New York in the early part of the twentieth century was the largest industrial city in the world and Greenpoint was not only in its geographic center, but by itself was one of the largest areas of industrial production in the United States. It made more than many good-sized American cities manufacturing pencils, ship’s rope, decorative steel,tanned leather,refined petroleum and dozens of other goods. As local shipbuilding declined after the Civil War other industries replaced it. Many of these second wave industries were classic industrial revolution jobs that paid low wages. As the demand for low wages industrial workers grew, so did the need for cheap tenement houses, which sprang up like Mushrooms in Greenpoint in the eighteen seventies and eighties. Most of the workers in these factories could not afford the increasingly expensive decent local housing, so they lived in tenements, especially in the area from Ash to Huron Street known as Dangerstown, infamous as the poorest and most dangerous part of the neighborhood.
The Brooklyn Eagle sensationalized stories, but its accounts of Dangerstown were particularly lurid, describing the area as a hotbed of crime and a den of thieves. In an 1886 expose, it claimed that gangs and “jail birds” infested the area stating,” Were it not for the protection of the cops of the Seventh Precinct it would be dangerous to walk there, even during daytime.” The gangs had colorful names calling themselves “The Policemen killers,” “The Dangerstown Slobs, “The Sons of Rest” and ‘The Jolly Four.” The report also described the area as a “plague’ claiming that nine-tenths of the crime in Greenpoint was the work of Dangerstown toughs with every kind of crime committed there. The Eagle claimed the place as “ almost entirely and hopelessly bad,” while reporting that many of the gang members were homeless young men who slept nights in horse barns on Oakland Street.
The report also informed readers that Dangerstown was a place full of bars with two or three on every block where the people did no work other than robbing and drinking growlers of beer. The Eagle claimed boys of the area would steal anything, with their sole thought being how to make a “haul” of a well-filled purse, to spend it on more growlers. Several pedestrians on the streets near the dumps were “stood up” for the requisite amount of money, and after the “growler” had been worked several times the boys were,” Ready for anything from robbing a bobtail car driver to assaulting the police.” Another Daily Eagle article reported on the Dangerstown dump, which once had been the pretty Back Meadow, but now comprised ten or twelve acres of land full of ash and filthy refuse. Goats, cows, pigs, Italian rag pickers and small boys trooped over it finding,” wonderful treasures.” The Italians came from New York and the police of the Seventh Precinct had to keep an eye on them to prevent them from being stoned to death by the gangs who hung out on the borders of the dumps.The article stated that the local hoods had pre-empted the dumps to a certain extent even holding nightly orgies there.
Although the lurid reports of the area were almost certainly exaggerated, there was no denying the toughness of the characters there. Perhaps one area resident should have been more wary of confronting a Dangerstown tough. In 1886 John Fines, a loudmouth drunk who overestimated his fighting skills, worked as a lumber handler at Orr’s yard, the oldest lumberyard in the city of New York whose workers had a well-deserved reputation as fighters. The work there was grueling and required the men to move mountains of lumber by hand which Perhaps gave Fines an unrealistic picture of his pugilistic skill. He was in for a rude awakening. Fines approached a noted Greenpoint fighter, William Dacey, who was talking with some friends just before midnight in Daley’s saloon on Oakland and Dupont Streets. Dacey had considerable success in the ring and would go on to lose a hard-fought eleven round decision in a lightweight championship of America match to the undefeated, Jack McAuliffe, another local boxer. Fines insulted Dacey saying, ” You aint no fighter.” He added, “You can’t lick no one and you needn’t be talking about going out of this town.” If you want any fight I kin give it to you right here or we can go over to the lots, wherever you say.” The paper went on to report that those words were the last the Fines remembered when he woke up in the seventh precinct station house. Fines, according to the paper, had a swollen face, two black eyes and his face looked “ as if it had been used to wipe sand off the saloon floor.”
There was another story from Orr’s Yard in the 1880’s that showed the importance of a man’s fists. Two men who worked with Fines, James Barr and John Mc Alvany, were in love with the same woman, Nelie Barrie and wanted to marry her leading to a dispute they would settle in a fist fight with the winner getting the girl. After seventeen rounds of brutal bare-knuckled combat Mc Alvany was unable to leave his corner. Barr won the match and soon thereafter married Barrie.
Orr’s Lumber Yard on Green Street at the edge of Dangerstown seemed like a highly unlikely breeding ground for Greenpoint’s greatest politician, but Peter J. McGuinness, the future Alderman and Czar of Greenpoint started there. As a kid, Pete dropped out of school working on the Bowery in Manhattan to help his family and twelve siblings, but he yearned to return home to work in Greenpoint. One of the best jobs a dropout could get was working at Orr’s where Pete started work in 1908 as a stevedore and lumber handler as a twenty year old. The docks were a rough and tumble place where a man made and kept his reputation by fighting and it was common for disputes to be settled in boxing matches atop the massive woodpiles there. Sometimes boxing matches would take place on lumber barges out in Newtown Creek so that the police could not interfere.Pete had the quick hands of a champion boxer and he used them to gain renown. For a time he was actually for a time a promising middleweight, winning thirteen of his fifteen fights and drawing two, but McGuinness, despite his skill in the ring, lacked the temperament of a fighter. Pete did not enjoy hurting people preferring to help them instead, so he made the unlikely transition from the boxing ring for the political ring. With thousands of industrial jobs, but no railhead, all the goods had to be loaded and offloaded from ships giving longshoremen like McGuinness incredible clout. The longshoremen could cripple a business with a strike if they chose to, so they were relatively well paid with a strong union. Hundreds of longshoremen teemed Greenpoint’s waterfront, walking to work from Dangerstown and other areas of the neighborhood. Most of the Dockworkers were tough Irish Americans like Pete who was loud and outspoken with a charming gift for gab that along with his fists soon made him a rising figure in Lumber Handlers’ Local 955 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. In time he was known on the docks as the toughest of all the’ dock wallopers.” “You could just about say,” a Longshoremen recalled, “that Peter was the king of this here water front right down to the Navy Yard and even Irishtown and Brooklyn Bridge. He could work better than anyone, and he could lick anyone.”
Early in his life as a dockworker an incident made him famous amongst the Longshoremen and helped launch his future political career. He caught a pair of corrupt Longshoremen union delegates in the act of splitting up hard earned union dues for their own pleasure. “It was at a meeting of the local in Germania Hall,” Pete Recounted. “I was in the Gents’ Room. I was sitting down. These two delegates come in and start talking. They don’t know no one is there. I’m a son of a bitch, they’re divvying up one hundred thirty-two bucks they just took in dues. The sweat’s running down me back. I pull up me pants and go for them. I flang one of them through a glass panel door and knocked (out) the other cold. Then I marched them into the room where the Lumber Handlers was. Me and a friend made them empty their pockets on the table. They come up with a hundred and fifty. I made a motion we teach them a lesson by using the other eighteen for beer and bologna sandwiches for the whole local. Me friend seconded it, and it passed unanimous.” Before the meeting was adjourned for the beer and sandwiches, there was a purge of the Local 955 leadership, and McGuinness got the first of several promotions. He said that his fight with the delegates was one of the very few serious fights he ever had. He said,” “We had fights almost every day,’ but they were just for fun. Besides, you had to do that to become boss in them days. The others figured that if they could lick me they could be boss theirselves. Most of the time we’d fight at lunch hour or after work. Everybody’d stand around and watch. “
After the fights he practiced his orator standing on a pile of lumber and giving the longshoremen all a talk or “ a hot spiel” on the oppression of the Irish, liberty or even George Washington. The other longshoremen would say, ‘Bejesus, Peter, you’re improving every day. Pretty soon we’ll be after sending you to the Board of Aldermen ” Their words would prove prophetic. McGuinness left the Greenpoint docks briefly in 1918 to take a job as a federal lumber inspector in the south, but Pete quickly grew extremely homesick. Although the job paid well, Greenpoint was his home and he hated the south in part because his maternal Grandfather was killed by southerners in the Civil War and also because he hated the racism of the region. He said,” I don’t like that Jim Crow they got,” he says, “and I don’t like their goddam white crow no better.” McGuinness loved the ten years he spent working in Orr’s lumberyard, and he considered lumber handling as one of the pleasantest occupations he knew. He said “Working in a lumberyard is like being in a health resort all year long.” He explained “You’re out there in God’s good air all the day long, and from the smell of the different woods, you might as well be in a forest. And another thing you’re in with the most splendid people. I never knew higher-class type men than lumber handlers. “ Years later at the start of the cold war he told a group of reporters that he wished to make a suggestion on peacetime military training. “If they was to leave this conscription thing up to me he said, “I’d have the boys putting in a couple of years in lumberyards. It builds up every muscle in your body. Lumber handlers are the toughest men on earth. Bejesus, if the Russians or somebody knew they’d be up against lumber handlers, they wouldn’t start no trouble.”