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Museum Shows Life and Crimes of New York Mobsters

By Patrick Hedlund | December 18, 2010 12:04pm | Updated on December 19, 2010 10:48am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

LITTLE ITALY —Missing this museum would be a crime.

A new mafia-themed gallery space on Broome Street recounts the life and crimes of some of New York's most notorious gangsters.

Mob Scene is the brainchild of author Arthur Nash and actor Vinny Vella, who visitors may recognize for his roles in "The Sopranos" and "Casino."

The two decided to partner to open the museum — housed in a small storefront space near the corner of Mulberry Street — after Nash organized a highly successful exhibition on mafia history in the neighborhood a few years ago.

"When this space came up, it was irresistible," said Nash, explaining that the property used to house a pool hall frequented by members of the legendary Eastman gang, which ran the city's underworld at the turn of the century.

Nash's personal archives make up a bulk of the museum's current exhibition on "Crazy" Joe Gallo, the infamous gangster and hit man who was gunned down inside Umberto's Clam House, just around the corner from the museum.

"It proves that the public has an insatiable thirst for the underworld," he said of interest in the museum so far, noting that renowned independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch encouraged him to open a permanent space after seeing Nash's earlier exhibition.

Items on display currently include the fedora Gallo wore when he was shot dead at Umberto's, rare photographs from inside his Brooklyn hangout, parole papers and personal correspondence between him and members of his crew.

"There was so much crime down here because people had so little options," said Andrea Coyle, director of outreach for the Lower East Side History Project which is sponsoring the show.

"They didn't have many prospects. I think [the exhibition's] a very fair and balanced representation of this aspect of the area."

And since the public's perception of the mafia often comes from portrayals on the silver screen, Vella's involvement helps bring the concept of "La Cosa Nostra" full circle.

"It's been very easy for me to play these parts as a wiseguy because I grew up with them," said Vella, 63, who's from Little Italy. "I watched them very carefully, I knew how they acted."

But walking and talking like a tough guy doesn't make him one, so Vella doesn't get upset when people regularly ask him if he's a made man.

"I'm doing the same thing they're doing, but I'm getting paid for it, I'm getting a pat on the back. They're getting thrown in jail," he said of his neighborhood counterparts. "I appreciate this side of the fence a lot better than the other side."

Despite the glitz and glamour associated with the mob, Nash stressed that the museum also serves as a much-needed gateway to New York's history.

"To know its significance and the way that it fits into our social history, that's important," he said of gangland's influence on the city. "It's just a really juicy part of American history — a lot of intrigue and sex and violence. Who doesn't love that as an American?"

However,  Mob Scene wouldn't be complete without its own ties to organized crime. Nash attempted to take the exhibition to California a couple of years ago, he explained, but was foiled when his West Coast liaison got arrested along with a dozen others for involvement in reputed mob activity.

"All that this proves is that the underworld is ubiquitous," Nash said.

Mob Scene is located at 369 Broome Street. Admission is free.