A Familiar Situation
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
There’s nothing Mr. Salmon likes more than a class field trip. I mean that literally: he hates class field trips, but since he hates everything, it is not incorrect to say that there’s nothing he likes more than them. Since the No Egg Left Behind guidelines require that every school of fish go on at least one field trip each semester, Mr. Salmon dutifully complied by taking you, his remedial class, on an excursion to New York’s most famous landmark: The Statue of Liberty (photograph above).
Why has he taken us to the Statue of Liberty? Because it’s time for us to talk about the primary force that shaped New York City in the century leading up to the 1930s: immigration. Of course, a lot of the immigration to New York City happened in the thirty years before the Statue of Liberty was constructed, but… well, it’s iconic, OK? Geesh! Where else was Mr. Salmon supposed to take you?
Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to our story…
If you recall our last history post, it concluded with Irish refugees landing in New York City.
Well, to be honest, I don't think the term "refugee" was really used much back then. It would still be about a hundred years before it would become regularized. But “refugees” is what they probably would have been considered if they’d had the same kind of international law in the 1850s as we have today.
Regardless of what you want to call them, they were people who were effectively forced to leave their home nation for one reason or another. And there were a lot of them. It’s estimated that over four million Irish immigrated to America in the years between the famine and the time period of 1935, and a majority of those ended up in New York City. As you might expect, coming from an impoverished country, most of the immigrants were neither highly educated, nor skilled in a trade relevant to New York City’s industry  —  it was not as if the majority of Irish immigrants were doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. So in order to survive in their new home, they often had to take the lowest paying and least glamorous jobs.
And many of these jobs were at the port.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most of America’s imports came through the port of New York City.
When we think about New York City today, we tend to think of things other than shipping. Maybe you think about Wall Street. Maybe you think about Broadway. But rarely do you think about shipyards. So it’s easy to forget that New York City’s origin story in deeply rooted in shipping.
But throughout it’s history, shipping has been a critical component to New York City’s prosperity, and in the second half of the 19th century in particular (subsequent to the construction of the Erie Canal in 1820), a massive amount of highly valuable cargo was being moved through the city. As more and more cargo was moved through the port of New York, more and more workers were needed to handle it. Irish immigrants increasingly filled that role until eventually, around 1880, over ninety percent of the workers at the port were Irish.
In theory, these workers were unionized through an organized known as the International Longshoremen's Association, or ILA. But in practice, in New York City this organization was less a unionized workforce than it was a structure for doing something else entirely.
And if you followed this history series from the beginning, you probably already have a good guess as to what that was.
New York City’s shipping infrastructure, and what happened to it, bears a striking resemblance to the situation I described in Palermo. With so much valuable cargo flowing through such a small choke point, the conditions were ideal for organized crime to develop. And that’s exactly what happened. The ILA, rather than being an organized labor force designed to promote good working conditions and reasonable pay for its members, was nothing more than a front for organized crime by the late 1800s.
Everything worked much like it did in Palermo. A certain amount of cargo shipped through the port was simply stolen by the organization. The cargo that wasn’t stolen was subject to arbitrary, exorbitant fees that were much higher than comparable ports elsewhere. Companies were made to pay special fees for things that weren’t even work, such as simply letting the company itself come and load their received merchandise onto their own trucks. And all the windfall went not to the poor dock workers, but to the select few who controlled the organization. Naturally, people complained to the authorities, but just like in Palermo, they had already been bought and paid for by the ILA, so legal enforcement at the docks was virtually nonexistent.
But this was all in the late 1800s.
The men who ran the ILA were Irish, and nearly all the workers were Irish, so if that’s where organized crime was centered, you might be wondering why our popular image of the New York mafia is of a bunch of Italians. And, if New York City history had stopped in 1900, it might well have been (well, Irish and Jewish, if you include the garment industry, but we’ll get to that later). However, subsequent to 1900, Irish organized crime in New York City didn’t last that long.
Amusingly, as far as we know from the history, it wasn’t because the Irish were bad at organizing criminal organizations. And it wasn’t because the New York City police department suddenly started cracking down on them. And it wasn’t because they fought amongst themselves. It was actually a much more mundane reason: the Irish simply found more lucrative things to do.
This is not particularly surprising in hindsight. The Irish controlled the port through the ILA because nearly everyone there was Irish. They were Irish because dock work was one of the few jobs available to poor immigrants. But with literally millions of Irish immigrating to New York City, forming Irish communities, and having children, the Irish as a class weren’t going to stay “poor immigrants” forever. With increasing access to education, and a growing demographic of voters, the Irish steadily became upwardly mobile in New York society.
As the century turned, the number of Irish dock workers continually declined, while the number of Irish holding more desirable jobs increased. They became businessmen, joined the police force, and ran for office.
By the time the 1930s rolled around, the city was as much an Irish city as it was any other ethnicity.
To demonstrate just how much I’m not kidding about this, let me list for you all the mayors of New York City who were Irish in the two centuries spanning from 1665 to 1880: James Duane. That’s it. James Duane. One dude. In two centuries. He served from 1784 to 1789.
Now let me list for you the mayors of New York City who were Irish in the half-century between 1880 and 1935: William Russell Grace, Hugh J. Grant, Thomas Francis Gilroy, William Jay Gaynor, John Purroy Mitchel, John Francis Hylan, Jimmy Walker, and John P. O'Brien. That’s eight guys in fifty years. In fact, from 1909 to 1933, there was nothing but Irish mayors. New York City elected exclusively Irish mayors during that time, and the only people who ever held the title of Mayor who weren’t Irish were acting mayors who had to step in under unusual circumstances (Ardolph L. Kline because William Jay Gaynor died, and Joseph V. McKee because Jimmy Walker had to resign).
Moreso than anything else, this is how the primarily Irish organized crime that controlled New York City’s critical port waned and eventually vanished: the Irish simply moved up in the world. Why would an enterprising Irish fellow aspire to be the leader of a criminal organization that had to pay to influence politicians when he could simply be a politician himself now? Why would he take a low-paying job with no benefits at the docks, where he had to participate in unscrupulous dealings and worry about being shaken down by the police, when he could instead get a better-paying municipal job with the police department and be the police? To a large extent, Irish organized crime was never broken up by diligent or effective policing, or some assertive action by the city government  —  they simply became the police and the city government themselves.
But of course, as the Irish became upwardly mobile, it wasn’t as if the work at the ports was going away. Far from it. The ILA was still a thriving organization, and there were still massive numbers of jobs at the port for laborers  —  jobs that needed to be filled by somebody else now that the Irish had moved on. And I bet you’ll never guess who that was…
Of course, I don’t want to spoil next week’s post, which is all about who it was. So you’ll just have to hold on to your fabulous guesses until next week. Until then, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the internet!