Warm Harbors

Jon Schuppe reported last week that a reading of On the Irish Waterfront “emboldened” the reformer charged to “clean house” at the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. The former longtime Chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Homicide Investigation Unit, Walter M. Arsenault was named Executive Director of the Waterfront Commission in September 2008 in advance of a blistering report by the New York State Inspector General’s Office, detailing years of corruption, nepotism, unauthorized joy rides on Waterfront Commission vessels, and assorted shenanigans which our John M. “Pete” Corridan, S.J. had discerned as early as 1955, just two years after the birth of the Commission for which he so ardently crusaded.

1955 however found Pete Corridan in limbo: silence and exile were soon to follow. On a warm and bright October afternoon a half-century later, the Waterfront Commission christened a “sleek police vessel” the Rev. John M. Corridan, S.J. in a ceremony on Pier 40, foot of Houston Street along the West Side’s historic Irish waterfront. Several cousins of Father Corridan, along with a few New York Jesuits, watched from the pier as Budd Schulberg spoke movingly—as ever—of Corridan’s life-changing apostolate and the spiritual and creative collaboration that yielded the beautiful movie shot along the palisades in resplendent view just across the North River. Budd also worked valiantly with Corridan to instigate tangible reforms in the Port’s hiring practices and indeed its entire political economy. The relationship between the state of the Waterfront Commission circa 2006 and this rich legacy went awkwardly untreated on Pier 40 that day.

As Jon Schuppe noted, Walter M. Arsenault is a longshoreman’s grandson; so too was Austin J. Tobin, the longtime executive director of the Port of New York Authority and staunch Corridan ally, whose agency in effect spun off the Waterfront Commission in 1953 to police the Harbor, while the PA pursued its broader campaign to rescue the Port from oblivion. If On the Irish Waterfront betrays some of its author’s vestigial ambivalence toward reformers that same temperament—deeply grounded in the Irish waterfront of history—represented a daunting local obstacle Corridan and Tobin struggled to surmount. Yet their claim on the soul of the Port was genuine and enduring; a commitment echoed in the Waterfront Commission’s new dispensation.

We’re grateful that Pete Corridan’s spirit infused Mr. Arsenault’s reading of On the Irish Waterfront last August. The book’s publication that month coincided with both Budd Schulberg’s death and the release of the Inspector General’s report on the Waterfront Commission. Charlie and I were kayaking in Little Egg Harbor when that story broke. We were met on our return to shore by Kristina, who waded into the harbor bearing the latest waterfront news from a most eventful and memorable season. Warmest Jersey Irish Waterfront Thanksgiving wishes to all.


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