After U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the largest mob crackdown in FBI history at a press conference recently in Brooklyn, New York, in which 127 mob figures were rounded up, including the arrests of crime families in New York, New Jersey and New England-I couldn’t help but think how the Mafia or the disreputable La Cosa Nostra network which once held sway in cities like Kansas City, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland has all but disappeared-having become a shadow of itself-as the Justice Department over the years has steadily dismantled their criminal operations.
Is it safe to assume, then, the Mafia has been removed altogether from Cleveland?
Not according to Rick Porrello, Lyndhurst Police Chief and author of ``To Kill the Irishman: The War that Crippled the Mafia (Ohio)’’(a book chronicling the rise and fall of Cleveland mobster Danny Greene-soon to become a motion picture) who believes there are still a handful mobsters prowling in Northeast Ohio, but they are not active criminally; and are most likely involved in gambling operations.
It was Porrello’s grandfather and three uncles who were prominent mob leaders during the Prohibition-era in Cleveland during the 1920’s and 1930’s and their thirst to cut into the corn sugar profits of another Sicilian family, the Lonardo’s, that triggered a villainous blood bath between two families once considered close friends back in their native Italy; even maintaining close relations when they migrated to Cleveland; that is, until greed, corruption, and murder tore them apart.
It was actually a Plain Dealer page one story from February 26, 1932, carrying the headline: `` Gang Guns Kill 2 Porrellos and Ally" that prompted Porrello as a young man to document his family’s criminal past in his first book: ``The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia’’
The front page story reported that two of Porrello’s uncles: Raymond and Rosario, along with one of their henchmen, Dominic Gueli had been gunned down in cigar shop on E 110th and Woodland, in a spot that came to be infamously known as ``Bloody Corner’’ for all the mob blood that was spilled during those tumultuous decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Two other Porrello’s, Joe and James, were fatally gunned down within two weeks of each other in 1930.
The struggle for corn sugar was sparked over the high demand for booze during Prohibition in the early 1920’s and corn sugar or zucchero di granturco cost less than cane sugar. It was also easier to ferment into alcohol. ``Big Joe’’ Lonardo, who stood 6 foot two inches, weighing a forceful 300 lbs was considered head of the first Mafia family in Cleveland. As home brewing became popular, so was the need for corn sugar, small stills and other bootlegging requirements, which ``Big Joe’’ was all too willing to provide to his Woodland Avenue residents. By 1922, Lonardo’s profits soared to $5,000 a week.
By 1924, a series of bootlegging murders started landing on the front pages of Clevleand’s newspapers.
Such as on November 14, 1924, when The Plain Dealer splashed with the following headline: ``Murder Trail Leads to Hi-Jackers’’ a page one story reporting the double murder of Louis Rosen and Adolph Adelson. Rosen, a former baker, was described by the newspaper as a ``big time’’ bootlegger who had run afoul of a rival gang. Although no one was charged with these murders, ``Big Joe’’ Lonardo’s gang was thought responsible.
Despite the bootlegging murders becoming more frequent in the city, to read some of the newspaper stories at the time-Cleveland law enforcement officials seemed surprisingly unconcerned.
In a page one story published on April 19, 1926, for example, The Plain Dealer reported how crimes (such as robberies) were significantly reduced since 1921. The decrease was based on the somewhat twisted reasoning that professional criminals had gone into bootlegging, which is more profitable; and while it led to a number of murders in the city between rival gangs, ``as long as the bootleggers kill off each other and leave law-abiding citizens alone, police are not alarmed much’’, the paper reported.
This casual indifference exhibited by law enforcement officials over the bootlegging wars, changed dramatically on October 13, 1927, when ``Big Joe’’ Lonardo and his younger brother John were greeted with a spray of bullets in the backroom of Ray Porrello’s barbershop at 10902 Woodland Avenue. Their deaths inflamed a series of wars between the two families that would keep law enforcement officials scrambling for years in order to keep up with all the bloody turf battles.
Of the combined 11 brothers of the Porrello (7) and Lonardo (4) families; by the time the guns fell silent, and all the blood had been spilled-four Porrello’s had been killed; three Londardo’s as well as the deaths of several associates plus the body guard of Joe Porrello.
But as Rick Porrello points out, it would inaccurate to describe these battles between the Porrello’s and Lonardo’s as just tit-for-tat feuds. ``My evidence found that this was less of a feud but more of a series of killings over control of the bootleg rackets with the first murders instigated or even committed by Salvatore Todaro. ``What was left of the Lonardo regime’’, Porrello explains, `` was assimilated in Frank Milano's Mayfield Road mob.’’
Salvatore "Black Sam" Todaro, once a close associate of the Lonardo’s switched allegiances to become Joe Porrello's lieutenant, only to be gunned down in a fusillade of bullets on East 110th Street, just South of Woodland Avenue on July 11, 1929. Todaro’s assailant was ``Big Joe’’ Lonardo’s 18 year-old son, Angelo or ``Big Ange’’, who not until he became a government witness during the 1980’s ,did he admit to the killing, along with the killing of two other Porrello brothers as well as other business rivals of his father.
By the 1930’s, Frank Millano and his gang replaced the Porrello’s as Cleveland’s primary crime family. His standing within the underworld grew even more prominent after joining the National Crime Syndicate and developing connections with a number of high profile mobsters, including Charlie ``Lucky’’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky. After being indicted for tax invasion, however, Milano fled for Mexico in 1935.
Often lost in the Woodland Avenue wars of the 1920’s and 1930’s amid the dirty money that changed hands, the shootings, the explosions, and the splattered blood, was the rich Italian legacy that brought families together during the grueling economic conditions of the Great Depression, friendships that lasted a lifetime, and the profound sense of community that could be found on Woodland Avenue; a sense of community that has sadly vanished into the thin night air within most communities of this present age.
Residents of the old Woodland Avenue neighborhood, to be sure, were blessed with a rich history. Beginning at end of the 19th century, around the 1880’s and 1890’s Italian immigrants started settling in inexpensive wood-framed houses with sub-divisions to accommodate multiple renters in an area referred to as ``Big Italy’’, located on Woodland Avenue near Orange Avenue and East 30th, which included the area where Progressive Field now stands. By the 1920’s, as the Italian population began dwindling, immigrants started drifting further down Woodland Avenue toward E. 110th which offered another stretch of cheap housing. During the 1920’s-600-700 Italians inhabited Woodland Avenue & 110th with the Italian population doubling by the 1930’s, according to Pamela Dorazio Dean, Associate Curator for Italian American History at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
The Italians that populated Woodland Avenue during the 1920’s and 1930’s and into the 1940’s started migrating to the suburbs after World War II (mainly to Mayfield Heights and Lyndhurst on the East Side and Parma around W. 25th Street on the West Side), so that by the end of the 1970’s-virtually no Italians relics of the old neighborhood survived, except, of course, their enduring friendships. Family members and friends of the old Woodland Avenue neighborhoods have held three reunions already, according to Russ Davis, Director of the East 110th & Woodland Reunion planning committee. The last was in 2008 which attracted about 500 members. Another reunion is planned for October of this year.
The mom -and-pop shops that once dotted Woodland Avenue, with its distinctive Italian panache are all gone, now just a distant memory, such as the corner market- I&A (Italian & American Market at 10906), just a few doors down at 10902 was the Porrello Barbershop (where ``Big Joe’’ and John Lonardo were ambushed) while the Todaro Cigar Shop (where two Porrello’s were killed) was located at 11103. Gone too is the 10612 Woodland Avenue home of John Porrello, the site of a 50-gallon still explosion that erupted into a fire in 1927.
And you really can’t mention the old Woodland Avenue neighborhood, without highlighting Luna Park, built by Frederick Ingersoll, a spectacular edifice described as the most beautiful amusement park ever built with its fusion of Italian Renaissance, Egyptian, Gothic, and Japanese architecture. It opened on May 18, 1905 and was positioned on a streetcar route on Woodland Avenue and Woodhill Road. The park, covering 35 acres, was just a stone’s throw away from Joe Porrello’s house, featuring a Ferris wheel, two roller coasters, a roller rink and a dance hall. Rick Porrello describes in ``The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia’’ that ``In the Porrello barbershop two doors down from the sugar warehouse, delightful carousel music could be heard in the distance.’’
But unable to sell beer during Prohibition coupled with the crippling Great Depression-attendance dropped off markedly-forcing Luna Park to close in 1930; only the ice rink remained until it burned to the ground on December 12, 1938.
Another mark of the supportive family atmosphere so characteristic of Woodland Avenue was their pleas for a Catholic Church. As a result of a flood of support for a new church, land was acquired at East 110th St. and Ingersoll Rd. (later changed to Mt. Carmel Rd.) ; ground was then broken for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish on May 31, 1936 where Luna Park once stood. While waiting for the church to be completed, parishioners regularly attended mass in a tent near the new building; parishioners sat on wooden benches, the floors covered with newspaper and supported by tiles, enough to accommodate about 100 persons. The building was dedicated on January 3, 1937.
Residents dream for a new church, however, was temporarily dashed, when in 1938, the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority set their sights on the Luna Park land for a new housing development. According to the Ohio Historical Records Survey Project, a new site was then acquired at Garfield Ave and Mt. Carmel Rd., and work on the new church began immediately. The first mass was said at midnight, December 24, 1939.
Though the old neighborhood is gone, remnants of the Lonardo and Porrello legacy still exist. The home of Joe Lonardo located at 13700 Larchmere Blvd in Shaker Heights is still standing; as is the Cleveland Heights home of Joe Porrello at 2862 Berkshire; the home of Raymond Porrello at the time he was killed in 1932 at 11014 Woodstock is still there as well (Woodstock runs west off MLK, north of Woodland/Larchmere); while the home of Rosario Porrello at time he was killed in 1932 still can be found at 2555 E. 127th.
And what about the Italians known for their explosive tempers and flair to hold grudges into eternity-has there been any thaw in the relations between the Lonardo’s and Porrello’s even 84 years later?
Happily, yes, according to Rick Porrello. ``The Lonardos and Porrellos from Cleveland are not unfriendly as a result of the sugar war, Porrello says. ``So much time, not years, but decades have passed. I am acquaintances with several from the Lonardo families and some of their cousins. One of the Lonardo family members assisted me with my research. ‘’
February March 1, 2011