Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront

Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront

by Nathan 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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312569341
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt


“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


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


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.

Table of Contents

Map xiii

Preface: Who Wants to Be a Dead Hero? xv

1 "Dov'è Panto? " 1

2 Stirring Up the Animals 17

3 Broad Daylight 31

4 Johnny Shot Me 45

5 King Joe 55

6 The Big Story 63

7 They'd Never Kill a Reporter 69

8 The Leech and the Thug 79

9 A Lousy Buck 85

10 A Cup of Coffee 93

11 Meet the Boys 101

12 Above the Fold 109

13 Just Strangers 115

14 Communists and Newsmen 121

15 The Peacemaker 127

16 Our Wit's end 133

17 To Speak Without Fear 139

18 The Meeting of Minds 145

19 They Kill in the Dark 151

20 Out of the Woods 155

21 Talk or Fry 159

22 Last Round 167

23 A Cheap Town 177

24 The Crime Show 183

25 Learning the Score 191

26 Wings of Purity 199

27 Twilight 213

Epilogue Saint Peter 219

Notes 233

Acknowledgments 245

Index 251

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