Everything lasts once. Each passing second is time’s own, occurring and ceasing to exist in the blink of an eye. It is then difficult to truly recreate a moment which has long been passed in order to tell a story or, in greater retrospect, to piece together some viable truth in life. Boardwalk Empire, however, does a pretty good job.
Based in the 1920s when Prohibition had just begun and organized crime was burgeoning across the United States, Boardwalk Empire receives most of its critical acclaim not only for its fantastic script but the thoroughness of its historical accuracy. It is true that the story mostly surrounds fictional figures, yet the show incorporates potent portions of realities via historical moments and the real people which inhabited them. Entertainer Eddie Cantor is a reoccurring character on the show as is then-future president Warren G. Harding. Yet out of all these portrayals none can be seen as realistic as those included in the New York mafia.
Although mainly taking place in New Jersey, the show branches out to various locations where the mafia was heavily located. One such place that would nearly be synonymous with organized crime is the city of New York, particularly in the city’s Lower East Side. The area was highly populated by Jewish and Italian immigrants who, due to their low status both in their home countries and in the United States, conglomerated into a community where their own cultures and ways of life were persevered in the New World. They formed religious centers which complied with their religion, had music halls which catered to their religions. Most importantly, they had restaurants which churned out food that stirred nostalgia from home, bringing the community together over a hearty meal. One such place located in the Lower East Side was John’s of 12th Street, an Italian restaurant opened by John Pucciatti and his wife that not only served traditional Southern Italian meals and illegal alcohol come the twenties, but who happened to be a particular favorite spot for New York gangsters Joe Masseria and Lucky Luciano, a past fact that Boardwalk Empire brings to life.
The show first introduces Lucky Luciano in its premiere season as one of Arnold Einstein’s, the notorious Jewish mob boss who fixed the world series, henchmen. This is long before Luciano’s rise to fame in the thirties as the mob boss of New York, the mob boss that would eventually give structure to organized crime via the original Five Families. The Luciano of Boardwalk Empire is young with a temper, frustrated with is underling status and ready to make the moves to the big time. The show depicts Luciano’s trajectory to notoriety together with his partner, Meyer Lansky, another soon-to-be-infamous Jewish mobster, when they run a gambling establishment on Joe Masseria’s territory and subsequently kill both of Masseria’s nephews who murdered them to stop. One scene which takes place on the show is that of Lansky and Luciano together with Masseria and Rothstein reaching a compromise for their actions as opposed to resorting to all-out turf warfare. And what better place to do that the over some traditional Southern Italian dishes?
The scene which takes place at John’s is authentic not only because of the costuming and the antiquated accents which the characters put on, but because the interior of the restaurant has barely changed since these events in their actuality occurred. In the background behind Masseria and Rothstein is the famous melting candle, which serves to be an anachronism due to the fact it was lit to symbolize Prohibition’s end. Alas, this fact goes unnoticed for the show’s less-savvy viewers, and the scene plays out as Lanksy and Luciano hesitantly sit across from their superiors. The restaurant is empty save a few patrons towards its entrance on 12th street, the name “John’s” scrawled backwards above Luciano’s head as he walks in. Juxtaposed next to the clean linens and the hearth-like atmosphere of John’s itself, it is hard to imagine in the show or historically the nefarious events that took place there. The place advertises itself based on the fact that such famous gangsters ate under its roof, and patrons now may relish in the historical settings and the significance these characters had to history as a whole.
But what many fail to remember over the antipasto is just how dirty and ruthless those men were, something the show does well to portray. Rothstein, although calm and collected, must cater to both Masseria’s powerful status and Luciano’s temper, the both of them threatening to draw more blood and discussing the proceeds behind the newly burgeoning heroine trade. Again, this all took place in a restaurant where people ate to be together, enjoying eachother’s company and camaraderie in a neighborhood they could call home. Yet here they were, four men monopolizing an illegal business that would ultimately ruin unaccounted lives, a contradiction to what John’s was about. But the true signifier of separation and alienation comes at the end of the scene. Standing up as soon as the meeting is over, Masseria asks Luciano why he associates with “these Christ killers,” deeming it a sort of betrayal that Luciano would work with people not of his ethnicity. This in a nutshell is why the mob was formed in the first place; one ethnicity felt unprotected by those around them, and thus stuck to their roots. Luciano’s move to the Jewish mob was a move out of the Lower East Side home he knew and, ultimately, out of his Italian roots. In that moment Luciano looks like a little boy who lost his parents: he’s lost and confused to his identity, but is all the more liberated by the fresh slate. Twenty years later, the world would see just what he would write on it.
As soon as the past passes by, it is gone. We of the future can only learn from it by texts and images that rarely do it justice. Yet it is our duty to analyze these texts as best we can, and to assess just what we can gage from the actions of those that come before us. Sometimes, even if its just one two-minute scene on a historical fiction show, the writing is on the walls.