In 1948, Malcolm “Mike” Johnson published a 24-part series on waterfront corruption in The New York Sun, inspiring a wave of investigations and scandals, and upending the long-held turf hierarchies without eradicating them. In 1954, his work yielded the far-better-remembered (and whitewashed) On The Waterfront. In 2010, with the benefit of hindsight, Nathan Ward’s first book, Dark Harbor: The War For The New York Waterfront reconstructs the landscape Johnson blasted into public consciousness, and its fallout. The trouble is, Ward doesn’t have much to add to the discussion. Brisk and well-organized, Dark Harbor is scarcely an immersive experience; it’s more like a long magazine article, barely stretched out to book length through wide type-setting and the aid of chapters frequently as short as three pages. That isn’t really a problem, but—aside from quotes from Sun workers looking back—there isn’t much new information here.
The story in its current format is pretty interesting, though often sloppily written (“Johnson had a lot on his mind when he entered the voting booth and loyally pulled the lever for the Democrat, Harry Truman”). Veteran reporter Johnson first got sucked into the docks when looking into the murder of one Thomas Collentine, whose killing was suspiciously similar to many other waterfront murders; no one was interested in connecting the dots, since such murders were basically unprosecutable, as fearful workers kept their mouths shut. Johnson fearlessly dived in, allying himself with characters like Father John Corridan (the inspiration for Karl Malden’s priest in Waterfront) to sink into the underworld. The consequences included a series of increasingly serious investigations.
Ward’s narrative is essentially an annotation of Johnson’s work with slightly more context, showing how the nascent strikes evolved from the 1939 killing of early activist Pete Panto to the showboating committee hearings of Estes Kefauver. But he doesn’t offer much that isn’t already on the record. Resurrecting past labor history and struggles is a noble task, but most of Ward’s juice, predictably, comes from lurid tales of dock-killings and enforcers with nicknames like “Tony Cheese” and “Beefer.” Making the labor-workers’ side of it compelling is beyond him, and the tale becomes reduced to one of a brave newspaperman and priest allied against colorful mafiosos. That wouldn’t be a problem if there was a lot of detail, but mostly it’s just a mass of deaths and dates that all blur together; even the luridness doesn’t really stick. Dark Harbor is mildly compelling as a reminder that On The Waterfront was first and foremost a filmed report rather than Kazan’s allegorical defense of his HUAC testimony, but it’s ultimately less resonant.