I’m one of those blokes who will argue ’til the end of time that The Godfather: Part II far surpasses the original. That’s largely because of the whole Vito Corelone backstory, which includes the single greatest flawed gangster of all time. But I also dig the quiet tension created by Michael Corleone’s vacillation over his family’s future. The angel on his shoulder tells him to make good on his promise to his wife and take the whole enterprise legit; the devil, of course, whispers very different instructions in his ear.
In the late 1960s, Chicago’s Conservative Vice Lords faced a similar choice. The gang ultimately opted to join the legitimate economy by opening a series of businesses on the city’s depressed West Side. They did so with seed money obtained from a number of charitable foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, which saw the CVLs’ transition to enterprise as a key step in Chicago’s renewal.
But within a few years, all of the CVLs’ stores had closed and they were back to working in the shadows, to Chicago’s great detriment. This fascinating post-mortem offers up a bevy of explanations for the CVLs’ failure, most of which can be distilled into a single adage: Street skills don’t necessarily translate into boardroom skills. This lesson, in particular, is something that Michael Corleone knew all-too-well:
While Vice Lord leadership were using these [businesses] to remake themselves into a bona fide community and political powerhouse, many of the thousands of rank-and-file Lords members, who were still facing conditions of poverty and blight (CVL, Inc., leaders took yearly salaries between $10,000 – $15,000), continued to act as violent criminals. Traditionally, leadership of a street gang goes to the biggest, strongest, and most violent members, and these leaders must constantly be on guard against newer, younger members, who attempt to prove themselves even more violent than their leaders. This is how the Vice Lords had always operated, and now Perry, Alford, Gore, and others, who by the late 1960s were in their late 20s, faced thousands of power-hungry teenagers bent on rising in the gang hierarchy, especially a subgroup of young Vice Lords calling themselves the Black Aces. Thus, violence was difficult to avoid.
It’s not clear from the write-up whether the CVLs’ leadership ever considered taking on young rivals as salaried employees, which might have been wise. Enemies closer than friends and all that.