Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront

A new book looks at the bloody history of New York's waterfront.

Nathan Ward didn’t set out to chronicle the story of corruption along the New York City waterfront in the 1940s and 1950s. “I was trying to write a novel about the Wall Street bombing of 1920—it was [going to be] set against that,” the author and editor explains. But during his research, Ward came across the 24-part series written by New York Sun journalist Malcolm “Mike” Johnson about crime along the water. “I thought, That is amazing,” Ward laughs. “No one did a 24-part series in that time—let alone something as libelous as saying certain mobsters control certain docks.”

His curiosity piqued, Ward continued to research corruption along the docks; the result is his new book, Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (Macmillan, $26), which details the extensive criminal history of the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Hoboken docks. The subject is best-known in popular culture as the inspiration for Elia Kazan’s Academy Award--winning film On the Waterfront. But Ward cautions people who assume that Kazan’s film—in which Marlon Brando plays a dockworker, Terry, who stands up to the mob—accurately reflects history. “Over time, people have forgotten the criminal background of the movie,” he notes. “Terry would never had lived,” though he does understand why the film took that liberty. “People would have been really bummed out coming out of a movie like that,” laughs Ward. “You can stand up to the man and have him kill you!”

Ward will discuss the book at several Dark Harbor--centric events across the city this week, including a discussion with author Kevin Baker at the Tenement Museum (108 Orchard St at Broome St; tenement.org; Wed 30 at 6:30pm; free) as well as the Waterfront Books and Authors Festival on the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge (290 Conover St at Pier 44, Red Hook, Brooklyn; waterfrontmuseum.org; Sat 26 noon--4pm; $6). But you can experience the corrupt history of the harbor yourself at these spots, which feature in Ward’s book.

61 Grove Street at Seventh Avenue South
This building—which now houses a Japanese restaurant—is where Pier 51 hiring boss Andy Hintz was shot in 1947 by mobster John “Cockeye” Dunn, who controlled hiring and payroll at many of the West Village piers. Dunn, along with cohorts Andrew “Squint” Sheridan and Danny Gentile, waited until Hintz left for work before opening fire, hitting him five times in all. But they didn’t kill him right away, and Hintz was later able to identify the shooter—Dunn—on his deathbed.

Pier 51, Horatio Street at the Hudson River
Hintz was in charge of hiring crews at this particular pier, but refused to cooperate with the mobsters—specifically, Dunn and Eddie McGrath—who ran many of the West Side docks. Now, the pier houses a playground that’s part of Hudson River Park. “As a cranky historian, you want to be on the side of the ruins,” says Ward. “But as a father, my kids love these parks. It’s a thrill to be closer to the water now.”

78 Christopher Street between Bleecker Street and Seventh Avenue South
After shooting Hintz, Dunn and his crew scrambled to make a getaway, crossing over to this building from the roof of 61 Grove Street. Though they weren’t spotted, a woman who lived on the top floor of this building did find evidence that people had been there. “When she went up, she saw no sign of anyone on the roof, except by the door the men had used there was a puddle of urine,” laughs Ward. “I thought it was such a symbol of the pathology of these guys: Either before they were about to kill someone, or while they were trying to escape after they killed someone, they would pause to do that on the roof. It’s so unimaginable.”

St. Vincent’s Hospital, Seventh Avenue South at 12th Street
The recently closed hospital is where Hintz gave his deathbed statements. The assistant district attorney at the time, William J. Keating, pushed for Hintz to identify his killer before his death—few people would ever testify against the mob for fear of retribution—which helped build the case against Dunn, and ultimately lead to his imprisonment and execution—a significant victory. “The Hintz case was the first conviction in a Manhattan waterfront murder in 20 years,” explains Ward.

Manhattan D.A.’s Office, Centre Street between Leonard and White Streets
Keating gave Johnson a covert look at files related to Dunn’s conviction while Johnson was researching the corruption along the waterfront. “In one sense it was for the publicity,” explains Ward. “But it was also to light a fire under [Keating’s] boss to do more waterfront prosecutions. He’d won [the Hintz case] and they were sliding back into 'Oh, why bother, because no one ever testifies.’?” This thinking was endemic at the time, but Keating hoped to change it by drawing more attention to the issue; Johnson’s story was one way of doing that. “It helped [Keating and Johnson] both, because they had the same attitude toward corruption,” says Ward. “They weren’t cynical in any way even though they worked in this world and saw all of this stuff.”

The New York Sun building, 280 Broadway at Chambers Street
Johnson’s interest in the docks was initially aroused by the murder of Thomas Collentine, another hiring boss, in 1948. “It sounded so eerily like the execution of Andy Hintz,” explains Ward. With Keating’s help, Johnson was able to string together a series murders and stilted court cases. “You had years and years of these people turning up in the harbor, and the [newspaper] account of it—in the third paragraph or so—would mention that the victim had been accused of a waterfront murder acquitted for lack of witnesses,” explains Ward. Johnson eventually figured out how the cases were related, but not without some trouble—including death threats. “If those guys had been calling my house and threatening my children, I would’ve just written children’s books,” Ward laughs. “I would’ve dropped this in a second. I have such respect for him sticking with it; I don’t know if it was a different time or he was made of different stuff or what.”

WISE GUYS! Dark Harbor discussion: The Tenement Museum, 108 Orchard St at Broome St (tenement.org). Wed 30 at 6:30pm; free.

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