Monday, March 15, 2010


(From "Longshoremen and Their Homes," NYU lib. collection)

In August 1939, a month after the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto stepped into a car and was never seen alive again, a work of patient advocacy appeared whose goals he would have mightily endorsed. "Longshoremen and Their Homes" was a project of the Public Housing movement, the then relatively recent idea that the working poor deserved a decent place in which to live, and that this should be the concern of the federal government. (It's interesting to read this hopeful document at a time when an ambitious scheme to develop the city's biggest New Deal-era Public Housing complex into condos was undermined by the 2008 crash.)

Greenwich Village, and the area around Sheridan and Washington Squares, was a far more desperate place during the spring of 1939, when researchers at Greenwich House completed this case study of 278 longshoremen living near the lower West Side waterfront. The research group’s Barrow Street ‘settlement,’ explains the foreword, was “situated…in a neighborhood blighted by some of New York City’s worst slums,” so they took it upon themselves to do something.

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

The report profiles local dock workers raising families—what they earn, where they live, with the uncertainty of daily employment under the cattle-call hiring system:

"[B]etween the longshoreman and the job he is so eager to get stands another character, not to be confused with the longshoreman--the stevedore. Promptly at five minutes to eight the stevedore (or his foreman) strides out from a pier office to the great entrance doors, blowing a whistle. The huddle of expectant men shifts, takes on the shape of a horse-shoe, three and four men deep, facing the doors. Then the stevedore begins to shout, "Number three! Number seven! Number ten!' and so on. As he calls each number a group of twenty men breaks away from the horse-shoe and shuffles off on to the pier."

Beyond this, those who were regularly hired had to contend with the "speed-up," the inevitable (and dangerous) result of "two irreconcilable points of view" as the longshoremen were paid by the hour and the stevedore was paid by ton of cargo moved. "The amount of money the stevedore gets is fixed, and the more hours he has to pay his helpers, the smaller grows his margin....No wonder he is constantly pushing his men."

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

When buildings like the ones pictured above eventually appeared in waterfront communities in Chelsea and Red Hook, the men who lived in these public housing complexes were better off than those profiled in the Greenwich House report. But it did not alter their relation to their union, whose corruption was unchanged by housing improvements. "Where does the graft come in?" wonders the Greenwich House report, before admitting, "It is difficult to discover the full extent of this kickback racket on the waterfront since it necessarily goes on under cover. Even those who suffer under it--the rank and file longshoremen--are afraid to make revelations since to do so may cost them their jobs."

Although the shape-up system is long abandoned, and the city itself has changed enormously since the thirties, many of the complaints listed in the Greenwich House report about waterfront work have persisted. The West Side dock workers told their interviewers that "Modern homes and pleasant parks and playgrounds would put an end to a lot of the crap-shooting and necking that go on in the dark doorways of the boarded-up tenements in dockland. And they think, too, that the gangsterism which flourishes there would lose much of its allure if the young people were given opportunities for sane recreation." 'Sane recreation' (in the form of bike paths and tennis courts) is exactly what has replaced the West Side's abandoned dockland. But elsewhere around the harbor (and around the country's ports) rank-and-file groups ( are still trying to reform their wayward union, and, remarkably, still having to fight many of the same old battles.


  1. That book is quite a find - for the illustrations alone!

  2. And they're all like that, in that wood-cut, W.P.A.Guide style. I have another waterfront article with illustrations by Ben Shahn. A different time.