Review | Fear City Takes a Delicious Bite Out of The Big Apple

Sitting at no. 2 in Netflix’s Top 10, Fear City is a docuseries set through the ’70s and ’80s in New York City. Back in the 1960s, New York was once considered “Fun City”. However, it soon became known as a war-torn playground controlled by the mafia.

It was straight out of a comic book. The Dons of each of the Five FamiliesBonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese–would control almost every aspect of life in their territory. They controlled unions, sold drugs, and forced businesses to pay rent for their “protection.”

And it wasn’t negotiable. You either paid the piper or you lived in constant fear.

The craziest part was how far the Five Families were ahead of the cops. Nothing stuck on these guys. You might attribute that to “witnesses not showing up” to court, but for the most part, they were playing chess while law enforcement was playing checkers. This is why the fun soon became known as “Fear City.”

Everyone was afraid, except the Mafia.

New York City eventually became the epicenter of Mafia activity, and it appeared to last forever. The police’s tactics were outdated and some new blood needed to be shot in to the investigation. It was time to take out the Mafia, which is exactly what this docuseries puts on display!

fear City is business

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia – Everything you need to know ...
Source: Zupnik-Curtis Enterprises/Rebecca Productions Castle Hill Productions

We all love The Sopranos and mobster movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and A Bronx Tale. Stories of wise guys busting kneecaps are all-time classics, but sometimes we don’t pay attention to what’s really going on. All those fables are based off real-life situations, like actually happened. Think about it: Drive-bys, car bombs, assassinations, and brutal intimidation is just another Tuesday to these guys in Fear City. To us they are movie antics, but it was real and it was bad.

Are you beginning to understand why New York was considered “Fear City”? It’s not that the cops or other leaders were cowards; they were more interested in self-preservation.

Imagine being a business owner trying to make a better life for your family. Then, two guys come in to tell you that there’s a problem in the neighborhood. These guys in nice suits “offer” you their protection. The irony was the protection wasn’t just from crime or law enforcement but also from the Mafia themselves.

A Mafia Family seized control over the area your business is in. And if you don’t pay for their “protection,” you’re going to start having some real problems on your hands. By problems, I mean beatings, torture, vandalism to your business, and hurting your family members. It’s real out here.

You either got with the program or left everything. For those who tried to fight the mob, lost. The police did what they could to combat the crime, but they could only get low level thug type guys who were replaced the next day. It came to a point where there’s wasn’t a an effective option left. Something needed to be done, and it was long overdue.

Insert Fear City’s own, Rudy Giuliani!

new york’s white knight

Rudy Giuliani took on Fear City and New York's Five Families
Credit: Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Appointed the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1983, Rudy Giuliani was now in charge of the “Fear City” territories occupied by the Five Families. He was going after the biggest mobs in the world, right outside his doorstep. He brainstormed, knowing that he needed to figure out a new strategy to make a real difference, and he did.

They were done going after the soldiers of the mob. His thought was to cut the head off the snake–through the RICO Act.

Through the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, New York would be able to prosecute all the individuals within an criminal organization. In essence, guilt by association mattered. Soldiers committed the crimes, but nothing connected to the bosses. Now, they could get everyone all at once.

A task force was assigned for surveillance on the leaders of Five Families throughout Fear City. The NYPD had recorders everywhere. If it ran electricity back then, it had a wire in it. The police gained intelligence at a faster pace. Mobsters loved to talk, especially when they felt untouchable. Up to now, they were.

poetry in motion

Wiretapping is a necessity to fight the criminal underworld in Fear City
Source: AP/File

What they started to find out was beyond their imagination. The Mafia had control of all the unions, taking on million-dollar projects all over the city. Construction, cement, waste management, trucking, imports, and exports. All these organizations in Fear City worked together under the organization known as The Commission. They ran the city, and and there was enough profit to go around. Who could blame them for putting money over rivalries?

Through patience and great police work, they were able to get necessary information through wiretaps and recorders. Those secured voices helped NYPD and The Commission arrest the bosses of the Five Families, and prosecute them on some huge charges.

Two of the bosses wouldn’t make it to their trial because they were killed–one off the street in broad daylight; the other at a lunch spot. It was pretty gruesome. The other three would spend the rest of their lives in jail, along with many other of their high ranking members. The Mafia Commission Trial created a gigantic shift, and halt of mob activity in New York City to finally gave people some peace. The mob would eventually come back, but never to the degree of what it once was.

Positives

  • Timeline was crisp and didn’t skip back and forth.
  • We are told a linear story.
  • Actual mobsters provide commentary and perspective as events were set in motion.
  • Didn’t sugarcoat the violence.
  • Showed actual crime scene photos of mafia dons that were gunned down.
  • Was almost too gory, but it was needed to sell the story.
  • You could learn everything you needed to know on the surface level about the Five Families, and The Commission.

Negatives

  • Series was too short. (3 Episodes)
  • Wasn’t a lot of depth on their activities in the beginning. Wanted more examples of their crimes and how it effected common people.
  • Wanted more of the “Teflon Don” John Gotti.
  • There wasn’t anything on what happened after the three Dons went to prison. We know the mafia still existed, but in what capacity.
  • Wanted more video shot on the subject. Mostly everything we got were reenactments, commentary, and photos. Surprised we couldn’t get video in the mid 80’s.

final thoughts

Fear City as a whole was a solid docuseries about the investigation on The Five Families, and ultimately The Commission. It’s a straight forward story that gets to the point on everything, but lacks depth in critical areas to keep the audience bought in.

There’s great commentary with a good amount of key players in the investigation and this dialogue makes you appreciate the risk they took to bring down the mob. There is serious danger in what they were doing, and coming back out to talk about it is brave. All in all, the series gives you what you need to hold a conversation on the subject, but lacks all the deep information you’d want if you care about its history.

Overall Grade: 79%

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