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Breaking the code of silence

The geography of Manhattan, coupled with fundamental holes in New York's infrastructure, gave the waterfront an uncontested monopoly on shipping, which, in turn, created a powerful class of businessmen, politicians, and union leaders who profited through an unofficial yet entrenched system of exploitation, kickbacks, shakedowns and predatory lending. Relying on the labor of thousands of working-class longshoremen, of overwhelmingly Irish descent on the West Side, who physically unloaded the ships, this system was maintained by nothing short of terror. Both beholden to these gangsters-mostly Irish themselves -- for their meager livelihood and systematically threatened by them, the waterfront community found that the only way to survive was to obey a code of silence. Under this code, they never spoke against or challenged the powerful and, in return, they were not killed and could maybe earn enough to feed their families.

Professor James Fisher's "On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York" identifies several factors that allowed such a corrupt and exploitative system to remain in place for so long, virtually unchanged for a century. Going beyond the obvious explanation of violence and power - to which he does devote ample attention - Fisher delves deeper into the paranoid politics of the Red Scare, the insular nature of the Irish-American West Side community in a more heterogeneous New York, the geographical and political split between the New York and New Jersey docks, and the role of the Catholic Church to explain even the longshoremen's fierce defense of their own systematic repression.

Most investigations of waterfront crime and movements for reform can be traced to a single activist: Father John "Pete" Corridan, a Jesuit labor school instructor. More than anyone, Corridan, unable to convince the longshoremen to demand their own liberation, was responsible for bringing waterfront corruption into the public eye by pulling writers and reporters into collaborations that produced journalistic exposes, televised debates and even a Hollywood screenplay that, ironically, created outside demand for reform while hampering its success within the ranks of longshoremen themselves. Father Corridan's role exemplifies one of the great schisms within the Catholic Church at the time. In the devout Irish waterfront community, parishioners were accustomed to a clear division between Church and life, a division that perpetuated the system: "the Catholics who dominated both industry and labor on the waterfront counted on priests' minding their own business when it came to the conduct of their livelihoods." As generous Church benefactors, many of the powerful were able to maintain this boundary. Corridan, however, strove to break this division by invoking a new moral code that obligated people to cry out against injustice -- a code that replaced obedience to and endurance of the "natural order" to fundamental human rights and dignity. For most, the presence of the Church in the streets, and especially at the docks, was unthinkable.

Fisher's account of waterfront history is expansive, thoughtful and riveting for the unexpected turns that bring the story of the impoverished longshoremen to the halls of Congress and to Hollywood studios. Most interesting is Fisher's attention to the development of "On the Waterfront," the iconic 1954 movie starring Marlon Brando. Filmed amidst the actual dockworkers in Hoboken, the movie accumulated a tense history that reflects the intricate power and ideological struggles that shaped the waterfront. The making of such a movie became almost as difficult as reform itself. Fisher takes us through various drafts of the screenplay, the filmmakers' troubles with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (both screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan named names when brought before it), the difficulty and concessions made for writing such a progressive script for mainstream America, the diplomacy involved in securing Union approval, the scouting of a semi-friendly location on the waterfront to shoot, and the interactions between the longshoremen and the film crew. By entwining such unexpected histories-glam and grime, mobster terror and government-sanctioned terror-Fisher brings a complicated and contested history into new light.

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"On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York," by James T. Fisher, published by Cornell University Press; 392 pp.; $29.95.