awakened next door was police officer Daniel Enchautegui, just 28 years old. Officer Enchautegui approached the two men, identified himself as a police officer, and told them to freeze. One of the two, believed to be Armento, pulled a gun and blasted away at the cop, mortally wounding him. However, before he died, Officer Enchautegui fired off several rounds from his service revolver, wounding both men.

     20,000 police officers paid their respects to the slain cop, as a stunned city was reminded of how easy it can be to die in a place called The Bronx, New York.

EPILOGUE

     Lillo Brancato did not heed the lesson that was the central theme of the movie ‘A Bronx Tale’ that made him famous, and quickly descended into a life of drug abuse. If convicted of the murder of Officer Enchautegui, Brancato and his accomplice will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison.

     ‘A Bronx Tale’ Producer Peter Gatien was put on trial in Brooklyn Federal Court on drug trafficking charges. Gatien was acquitted of those charges, but later pleaded guilty to income tax evasion, for which he received a fine and a brief stint in jail. Gatien lost his Manhattan nightclubs and was deported back to his native Canada.

     ‘King of the Club Kids’ Michael Alig pleaded guilty to the brutal dismemberment murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, depicted in the motion picture ’Party Monster,’ which starred McCauley Culkin as Alig.

     In 2006, Chazz Palminteri will appear in the motion picture "Running Scared," which was filmed earlier in 2005, about two boys who obtain a gun used by the Mafia to murder a police officer.

     On the day of his funeral, Police Officer Daniel Enchautegui was posthumously promoted to the rank of Detective of the New York City Police Department.

Related Features by this author:

The Agony of Ecstasy: The Fall of Sammy Gravano and Peter Gatien
http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_237.html

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