Dark Harbor

I’ve often wondered why nobody has ever published a genealogy of the most resonant pop culture clichés – the origins of, say, a man slipping on a banana. If anyone ever gets that book contract, one of that history’s darker chapters will surely be devoted to the New York City waterfront. Nathan Ward recently published Dark Harbor: The War for the New York City Waterfront, and I took a quick look at it for Bookforum.

As I write in the review:

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.

Dark Harbor is a nice introduction to the port-lore, and the thug life of mid-twentieth century New York, but I’d supplement it with something like James Fisher’s On The Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie and the Soul of the Port of New York. Fisher’s book is academic, so he’s slow where Ward is swift. The two complement each other nicely. Any fan of The Wire knows the twisted ways of the shipping industry persist to this day.

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