Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront by Nathan Ward

Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (War for the New York Waterfrnt) BY Nathan Ward. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.
The cover of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (War for the New York Waterfrnt)

From the boozy, crusading priest in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, to Malcolm “Mike” Johnson, the New York Sun’s journalist-hero, to death by Murder Inc.’s ice pick, the New York City waterfront’s native criminality has been both root and branch of many enduring urban tropes. These ideas have by now been civilized, obscuring the fact that not long ago a reporter could write that the waterfront “produces more murders per square foot than does any other section of the country.”

Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, journalist Nathan Ward’s brisk, enthusiastic rendering of this dark and bloody precinct of American history, details a time when “waterfront murders came and went, acts of score settling or territorial consolidation, against a whispery background of labor ‘troubles,’ longshore rackets, and gang rivalries.” Ward lays bare the nexus of corruption—of labor and management, of politicians and police—that enabled the Port of New York to be the basis for the expansion and consolidation of the infamous Syndicate, the lethal confederacy of racketeers, mobsters, and assassins that held sway over much of the nation’s commerce during the middle of the twentieth century. “I thought America ended at Columbia Street,” Arthur Miller once quipped about the geographic border of Brooklyn’s port area. But this border was a beginning, not an ending—where distorted capitalism presented opportunity only through corruption.

Every aspect of port life was under the control of mobbed-up union leaders like Joe Ryan, “president for life” of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and his boss, William McCormack, the influential and dirty leader of the McCormack Steamship Line. These men were the conduit between the boats, the workers, and Mob luminaries such as Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky. Ryan worked at McCormack’s behest, providing pliant labor in return for financial reward. From the daily hiring, or “shape up,” to the longshoremen’s and stevedores' perennial donations to Mob social galas (the cost of tickets was deducted from workers’ wages), every aspect of a dockworker’s life lined the powerbrokers’ pockets. The perennially underemployed laborers were vulnerable to both economic and physical coercion. This “thuggish cartoon of unionism” was kept in place by well-known prohibitions against “ratting” and by ruthless visits from Murder Inc., the ice-pick- and gun-toting group of contract killers that enforced the Mob’s decisions, kept the system in order, and helped siphon millions of dollars from the waterfront, amounting to what Ward terms an “unofficial national tax.”

Ruthless crime creates selfless heroes, and Dark Harbor praises many, including Father John Corridan, a Jesuit priest who ministered to the dockworkers and fought the pervasive corruption. Ward finds his hero in Sun reporter Johnson, who investigated and published 1948’s “Crime on the Waterfront,” a multipart exposé of wharf corruption, sodden corpses, deplorable working conditions, and Mob connections. Ward writes that “lengthy stories asserting a national crime syndicate were difficult to publish” at the time, due in part to the government’s—especially the FBI’s—refusal to see anything other than Communism as the premier national threat. Johnson’s stories let the rat out of the bag, initiating a saga of legal and illegal maneuvering, which finally culminated in the decline of the waterfront underworld.

A torrent of names, places, and incidents, Dark Harbor doesn’t allow enough space to cultivate its cast. The result is sometimes confusing, dizzying, and never allows the reader a close look at many of the characters driving the story. Ward strives to reveal how various strands of ’40s and ’50s American life were threaded through the port—labor unrest on both coasts, the Dewey-Truman election, Whittaker Chambers—but this agenda seems too ambitious for a book with such a limited scope.

Ward invokes, partially explains, and dismisses incidents that deserve books of their own—for instance, how the government employed harbor thugs and bosses who served as sentinels in search of Communist submarines after the scuttling of the Normandie. He attempts to capture the sinister spirit and patois of the era’s contract killers and thugs, with uneven results. When Johnson confronts Ryan about the ILA’s suspect activity, Ward quotes Ryan as saying, “That’s ridiculous. . . . The Police wouldn’t stand for a situation like that. Our men wouldn’t stand for it. The steamship and stevedoring companies wouldn’t stand for it.” Ryan was surely a chameleon, but this brief transcription of outrage seems strikingly at odds with his response to a prosecutor later in the book:

Q: Mr. Ryan, do you think any part of what you are now saying has anything remotely to do with any question I asked you?

Ryan: It’s got remote to do with the question of our condition of our investigation.

Ward uses this rather obscure exchange as an epigraph for one of Dark Harbor’s chapters, and one wishes he would have quoted more liberally from the gangsters. As Ward notes, On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg cribbed much of the film’s dialogue (such as: “Wait’ll I see that bum again—I’ll top him off lovely,”) while listening to union reps and longshoremen, and Ward used a large textual archive, including transcripts. Rather than rely on the rich texture of harbor colloquialism, however, the majority of Dark Harbor is told in Ward’s voice.

Ward notes recent changes to the harbor with nostalgia: The New York Sun building is now a Chase bank, and IKEA squats on a former Red Hook dry dock. But the past lives on in the Sun building, however diminished; in piers surrounding the city; and, as ever, in the unions. In 2005, nearly sixty years after Johnson’s Sun series, the feds filed a lawsuit against the ILA, Joe Ryan’s old union, attempting to rid the organization of its ties to organized crime. Thus the harbor’s present lives up to the cliché of its past “criminal coloration,” where, as Ward writes, “money washed in and out, and graft mingled the longshore union with the racketeers.”

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.