(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Seamus Scanlon, a librarian and professor at The City College of New York, who writes occasionally for both The Rap Sheet and January Magazine. He was a finalist in the 2009 New Irish Writing Awards, and won the 2010 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award and a 2009 Carnegie Corporation/New York Times Award for librarianship).
South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing has done a great deal to document the evolution of U.S. communities and many aspects of the American experience through its paperback books of photographs. Not only are these volumes illuminating and interesting in their own right, but they do an important job of saving and archiving images that might be fragile, rare, and in danger of being lost forever. For instance, in Sydney C. Van Nort’s 2007 book, The City College of New York--covering a subject about which I’ve come to know a few things--he documents the significant changes at that institution over the course of 150 years, from its founding as the Free Academy, housed in a modest building in Manhattan, to the genesis of the encompassing City University of New York (CUNY), now the largest urban university in the United States.
Archivist and author Arthur Nash’s New York City Gangland (2010), part of Arcadia’s Images of America Series, fits well within the publisher’s philosophy, offering a brief look at how gangsters and urban ganglands have informed the American psyche through their portrayals in pulp and noir fiction, as well as motion pictures.
True-crime books have been consistent bestsellers ever since the 1970s (for reasons that are intriguingly detailed in Jean Murley’s The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture). Since the United States claims a strong history of frontier fighting, gun law, rugged individuality, and self-reliance, it’s not surprising that Americans continue to be fascinated by books about murders, mobsters, and other factual tales of criminality.
Photographs from the past are inherently appealing, because they capture events that can’t be repeated or recalled otherwise in the same objective detail. When those shots are of some particularly gruesome or historic crime scene, or of the people responsible for malevolent events, they can be magnetic, transporting us into stories that we find hard to understand. It’s particularly effective when crime scene photos are in black and white, because the contrast between just two shades heightens their shock value. No wonder whole gallery exhibits have been built around historic mugshots and stark photos of notorious killings.
New York City Gangland is like an extensive such exhibit, imprisoned within covers. Its contents range from Prohibition-era photos to others focusing on Jewish gangsters, the 1957 “Apalachin summit” in New York, and players from the Godfather period (especially Joey Gallo).
Author Nash (despite his name, he is not Irish!) is a freelance archivist and a major contributor of historical objects to the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C. He lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, made famous over many decades by its celebrity inhabitants and occasional deaths (it was there that writer Dylan Thomas perished of alcohol poisoning in 1953, and bassist Sid Vicious’ girlfriend was stabbed to death in 1978). The images in this book come from Nash’s own private collections, which he has accumulated from former cops and ex-mobsters of various hues.
Offering succinct commentary about Manhattan’s sometimes seamy past and terrific photos that make the drama of avarice, anguish, and assassination that much more dramatic, New York Gangland is a most valuable addition to the city’s historical record.