For most of us, knowledge of the crime-ridden New York docks in the years following World War II comes largely from Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront, with its violence, murders, beatings, graft, and kickbacks.
In the movie, we saw how the rampant lawlessness made a few people very rich and very powerful while providing those willing to serve their crooked aims with comfortable, if precarious, lives. But for most working the piers, forced to make daily kickbacks even to get a job, existence was a succession of hardships, barely allowing them to scrape by from one uncertain payday to the next.
According to Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, none of this was cinematic exaggeration, and in fact, according to one newspaper reporter of the day, "the waterfront of New York produces more murders per square foot than does any other one section of the country."
Nathan Ward, a former editor at American Heritage and Library Journal, begins his account of these urban badlands with the 1939 disappearance and murder of Peter Panto, a worker on the Brooklyn waterfront who had run afoul of Emil Camarda, the mob-connected boss of the International Longshoremen's Association local that ruled the Brooklyn docks.
The Panto killing and its aftermath begins a grim narrative of the dark side. The menace of such union bosses as Camarda in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and, most especially, Joseph P. Ryan, the outwardly charming "President for Life" of the ILA's New York local, fought to keep challengers to their rule at bay through intimidation, payoffs, and, if those failed, disappearances.
Their clout was achieved through threats, but it was maintained by the "shape-up" system, "the main source of the outlaws' power over the men who worked the docks." Whenever there was a ship to be loaded or unloaded, a crowd of potential workers would show up, their ultimate selection determined by who they knew or who they paid and, probably most especially, by how few questions they asked.
The crookedness of the "shape" led to a pattern in which, as Panto himself explained to a labor lawyer friend shortly before his murder, dockworkers "had to . . . have all [their] haircuts at a certain barber shop . . . [and] buy their wine grapes from a designated dealer at lush prices, whether they planned to make wine or not."
Panto also said that that "many longshoremen paid out almost half their wages in kickbacks to qualify for work." So pervasive was the mob coercion in the port of New York that, during World War II, the Office of Naval Intelligence enlisted Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and other gangsters to guard the harbor against sabotage and enforce a labor peace that allowed convoys to sail to Europe, threatened only by German submarines.
Some workers protested from time to time and some even talked to investigators, but mostly the real situation on the docks remained only a suspicion until a reporter on a dying newspaper, acting on an editor's hunch, began looking for facts behind the rumors.
The New York Sun, which had begun life in a blaze of glory in 1833 as the city's first successful penny newspaper, had fallen on hard times by 1948 and was then eighth in circulation among Manhattan's nine dailies. Still, it had editors who were curious and reporters who were talented, and when one of the former heard of the murder of a hiring boss in northern Manhattan, he was reminded of a similar event in Greenwich Village the previous year and dispatched one of his star reporters to investigate.
What Mike Johnson uncovered after many months of digging both on the docks and through the files of frustrated prosecutor William Keating was a whole host of similar events and a culture of crime and intimidation that stretched far beyond the waterfront to the highest reaches of the political and commercial establishments.
The investigation was aided most of all by a few heroic dockworkers fed up with the corruption they saw around them, but also by Keating's records, and by Father John Corridan, "the waterfront priest," who, in his righteous fury, called the struggle for the soul of the harbor "a fight with no holds barred, and sometimes you've got to knee and gouge and elbow in the clinches."
When they appeared in the Sun, the stories (which earned Mike Johnson a Pulitzer Prize in 1949) set off a firestorm of investigation and accusation, for until the series put names and dates to it, criminal activity around the port had been long assumed but rarely challenged. Suddenly, politicians from the state and city of New York to the U.S. Senate began their own probes, all eager to take credit for cleaning up the waterfront mess.
The reaction of the dock bosses to all this activity was to accuse the reporter and his allies of being Communists, a strategy that had succeeded in keeping Harry Bridges and his radical West Coast longshoremen's union from Atlantic ports.
This time, though, the red-baiting didn't work quite so well and the investigations continued, with the ultimate result of breaking much of the stranglehold of mob influence and causing the ILA to be temporarily expelled from the American Federation of Labor in 1953.
The long, bumpy road that brought the New York waterfront toward the light is one well traveled by Ward. Although written in a sometimes repetitive style that suggests a series of loosely connected articles rather than a seamlessly flowing narrative, Dark Harbor captures the troubling essence of a particularly bleak chapter in the history of both organized crime and organized labor.
Thanks to James Polk
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