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Leave The Gun; Take The Gelato

Local authors trace organized crime roots to a Central Ohio fruit stand. The lessons of The Godfather? Do not go against your own word. Do not go against your own family. Do not become predictable. And fruit means death is in the air. These were true even 60 years before Mario Puzo published his iconic novel. [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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Local authors trace organized crime roots to a Central Ohio fruit stand.

The lessons of The Godfather?

Do not go against your own word.

Do not go against your own family.

Do not become predictable.

And fruit means death is in the air.

These were true even 60 years before Mario Puzo published his iconic novel. The father-daughter writing team of David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker has resurrected the forgotten story of the origins of organized crime in the United States. It began not in the gambling circles of New York or the bootleggers of Chicago, but in 1909 with an unsophisticated, inelegant, yet successful group called the Society of the Banana, operating from the back of a fruit store in a town that was the centerpoint of various shipping routes …

Marion, Ohio.

Their book, Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America, published this year, traces the largely forgotten story of criminal events in Central Ohio that later became a model of mob prosecution.

Using essentially the same technique as a basic internet or telephone scam—a message threatening harm and a demand for money—the Society of the Banana and Faithful Friends, led by Salvatore “Sam” Lima, ran a multi-state extortion network likely responsible for at least 30 murders. “Black Hand,” a name roughly synonymous with the Mafia at the time, appeared as the signature on each letter.

“All they knew was what they brought with them,” says Meyers, explaining how early Italian immigrants came to an America with no resettlement programs, no language classes, and no easy ways to make a decent living.

One of the more available jobs for immigrants was to get a wagon and become a “franchiser” for an established business. In many cities, that was a fruit business, brought by foreigners who were used to having fruit available most of the year. For some vendors, it might be the beginning of prosperity. For others, it might be the introduction to a criminal network, a phenomenon that many were already familiar with.

“[Italian immigrants] came here not having experienced trust in government, not having experienced trust in law enforcement,” Meyers explained. “So when they experienced crime, they didn’t tell anybody.”

Murders, bombings, and assassinations splashed the headlines in local papers, which theorized the possibility of a single responsible organization. The publicity only increased the popularity of the letters—copycat, pranks, and actual. “What you needed was somebody to stand up to [the Black Hand], and not pay the money,” said Meyers.

That somebody was Columbus resident and Italian immigrant John Amicon, a wealthy fruit dealer.

“He was doing really well, and that made him a target, because the community could see that he was doing really well,” Meyers Walker explained. “He started to get letters, really threatening letters—we’re going to do these things to your family. We’re going to bomb you. We’re going to do all this stuff. And he said: one, I’m not paying, and two, I’m not going to put up with it.”

When a bomb appeared on his porch, Amicon contacted the authorities. Cue the US Postal Inspectors. (Yes, the mail fraud guys.)

Uninterested in bombings and murders, the US Postal Inspectors, one of two federal law enforcement organizations in existence at the time, began to trace the threatening letters crisscrossing the country. Enough evidence was gathered to conduct a raid, and bring the perpetrators to trial as an organized crime syndicate. Marion’s Lima was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

“I think it’s fair to say that this was a bit of a model for creative prosecution—the fact that they went after them on the mail charges, and you line that up with Al Capone getting taken down for tax evasion,” said Meyers Walker.

Uncovering local history can be intriguing, but learning from history is another matter. While too many are familiar with the images and stories of the Italian mafia, few are familiar with the Italian community members and law enforcement officers who fought against that terror by resisting threats, reporting activity, gaining the trust of the community, translating the letters, and infiltrating group activity. Even fewer know the stories of redemption that eventually emerged post incarceration.

“Since doing this, we’ve met descendants of people on both sides of the divide,” said Meyers Walker. “It’s really interesting. After [those prosecuted for Black Hand activity] got out of prison, they went back to where they were from in their towns in America and made something of themselves.”

The co-authors describe how former criminals opened restaurants, engaged with their communities, and raised children and grandchildren who led respectable lives and held positions of importance. Their descendants look back on their ancestors’ previous lives with an attitude of forgiveness, noting how young and isolated some of these men were and how unprepared they were as they tried to start their lives over in a new country.

“My opinion: we need immigrants,” said Meyers, who hopes that readers will see parallels between the situations of newcomers to America past and present. “We don’t need criminal immigrants; we’ve got some ways of rooting them out. But we do need immigrants. But we have to prepare them to succeed.”

Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America is available now via Arcadia Publishing and the History Press, as well as on Amazon. For more, visit arcadiapublishing.com.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Artist Ann Hamilton

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Artist Ann Hamilton ensures her viewers are not passive bystanders.

Sometime this week, this month, you might receive an envelope in the mail, nestled among the barrage of holiday gifts and well-wishing cards from family and friends.

You open it to find not a family picture or holiday greeting, but a dated photographic scan of a single fallen leaf. It appears stark on the page: quietly elegant, strangely canonized, its veins and creases made beautiful after being blasted with light.

This scan would represent a small part of Columbus-based artist Ann Hamilton’s project when an object reaches for your hand, an interactive installation currently on display at OSU’s Thompson Library. The work encourages viewers to take pieces from the exhibit that Hamilton has created and share them with one another.

Hamilton, a professor in the OSU Department of Art, is also undeniably one of the most prominent and lauded names in the world of contemporary art. With a portfolio that includes decades-worth of large scale multimedia installations and other work, the Ohio-born artist has earned herself coveted Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, among countless other honors.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Because of this, Hamilton could likely call any place in the world home. Yet she chooses to do so in Columbus, where she now both teaches and operates out of her locally-based studio.

“You know, you don’t really know the consequences of those decisions at the time, but I can really see how being here, having that family support, the economy of Columbus, being able to have this space, and my affiliation with the university; all those things have led to my being able to develop practice that responds to a lot of different forms of work, and I’ve really been tremendously supported. The way that I’ve been able to pursue projects has been a consequence of all that support,” she said.

“When I moved here, Columbus wasn’t one of the “move-to” cities; people were asking me what I was doing. Sometimes what’s good for you is also good for the work and I have to trust that will be the case.”

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand, displayed as part of Here, a recent exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts that also featured pieces from artists Jenny Holzer and Maya Lin, shows the benefits of this support in more ways than one.

“We have a fabulous public and university library system. When I was invited to do the new project at the Wexner, I was also already thinking about doing a project in the library,” she said. “You know, partly, ever since the library opened, I’ve always thought about that vertical glass spine where you can see the stacks, and the two sides of that is this amphitheater space, inviting sociability, inviting potential performance.”

Using outdated scanners, some likely nearing 30 years old, Hamilton and her studio team scanned hundreds of different items over the course of nine months from personal and university collections, which were then printed on details paper and stacked on irregularly-arranged platforms throughout the library’s second floor.

Due to the scanners’ age and shallow depth of field, the images created by them (which often featured unique or rarely-seen items), became ghostly, and quietly beautiful in their own right.

But Hamilton’s work is about more than just the acts of crafting and display. Visitors to when an object reaches for your hand are more than static viewers; they play an integral role in the work itself.

Each person who sees the show is invited to take one of the scans displayed in stacks throughout Thompson Library, either to keep for themselves, or to mail to a friend or family member via a mailing station at the installation.

In this way, the work becomes a platform for connectivity, for people to share the things that move or matter to them. In the same way that Ohio State and the private collectors Hamilton worked with shared their prized items with her, viewers are able to do the same with whomever they choose.

“Everyone I talked to was so helpful; people want to share what they love and what they take care of. What an incredible gift that is. We were able to wander in and out of so many different parts of the university. I would say the piece isn’t so much site-specific; it’s just responsive to what is here, to that spirit of wanting to share,” Hamilton said. “This is why the mailing is so important, wanting to share what comes forward in the collection. When you mail something, it’s still carried by hand; the address is written out by hand. And that’s also about touch, and touch is what’s made visible through light in the images.”

This sense of community and shared details is also apparent in how Hamilton manages her Columbus studio. Located in an unassuming but spacious building just south of downtown, Hamilton both works out of the building and uses it to host collective dinners, where visiting artists and speakers are able to interact with invited OSU arts faculty members and students.

“The events get set up and everybody sits together and it’s a beautiful meal. We have candles, wonderful food, and I think it’s part of what we do through positions at the university,” she said. “It’s a chance for people to actually be in conversation. Like, for example, with the architecture of our art program, there really isn’t social space, and so I hope in some part this addresses that.”

And even though Hamilton is now one of the figures firmly entrenched in the canon of contemporary American Art, it wasn’t a vocation that she necessarily saw coming.

In fact, she couldn’t recall a moment that she said to herself that she wanted to be an artist; she simply made art. “There’s some large gap between recognizing you love something and calling yourself something. I just grew up loving making things, and I had a ton of support from my family,” she said.

Hamilton has learned from her adventures, and as a professor, has opportunities to share her wisdom. “It was never a straight road,” she said, “but I always tell my students: do what you love.

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand is on view in Ohio State’s Thompson Library through April 28. Learn more at annhamiltonstudio.com.

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Community

The Interview Issue: Community Leader Habiba Bankston

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Habiba Bankston helps her colleagues at L Brands give back while building a pipeline for leadership in Columbus.

Habiba Bankston likes to say Brooklyn raised her, but Columbus groomed her. New York City taught her how to hustle, how to envision something and make it happen, how to fearlessly embrace new experiences.

But in Columbus, she learned how to slow down, master her craft and take time to develop her untapped potential. What she discovered was that her potential involved helping others.

“The people that I’ve met here, [they’ve] just kind of unlocked some things in me that I really didn’t know was there,” she said.

Bankston, now a senior community relations specialist for L Brands, brings both of those backgrounds to her work every day. Philanthropy for her isn’t just the work she does; it’s who she is. And the blend of visionary entrepreneurship she absorbed in New York along with a deep dedication to community and service have enabled her to build networks and communities designed to nurture a new generation of young professional leadership in Columbus.

An illness that sparked action

When Bankston was 17, she had a stroke.

Bankston was born with sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that affect hemoglobin in the blood, distorting cells into a crescent shape instead of a donut shape. The crescent red blood cells can stick in blood vessels and reduce oxygen to parts of the body. The resulting symptoms can be severe fatigue and pain.

Sickle cell, which is hereditary and most commonly affects African Americans, is what Bankston calls a “silent disease” because it’s often not obvious at first glance when someone has it. Growing up with the illness caused Bankston to miss school, and she was hospitalized two-to- three times a month.

She didn’t want to let that slow her down, however. As she searched for role models who had experienced similar health challenges, she came across Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic sprinter who contracted polio as a child and needed a leg brace until she was 12.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of people who had sickle cell that were well known, that really talked about what that experience looked like,” Bankston said. “I was constantly searching for models of people who were dealing [with disabilities but] [...] were still able to thrive and chase their dreams.”

Blood transfusions ultimately transformed Bankston’s ability to manage her sickle cell. They help increase the percent of healthy red blood cells in her body, reducing the symptoms of the disease. She’s been receiving one every month for 15 years.

“(As a) regular recipient of blood donations, I have been touched by the power of community and of philanthropy,” Bankston said. “My life has been sustained by the generous gifts and donations from people who are simply committed to being a blessing to others, so it’s no coincidence that I find myself doing this work.”

Pathways to Leadership

Bankston hasn’t always known that philanthropy was a good fit for her. When she was in college at Ohio State, she studied human nutrition and public health with the idea of going into healthcare. She was a very involved student, and one year while she was organizing the African American Heritage Festival, she met with then-Senior Vice President for Outreach and Engagement Joyce Beatty—now a U.S. Representative—who became another role model and mentor for Bankston.

“She saw a leader in me before I saw it in myself,” Bankston said. “She introduced me to the beauty of Columbus and instilled in me that it’s not enough to live and work in a community, but that we must be present, involved and engaged in the growth and progress of the places that we call home.”

That started Bankston on the career path of community engagement and philanthropy, eventually landing her at L Brands. There, she oversees the company’s foundation, community and giving campaigns that support organizations like Pelotonia and United Way, as well as volunteerism.

But Bankston’s work doesn’t stop there. She also co- founded the Columbus Urban League Young Professionals in 2015, a networking group largely for people of color, with the goal of building a strong pipeline of future leaders and connecting young professionals within Columbus and also across the nation. Further, she serves as an appointed Create Columbus Commissioner, dedicating her time to supporting young professionals in the city and making Columbus a welcoming and supportive place for them to call home.

Finally, she took her experience with sickle cell disease and founded Beyond the Cell, a national movement to create awareness about the disease. Other young people living with sickle cell seeking role models reflecting their experience, as Bankston once did, need look no futher than her Instagram campaign.

Building community ties

Bankston first saw the power of community support and networks as a child in Brooklyn. Her parents came to the U.S. with a few other families from Ghana, and like many immigrant communities, she was surrounded by entrepreneurs. Her father owned an African market in one of the busiest areas of Brooklyn, and Bankston says she and her family were always trying to find new ways to uplift their community.

“As we had more and more family members that came from Africa, we were constantly trying to find new ways to either help them find employment [or] help them get connected,” she said.

Her mom moved her and her three siblings to Columbus when Bankston was 15, where she later graduated from Independence High School.

She says today that she hopes young professionals remember their ability to make a difference in their community and stay committed to achieving the changes they want to see.

“Don’t be afraid to create the things that you wish existed,” Bankston said. “Columbus is a piece of art in the making. YPs are shaping the future of this city. [...]There’s so much opportunity and there’s so many people who are probably thinking the same thing that you’re thinking. [...] So be fearless and create it.”

For Bankston, that admiration for fearlessness is reflected in Michelle Obama. She says she adores her for her intelligence, grace and creativity, but that she most admires her honesty and authenticity.

“I always want to show up as honest and as authentic as possible. Every single day, every single room that I step in, I want people to truly be able to see me,” Bankston said. “[Obama’s] never been afraid to tell us what she’s been through as a young black girl, but also as a first lady. She’s a woman on a mission. She’s never been afraid to write her own stories.”

Through her work in Columbus and nationally, Bankston is helping others do the same.

Follow Bankston on Instagram at futureflotus, and join her sickle cell disease awareness campaign on Instagram at beyondthecell.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Comic Artist Jeff Smith

J.R. McMillan

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Starting in the pages of the Lantern, Jeff Smith’s comic series BONE will finally be coming to Netflix. It only took three decades.

Being at the right place at the right time is rare in any industry. Jeff Smith is the exception several times over.

An a able ambassador and native son of Columbus, Smith’s infatuation with illustration and storytelling emerged early and in equal measure, creating his first characters when he was five, which evolved into complete comics by the time he was 10. The Columbus College of Art & Design helped hone his craft, and the prototype for his acclaimed series BONE appeared in Ohio State’s student newspaper The Lantern at length. Just as independent comics were breaking into the mainstream, the self-published creator became both a folk hero and a rock star of the emerging scene, inspiring artists and earning industry accolades, including ten Eisners, essentially the comic world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

But there were also some setbacks just now being set right. A failed Nickelodeon effort to adapt BONE for television in the ‘90s, followed by a similarly stalled big-screen project by Warner Brothers, ironically paralleled the saga of Smith’s cartoon characters navigating a foreign landscape in an unforgiving world. But Smith took all of it in stride, and bided his time. This past October, Netflix announced the long- awaited animated series fans new and old had been long-denied, a project that just as easily may not have happened. Much like Smith’s history of impeccable timing, he seems to have arrived again at just the right moment in popular culture.

“I made a deal with Warner Brothers a decade ago, and they hadn’t done anything with it. They optioned it for two years, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction it was taking and didn’t want to renew. Then they purchased it outright and told me to sit on the sidelines,” Smith recalled. “But it was in the contract that if they didn’t make a movie within ten years, then the rights reverted back to me. So I had to wait. It was such an unpleasant experience, I decided I didn’t want to sell it again. But word got out and I started getting calls from streaming services and Netflix was the best match. That’s how it happened.”

Motion picture and television rights are esoteric legal devices that often give studios and networks the “option” to turn a story into a lm or series within a given span of time. They come with lots of conditions and fine print typically serving those purchasing them, but occasionally those selling them. It’s a way to buy time, but also ensure projects don’t stay idle indefinitely.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

BONE was really an early mashup, before that term existed, of comedy and swords and sorcery. It was Bugs Bunny meets Lord of the Rings. I think it’s got to be the comedy and the combination of characters that made it popular,” Smith said, speculating on the mystery behind the series’ somewhat unexpected success, even internationally. “BONE is published all over the world. It’s still weird to pick up one of my stories and see the characters speaking French. If I knew the secret, I’d do it again.” A decade ago, Netflix was mostly dropping DVDs in the mail and was producing zero original content. A year later marked the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a television adaptation that was so dicey at the time, they only gave the first season six episodes. Now Net ix accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in the U.S. on Sunday night, and The Walking Dead draws more viewers than all Sunday NFL games combined.

“The real problem we had with Warner Brothers was making a 1,500-page book into an hour and a half movie. It couldn’t be done, so it didn’t get done,” he said. “But a streaming animated show was perfect; it’s just like the comic book. It’s serialized and can progress chapter by chapter. It was the right time, and the right company.”

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service clamoring for content, and it’s easy to forget House of Cards, their first original series, only premiered in 2013. With Amazon Prime and Hulu well- established, and Disney and Apple both investing heavily in production for their own freshly-minted subscription services, Smith again seemed to capture the right moment to reach the right audience, all while maintaining the artistic integrity of BONE.

“We’re still looking for showrunners. If everything goes well, we’re hoping to have shows in the fall of 2022. I’ll be a creator on the show and an executive producer, but it’s really just one more project,” Smith noted. “I still want to draw comics. I don’t need to be out there the whole time. Once the show is up and running, I can work here.”

As if BONE alone weren’t a sufficient source of inspiration for veteran and aspiring comic artists, Smith is also a founder and the artistic director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), an annual, and increasingly international, celebration of the city’s commitment to illustrated storytellers across every genre and format. But even before CXC, Columbus was arguably already a comic town. From esteemed exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Wexner Center to nationally renowned institutions like the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and Thurber House, our city has always recognized comics as art worth appreciating as much as any medium of creative expression.

“The idea behind CXC was that it would be more like a European show and not be all in one room at a convention center or hotel. It would be at different venues throughout the city. But it would also be a show that was more collegial, that would nurture comic creators and encourage connections,” he explained. “When I grew up here, there were neighborhoods in Columbus where you wouldn’t go at night. Now we’re a chef-driven town with galleries everywhere. We’re a cultural crossroads. It’s why we wanted to have events all over town, to showcase the city. And it’s working. People will go to an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, then go to an event at OSU and stop in the Short North along the way, grab a bite to eat and talk about comics.”

Even as he prepares for the production of BONE the streaming series and the sixth year of CXC, Smith sees the similarities in both projects and the role he plays—getting the right balance of characters working toward the same goal and creating a story that compels audiences to return.

“You have to start each with a recap, so everyone knows the story so far. Tell your new episode, then end it with a cliff hanger,” Smith explained. “That’s the secret to any serial, whether it’s a comic, a television show, or a convention. You have to give people a reason to come back for more.”

To learn more about BONE and Smith’s other work, visit boneville.com.

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