Unholy Waterfront

Professor James Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront


With a shock of sandy blonde hair that perpetually seems to be on the verge of revolt and a conversation style that is best described as a benign form of rapid-fire free association, it’s easy to picture Professor Jim Fisher, 52, as the young taxicab driving college dropout living in Hoboken, N.J., that he once was in the late 1970s. This was during the difficult period after Hoboken’s once flourishing port had moved a few miles south to Newark and Elizabeth, and long before gentrification turned Hoboken into New York City’s unofficial sixth borough in the 80s and 90s. When Fisher resided there it was just another struggling post-industrial city living on past glories that amounted to two trivia questions:

  1. What is Frank Sinatra’s hometown?
  2. Where was the Oscar Award-winning classic On the Waterfront filmed?

Three decades later — following stints at Rutgers, Yale and Saint Louis University — his career as a teacher and writer has brought Fisher back to his Northern New Jersey roots. In his new book, On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (Cornell University Press, 2009), the Fordham professor explores the untold history of both the New York and New Jersey sides of the Hudson River’s enormous port (once the largest in the world). A recent review in the Wall Street Journal proclaimed it “a fascinating work of history that explores the rise of New York’s commercial port from the early 1900s to the 1950s and the corruption that eventually infiltrated all levels of the cargo business, until a crusading priest helped to put a stop to it — and inspired a classic film along the way.”

On the Irish Waterfront is an ambitious book that combines the economic, cultural, ethnic and religious histories of the New York waterfront from the first half of the 20th century. Until now, most people’s only connection to that history could probably be summed up by Marlon Brando’s legendary lines from On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody…” Fisher looks behind our collective celluloid memories to reveal the complex reality of how one Jesuit priest fought for justice on what was essentially the lawless frontier of the New York docks.

Busted Halo: Like many of the subjects in your book, you also grew up in an Irish Catholic family in the New York metropolitan area and even had family members who worked on the waterfront. What first got you interested in this idea?

Jim Fisher: I got it just in the waterfront priest, Father John Corridan, who’s known as Pete, just like the character Karl Malden plays in the movie, Father Pete Barry. I knew Fr. Corridan would be at the center of my book. Then I began to discover there’s a big and very complicated story that had never been told and the only way the story could be told was to build the story out of all this archival documentation that I accumulated. Nothing was given. That is, there wasn’t even an anecdotal version of the story where I could go down and interview people on the West Side and they talk about bits and pieces of things, but nobody really could give you a narrative account, an outline even, of what I wound up putting together. One of the important conceptual motifs of the book is what I call “the code of silence” which was the way these Irish American second-generation entrepreneurs enforced their authority. By reinforcing this code of silence, it prevented people from speaking out or testifying to the their experience or speaking to police or law enforcement of any kind or the judiciary or reporters or anyone who came from the outside. It’s what kept intact this certain insular quality that dominated life in the port. So, in a strange way, even 60 years later I still have to deal with trying to crack the code of silence which always has governed how people wrote and spoke on the waterfront; so that was a daunting task. Even since the time the book has come out, people have come forward to me with stories they weren’t willing to tell before and that I think is ultimately going to be one of the legacies of the book: it isn’t to be the definitive account of anything, but to open up the discussion about history.

BH: How powerful was the port of New York?

They didn’t randomly and indiscriminately practice violence, but violence was seen as a tactic or device to be deployed legitimately in the name of what I call right order, and that was a big part of the Church’s teaching at the time. The Church would now speak differently, but at the time it was understood — it was called sensus fedelium — the sense of the faithful was that the Church understood that right order had to be restored sometimes at all costs, and that might include violence… These powerful business and political figures like McCormack, Hague, Ryan and others… were good Catholics as Catholicism was understood in the time and place where they lived.

JF: It was the world’s busiest, most lucrative port, and here’s the thing that I really focused on: There was never a freight rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Manhattan and the mainland of America have never been connected — to this day — by a rail tunnel or freight. That’s an amazingly glaring flaw in the infrastructure of the world’s great port. When the second generation Irish American entrepreneurs had gained control of the stevedoring — the loading and unloading of the ships on the Hudson River — particularly a guy called Bill McCormack, they had enormous control. Mayor Frank Hague on the Jersey side controlled all of Hudson County. It was in their interest to see to it that a freight rail tunnel was never dug under the Hudson River because they had established monopoly control of the loading and unloading. For the people who control the loading and unloading, it gave them an exponential increase in their economic power because they had the ability to control everything that came in and out of that port. These second generation Irish American entrepreneurs had enormous power economically, politically and religiously too, in the port where 90 percent of the longshoremen were Catholics, and everyone who was in the upper leadership of the longshoremen union, the ILA, were Irish Catholics as well.

On the West Side of Manhattan — Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village and Chelsea neighborhoods — Irish Americans remained the dominant force in the piers, and those, of course, were the elite piers of the entire port; particularly the Chelsea piers in the Chelsea neighborhood, which is now a recreation facility. They were like the Vatican of the Port of New York and New Jersey, and even the pier sheds, built by the architects who built Grand Central Terminal — they were almost a cathedral of the waterfront.

BH: Do you consider people like [Longshoremen Union chief] Joe Ryan and [waterfront businessman] Bill McCormack — both of whom figure heavily in your account of the waterfront — to be organized crime figures?

JF: Well, T.J. English, who has written a lot about the Irish in New York, argued that the longshoreman union — the ILA — he said, was more powerful than any Italian American organized crime family because it had dominion over this very, very lucrative marketplace here in the port. There’s no question that the Irish American figures, especially Joe Ryan would be considered a mob associate. He consorted with figures like Albert Anastasia, who was considered the Lord High Executioner of Murder Incorporated. And Ryan could certainly be considered an organized crime figure himself because the entire system of hiring in the port and other institutions of the port were heavily beholden to the kind of practices we associate with organized crime: shakedowns, extortion, bribery, kickbacks and all kinds of extralegal activities.

This is of course where the Jesuit labor priests, particularly John Corridan, viewed the situation as a scandal; because you had prominent Irish Catholics essentially behaving like organized crime figures and at the same time they were very conspicuously honored as very prominent members of the New York Archdiocese.

They reaped all kinds of accolades and awards from the church. They’d be put into all the leading honor societies and the organizations that the elite laypeople were invited to, often by papal appointment. They were very conspicuously Catholic, and so, because it was a Catholic waterfront and these Irish Catholics controlled the union and the industries, they had a lot of moral and religious authority to go along with their economic and political power. In New Jersey for example, I argued that [legendary Jersey City Mayor] Frank Hague was the most powerful religious figure in Hudson County as well as the most powerful political figure because there was never a strong bishop in Newark. So Frank Hague really controlled and set the moral, religious and spiritual tone of this county as well as the political, because he employed dozens of priests from around the county on the municipal payroll. Everything from fire chaplains to the county maintenance garage — they had priests who were paid chaplains. So the idea was to incorporate the church into the political system, into the machine.