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No Safe Harbor

Manhattan’s once bustling waterfront is about to lose one of its few remaining working piers to a convention center. A longshoreman’s lament: Where will the cruise ships go now?

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M ayor Bloomberg’s commitment to gussying up the city’s waterfront encourages the development of parks, high-rise condos, and commuter ferries. But this future is not the stevedore past. Next month, the city plans to announce who will develop one of the five remaining cruise-ship docks in Manhattan, Pier 92, at West 52nd Street, into a convention hall, sending the new supersize ocean liners to new berths in Red Hook and Bayonne, New Jersey. None of this makes much sense to Billy Cox, veteran honcho of the last longshoremen’s union on the Manhattan waterfront, Local 824. He spoke to Geoffrey Gray.

What do you think of this plan for Pier 92?
To me, it’s like you’re knocking down Yankee Stadium, or the Empire State Building, or even when the World Trade went down. That’s what they’re doing to us.

But the city says cruise ships are getting too big for the West Side.
In my terms, that’s bullshit. The city wasn’t efficient enough. They should have been building new piers fifteen years ago and knowing bigger ships would come and this and that. If they’re so smart in the maritime industry and they know all this and that, why weren’t they ready? You take a ship here. You take a ship there. If we don’t start doing something about it now, these ships will just keep leaving. It’s almost like they just want to get rid of this industry up here. For what? Housing. I don’t know. Everybody wants to live in a condo and look at the water.

Your union was known as the “pistol local,” right?
It has that prestige, if you want to call it that. It’s not that way no more.

How were the piers different with the mob running them?
It was better. When the mob was here, you had more workers than you can shake a stick at. You had three locals when I came in. You had 856. You had 791. They did general cargo. They did the banana piers. You had lobster come in. You had whiskey. Everything was loose. Now one guy lifts [a container] with a crane and puts it away. And when the mob was here, there was at least someone you could go talk to, to get things done. Now who do we talk to? The city—it’s either their way or no way.

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