Today, we’re going to explore a softer science. We won’t even be talking about superheroes or villains.
Instead, we’re talking about places.
Gotham City is, arguably, one of the most noticeable comic book locations out there. Best known as the birthplace and hometown of Bruce Wayne (also, coincidentally, Batman), Gotham is generally depicted at night. It’s seedy, and dark, and exactly the type of place where you’d expect two of its richest residents to get murdered in an alley.
‘Organized crime’ seems a bit of a funny term for a city where the acts of crime seem so depraved, so random. However, ‘organized crime’ is an umbrella term that describes the true leaders of Gotham - gangs.
While there’s the stereotypical crime families (Maroni, Falcone, Italian), each major villain in Batman’s history seems to have his own little following. Joker, Penguin, Scarecrow, Riddler, Two-Face. Being in a gang seems to be the way to survive in Gotham, which sounds slightly depressing.
But what city does Gotham represent IRL?
There’s differing opinions on that, frankly. It’s much less cut-and-dry than our next city.
A Batman writer once described it as being New York at night, and several things support this claim. Gotham Post mirrors the New York Post; Metropolis is unequivocally New York and they’re described as ‘sister cities’. However, the biggest of this is in the name -- Gotham is an old, old nickname for New York City. Whaaaaaat?
Gotham was originally coined in Medieval England as a word to mean ‘Goat’s Town’, implying that people in the town were stupid. Like goats. Centuries later, Washington Irving (of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) was the first to use it as a nickname for New York City in one of his essays, using it less than kindly. Now, it’s stuck.
However, certainly, there’s also proof saying that Gotham relates also to 1940s Chicago. Gotham functions as a manufacturing city more than a metropolitan center, like Chicago. Most of Gotham’s crimes are depicted in back alleys, which New York lacks. Chris Nolan, the director of the Dark Knight movie series, says that he made Gotham architecture more like Chicago instead of New York. It’s also worth mentioning that the Gotham police are a lot more corrupt than the Metropolis police, fitting in more with the 1940s Chicago ‘police bought by the gangs’ idea.
And I think I prefer the Chicago interpretation, personally, if only because early 20th century Chicago had the reputation for gangs and crime families more than New York did.
A lot of what most of us know about the Chicago gangs comes from media - Godfather, the Mafia, Al Capone, the things that pop the most in Hollywood.
Still, they were based off of something.
The largest criminal organization of the time was the Italian Mafia - the Outfit, the Mafia, the Mob, the Syndicate.
Most people recognize one of the first biggest leaders - Al Capone, leader for seven years. He reigned right around the Prohibition Era, and he’s best known for his alcohol smuggling. He’d get alcohol all the way from Canada, after paying off some of Chicago law enforcement to look the other way. He made brothels, bullied businesses - if they didn’t pay up, they’d get blown up.
So it’s easy to see why Hollywood took this particular era. It also goes along with the glitz and glam of Gotham’s gangs. A massive, shadowy outfit capable of attacking anyone in the city, bribing the officials sworn to protect us -- it goes along with Gotham’s famously corrupt police very well.
But, alcohol? They didn’t really transport alcohol in the Batman comics. Not much, anyway.
Well, although Al Capone is the most infamous, he’s a little bit early in the 20th century. Let’s move onto the guy who took over for him -- Paul Ricca.
It was here, starting from the thirties, where their interests changed. Prohibition was becoming less of an issue. They turned to something else. Something a bit more fitting of a gang straight out of a comic book.
They turned into practices like exploiting labor unions, gambling, money laundering. Some went to jail in the early 40s after it was found out that they were manipulating the Hollywood labor unions for their own purposes.
Although, nominally speaking, the Mafia grew to its height of power in the 1960s, you can definitely see where Gotham got its inspiration.
And, in a way, you can see how Batman reflects that - he’s not the shining hope for the city the way Superman is. His methods are also a little suspect, the last effort of a desperate person.
Wow. That’s a little depressing. Let’s move onto something bigger and brighter.
New York, New York!
Or, rather, Metropolis. Which is New York, no question.
It’s called the Big Apricot, it has the Statue of Liberty, it has a Centennial Park. Yes, Metropolis is definitely, one hundred percent New York City. Which makes sense, in a way -- Superman is sort of America’s hero, DC’s Captain America in terms of old-time golden American values. It makes sense that he’d reflect a city so often shown as the heart of America.
So, what’s New York crime like?
The good news is that it’s gone down.
Raw numbers don’t really help much unless you compare them to other years. From 2013-2014, Index crimes (murder, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, assault, grand theft auto) went down five percent. It’s even greater if you compare back from 2005-2014 - 15%. Cities have been getting a lot safer.
Unless NYC’s gotten its very own Superman flying around, what’s caused this?
Any Intro to Criminology class will put forward its own theories. Decline of the crack cocaine market, expansion of police, new police investigation methods, more inclination to incarcerate.
It’s an interesting parallel to Metropolis, where the police are generally displayed as well-meaning (as compared to Gotham’s corrupt force) but ultimately ineffective. Superman is their method of keeping crime down, while we actually have to work for ours.
Sometimes, it’s not the heroes or villains that fascinate us, but the cities in which they operate. Gotham and Metropolis are two of the most recognizable places in comic book history. While they both are generally based off of New York, it’s clear that Gotham got more than a few Chicago influences over the decades as well. It’s interesting to see how those cities’ real-life crime rates relate to their comic book locations.
Superman operates in Metropolis, which seems similar to 2015 NYC. Crime’s been falling in NYC for the past fifteen years, attributed to new police methods, increased incarceration, the decline of the crack cocaine market. Batman operates in Gotham, which is a little more similar to early 20th century Chicago with the gang-based criminal underground and rampant corruption of authorities by the gangs. They even have a Falcone and a Marconi gang - if you have two gangs that both look like serious bastardizations of Capone, you’ve probably taken an influence or two.
New York Crime
Major Crime in New York City, 2009-2014
Index Crimes Reported to Police by Region
What Reduced Crime in NYC
Seven Major Felony Offenses, NYC
So, Why Do We Call It Gotham, Anyway?
Why Did Crime Fall in NYC?
Criminal Arrest, Firearm, and Criminal Activity Report
Interactive NYC Crime Map
Genealogy of Gangs in Chicago
FBI Profile - Al Capone
Paul Ricca Profile
Traditional Organized Crime in Chicago
The Chicago Outfit: Challenging the Myths of Organized Crime
History of Street Gangs in US