Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront

Paperback | May 24, 2011

byNathan Ward

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"They'd never kill a reporter...." On the morning of April 29, 1948, a West Side pier hiring boss was shot on his way to work. The murder reminded the New York Sun's city editor of a similar docks killing from the year before, and so he called over his best general assignment man, Malcolm "Mike" Johnson, telling him, "Lots of unrest down there. Maybe you can get a story out of it." Johnson certainly did, discovering the greatest story of his long career, and a "waterfront jungle" with "rich pickings for criminal gangs." His crime series ran on the Sun's front page for twenty-four days in the fall of 1948, raising a national scandal and bringing death threats on him and his family. Johnson alleged the existence of an international crime "syndicate," at a time when J. Edgar Hoover would not admit that such a syndicate, let alone a Mafia, existed.

Herein, Nathan Ward tells the original Mob story, "revealing a spiderweb of union corruption and outright gangsterism....His story has everything" (New York Sun), making Dark Harbor a modern true crime classic.

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"They'd never kill a reporter...." On the morning of April 29, 1948, a West Side pier hiring boss was shot on his way to work. The murder reminded the New York Sun's city editor of a similar docks killing from the year before, and so he called over his best general assignment man, Malcolm "Mike" Johnson, telling him, "Lots of unrest do...

Nathan Ward, who was an editor with American Heritage, has written for The New York Times and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, not far from the Red Hook piers. He is the author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront and The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.65 inPublished:May 24, 2011Publisher:PicadorLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0312569343

ISBN - 13:9780312569341

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PREFACE: WHO WANTS TO BE A DEAD HERO? “Oh, I know what you want to hear about,” Jim Longhi said with false reluctance the first time I called him, interrupting a chess game with his wife, Gabrielle. “The old waterfront—gangsters, rackets, the Anastasias.” He was right. My interest in what Mr. Longhi elegantly called the “criminal coloration” of the docks was what had brought us together. Longhi was a cultured Manhattan attorney on the threshold of his nineties when we met in his cheerful apartment on Sutton Place one summer afternoon. He had just removed his work tie from the collar of his silk shirt as he led me out onto his small balcony. Below us and a few hundred yards away was the East River, a pretty staid thoroughfare at that point in its life compared to the rough old waterfront I had come to hear about, and Mr. Longhi weighed the calm barge traffic he saw against the river in his head. “A very different waterfront,” he judged. As we talked about his early days, the suave manners of the Columbia- educated attorney loosened a bit, following his tie, revealing a son of the Brooklyn docks. Longhi’s father had been a radical docks organizer (“When I was born, my father had seven bodyguards, seven Italians with ice picks!”), and he had started out himself as a waterfront lawyer like Mr. Alfieri, the character his friend Arthur Miller modeled on him for A View from the Bridge. We spent some wonderful hours among his memories of one friend’s dangerous feud with “Tough Tony” Anastasio or another whose longshore activism had dropped off after “they broke his legs.” This was the world I was after. I’d first become interested in the waterfront when I lived in South Brooklyn, in a brownstone owned by an old Italian longshoreman with missing fingers. Ships would occasionally appear at the end of my street, to be unloaded or repaired or sent off with a burst of nighttime fireworks. I grew familiar with the tug and ferry horns and watched the sunset flights of pigeons that zagged around the rooftops, much as in the famous Brando movie. But I knew almost nothing about the old days until I happened across a reference to a 1940s newspaper series on waterfront gangsterism. It had run for twenty- four days—an extraordinary amount of space to give to any subject then, let alone to the lowly docks—and caused a national scandal; could the piers really have been as brutal as they looked in the movies? When I met Jim Longhi again it was in his law offices on lower Broadway and he was wearing a beautiful brown suit. The high windows looked across to the old New York Sun building and beyond to another waterfront, busy with beautifications. On a distant pier by the Brooklyn Bridge, where Longhi remembered watching desperate men fight a hook- swinging riot, a new riverside playground was being dug. We sat for an hour talking about some valiant old causes and vivid, long- dead thugs of the harbor. Months before he died, I called Mr. Longhi once more at his office with a foolishly cinematic idea: to take my ninety- year- old friend out on a boat and tour the harbor, perhaps starting at the Narrows and hugging the shoreline to see what he remembered, pier by vestigial pier; Longhi would narrate as he drifted around the city, recalling who had owned what or done what to whom. (“You say, ‘Mafia,’ and it’s provincial,” he had told me. “You say, ‘Mob,’ and it extends way beyond the Italian underworld.”) The small tour boat Geraldina was ready to pick us up, her captain, herself a historian of the harbor, eagerly standing by with a video camera and microphone to capture the floating lecture. I then called Mr. Longhi to ease any remaining old- guy concerns about the trip, describing the level, relatively uncomplicated Chelsea dock (with an outdoor bar) where we imagined him stepping aboard after a steadying cocktail. He listened to my pitch, then paused and sighed into the phone. “It kind of sounds like a pain in the ass,” he said at last. “I have my own picture of where everything was in my mind. I don’t need to see the waterfront today to tell me that.” Seeing it today would indeed muddle things. At the edge of the Erie Basin, a ferry service lures visitors from Manhattan to a giant IKEA store that sits among the relics of the Brooklyn industrial waterfront. The store has a large upstairs cafeteria where, after a long afternoon touring housewares and furniture kits, you can eat Swedish meatballs and watch the sun lengthen across the car park, paved over a deep old dry dock that once held warships. For decades, much of the abandoned waterfront was walled off by empty pier sheds. There was a forlorn beauty to the slow dilapidation, even if the water was blocked by a kind of ghost town. Many old sheds have since been flattened into parks; a trapeze school now sits atop Chelsea’s Pier 40 building, and swinging out over the Hudson River waterfront, you have a clear downtown view uncluttered by slings or crates or Hi- Lo trucks. Looking out from the promenade that overhangs the expressway in Brooklyn Heights, you see a rotting wet railroad pier, all that remains here from Jim Longhi’s time, the dark planking and rail track punctuated by shrubs that grow in green tufts; large concrete piers, recently cleared of their cargo sheds for park space, surround the ruin, which has been retained among the planned ice rink, new ballfields, and condominia pushing south from the bridges and toward the hugely still gantry cranes of the Red Hook Marine Terminal. Beyond the cranes sits the boxy white- brick headquarters of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, established in the fifties to mind the gangsters on the docks and recently folded into Homeland Security. The harbor Mr. Longhi kept in his head was the world’s greatest port, a collection of bays rimmed with more than nine hundred piers and noisily crowded with hundreds of express liners, freighters, ferries, lighters, garbage scows, car floats, battleships, yachts, floating elevators, coffee barges, and constantly whistling tugs. The Hudson was still known as the North River (to distinguish it from the Delaware, or South River) along its length from the Battery, where freighters often lined up for their tug escorts, to the deep Midtown piers. This book is about that old waterfront, and its “criminal coloration,” where money washed in and out, and graft mingled the longshore union with the racketeers. Touring the harbor today, it is hard to imagine these quiet frontages of rot and renewal ever knowing such a fearful time that a reporter could write, “It has been said, and with some justification that the waterfront of New York produces more murders to the square foot than does any other one section of the country. Most such murders go unsolved.” In fact, in 1948, the year the shooting of a young boss stevedore brought reporter Malcolm “Mike” Johnson of the New York Sun to the West Side docks, the Manhattan district attorney claimed there’d been at least two dozen unsolved waterfront murders since 1919. Johnson soon learned that snaking around the watery edges of his town was a very different city. “Murder on the waterfront is commonplace,” he wrote, “a logical product of widespread gangsterism.” I have tried my best to evoke the dock world the longshoremen knew long before the newspapers discovered it. But at its heart, this is a reporter’s story. If Mike Johnson’s sleuthing along the docks has a hardboiled familiarity, echoing any number of later Mob tales involving hoods and rackets and an intrepid investigator, it is because his was the original—creating the Mob investigation form that runs from On the Waterfront to The Valachi Papers and Donnie Brasco. Johnson’s discovery of what he called a “waterfront jungle” is also the story of a clash of New York institutions—a fading newspaper, backing its unshakable veteran star reporter; the Mob, near the height of its influence, whose leaders had largely come to power and of age during Prohibition; and the longshore union and the pugnacious survivor at its helm, “president- for- life” Joseph Ryan. “One of the constantly astounding things about New York is that it can endure so much crime and corruption and still manage to get on,” the New York Herald Tribune editorialized during the waterfront scandals. Indeed, the city had “gotten on” for several decades under an imaginary bargain, despite the occasional alarms raised by citizens’ groups about port corruption and the bodies that turned up from month to month, deposited by what newspapers obtusely called the “dock wars.” New Yorkers were aware that gangsters shared their town, primarily robbing and shooting one another and running the better nightclubs but never holding the reins completely as they had in Chicago. For many, their city’s sinful reputation was the price of cosmopolitanism. Reporters had toured the waterfront before Mike Johnson, dabbling in its rough atmosphere and lore as the movies did—as a setting for brawls and deals or other seamy behavior beyond the edge of society. Investigating the deaths of some twenty- one stevedores in Brooklyn’s Irishtown neighborhood, The New Yorker’s Alva Johnston wrote in 1931 that the total lack of arrests was “not because there is anything secret or underhand about these murders, but because the witnesses won’t talk.” Loyalty to the waterfront code against “squealing” also marked the death of the Brooklyn dock boss Red Donnelly, who, balehooked and shot in a waterfront shanty, was asked the perfunctory policeman’s question of who had killed him. “John Doe,” Red coughed out, and died pure. Even the celebrated crimefighter Thomas Dewey, whose racketbusting exploits as Manhattan DA inspired a long- running radio drama (Mister District Attorney), was beaten by the docks and its infuriating code. After his agents secretly filmed longshoremen passing “tribute” money at two Wall Street piers in 1941, they subpoenaed two hundred of the men and shuttled them in buses to a special screening of the surveillance movie, which failed to convince many about testifying. As one asked, “Who the hell wants to be a dead hero, mister?” Arturo Piecoro began his three decades on the New York docks in the last days of the “shape- up” system, when each freightbearing vessel that entered the harbor was met by gangs of men, many carrying curved iron hooks with which they would dig out the stowed cargoes of lumber, coffee, copper ingots, or Egyptian cotton. These hopefuls crowded together at the pierheads, hunching under their caps and windbreakers in raw weather, waiting to be chosen in an ancient ritual in which most would be sent home. The shapeup was “a hit- and- miss thing unless you knew somebody,” Piecoro told me at a Brooklyn coffee shop. “If you miss one shape, you hurry down to the next pier. There’s another ship. You bullshit with some guys, then go over. Three steady gangs would be called first; then, if somebody was sick, you might have a chance.” Those picked in the shape might work four or sixteen hours while a particular ship remained in port; if they weren’t part of a regular work gang, they could idle for a week around the piers or waterfront bars, scanning the newspapers or pub chalkboards for lists of incoming ships. When they worked, the longies, as they called themselves, were at greatest risk down in the ship’s hold; but up top, slings could slip and rain down heavy cargo loads on the men working below. On Columbia Street in Brooklyn, the day’s gangs were often sorted out between the hatch boss and hiring boss before the shape- up whistle even sounded, which made the shapeup itself a demoralizing formality. “Guys paid for jobs, but you never saw it,” Piecoro told me. “They might turn up with something on their hat, or behind their ear, but you never saw them do it. That was all done before.” When Jim Longhi brought his friend Arthur Miller down to Columbia Street to show him a shape- up, the young playwright was thoroughly shocked to see the men herded docilely together, “waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed in a semi circle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day,” Miller remembered. On another visit he saw men “tearing at each other’s hands” in “a frantic scramble” for the morning’s last few work checks. “America, I thought, stopped at Columbia Street.” So it seemed. “Mobsters and labor racketeers” controlled the world’s largest port, Mike Johnson wrote in 1948—and they threatened his life for saying it. The bolder pier heists included an entire electrical generator gone missing and a vanished ten- ton shipment of steel. Organized pilferage was so rampant, Johnson said, it amounted to an unofficial national tax, made possible by wider corruption in the longshore union and in the courts, the police department, and Washington. The scandal he raised inspired Estes Kefauver to put mobsters on national television and the filmmakers Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan to create a controversial masterpiece. That so many people now regard On the Waterfront as an allegory for something else—the filmmakers’ own testifying to Congress about communism—shows how much has been forgotten about the criminal reality of the docks Mike Johnson exposed. As Johnson would learn, the “waterfront jungle” was by no means a clear extension of the New York it encircled. It was a city apart, with its own bosses, language, and codes, bankers, soldiers and even martyrs, a frontier all its own.

Editorial Reviews

"Meticulous reporting, a keen eye for detail, and an elegant writing style...terrific." -Jonathan Eig, The New York Times Book Review"True crime done right, sharply researched and written with an economy of language...as atmospheric as a two a.m. stroll down the wharf on a late October night." -Allen Bara, The Daily Beast"Brilliant." -New York magazine"Riveting." -New York Post"This gritty examination of the corrupt New York City waterfront...has all of the local color, rich detail, and notorious gangland figures of Elia Kazan's film masterpiece, On the Waterfront. Extremely valuable to all interested in twentieth-century New York City." -Publishers Weekly (starred review)"Nathan Ward's elegant and affectionate visit to gangster New York in the 1940s is excellent true crime and true histroy. Dark Harbor goes on the shelf next to Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling." -Alan Furst, author of Night Soldiers"Carefully researched, Nathan Ward's Dark Harbor nonetheless reads as if it were ripped from the day's headlines. Here is the real--and fascinating--story of the waterfront." -Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row"True-crime and film fans alike will be engrossed by Ward's street-savvy research into the original waterfront." -Gilbert Taylor, Booklist