Marc Levinson’s The Box

Because we are studying the landmarks of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, perhaps it is appropriate to begin a discussion about whether we should be nostalgic when a city, a region, or a nation deindustrializes. 

Chapter Two of Levinson’s book details the nature and conditions of the men (and it was all men) who worked Brooklyn’s (and other places’) docks.  Their work was made necessary by the industrial manufacturing that was going on along the rest of the waterfront and elsewhere in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  In chapter Five, he describes various forces and conditions (land-transport costs; labor concerns; crime; decrepit facilities; geographic disadvantages—and containerization) that made that work unsustainable.

We knew when we were reading Lucy’s story that we were going to have feelings about it.  Does the story that Levinson tells of loss and change evoke feelings? Of what sort?

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53 responses to “Marc Levinson’s The Box

  1. As I indicated in my comments about “Reading Lucy,” I am a sucker for nostalgia. So as I read through Levinson’s tale of how New York was losing the battle for waterfront success, my heart raced, my hands shook, and I offered several gruff mumbles of ill-will towards the Port Authority, New Jersey, the railroad industry, Malcom McLean and his trucking company, and the container. Watching an industry fail after reading about the tight community built around it comprised of longshoremen struggling to make an honest (and some times sneakily dishonest) living was not easy.

    Loss is sad. Levinson states that 70,000 jobs and 1/4 of all factories became obsolete in 1971 and the population of Brooklyn between then and 1980 dropped 14%. Compounded with the yards closing in 1966, this scene is not pretty. Other places began to thrive because of logical innovations; New York suffered. That makes me want to stamp my feet and yell out, Not fair! Not fair!

    However, the overhaul of the industry was for the greater good. Plus, New Yorkers always find a way to thrive eventually.

    • Leviston’s sentiments are still very relevant today especially with the New York City land area not increasing in the five borough area while the populations pressure gets higher and higher. This is particularly true in the Brooklyn section.

    • I am a sucker for mournful, and found this piece just that, mournful.

  2. FYI The Box is also available at online via Google books

  3. Reading _The Box_ and learning what happened in the 1960s and 1970s to longshoremen and their communities seems parallel in many ways to what has happened in the last decade with the small, local-owned stores and the appearances of the giant box stores. Philosophically many of us can lament the loss of these unique cultural entities–the Tripps lumbers or the ShopRite–yet with the economy pinching everyone more people resort to the Walmarts, Home Depots, &c. Economization is a vicious cycle yet its benefits draw more people into accepting the changed world.

  4. The Levinson piece in chapter 2 conveys the grueling nature of dock work–men bent like orangutans–the injury rate 3 times that of construction–the immense weight of the load and the cramped configuration of cargo holds. Work was irregular and the shaping up process dehumanizing. But the factual nature of the narrative doesn’t pull you into the moment the way the snapshot of Lucy’s life does as conveyed through her letters.
    The history museum in Singapore does an amazing job presenting the story of this city/state through the point of view of people from different class positions and cultural backgrounds. The thread of personal account is a gripping way to convey the taste and texture of an historical moment.

  5. Yes, The Box evoked huge feelings in me. First of all, I found it so well-written. The end of Chapter 2 was like a cliff-hanger – “The solution came from an outsider who had no experience with ships.” Were I a faster reader and not inundated with end-of-the-semester reading, I would just settle in to read the whole book.

    The longshoreman culture was amazing to learn about and, given its brutal conditions, not one to elicit nostalgia for its demise – though even after this graphic description, it’s hard not to let nostalgia creep in.

    As I was reading Chapter 5 about the role of the Port Authority, I kept thinking about another really good book that leads one to despise the Port Authority – Eric Darton’s Divided We Stand, about the building of the WTC.

    I wondered to what degree the vast amount of money Wagner poured into modernizing the piers – like creating a multi-billion-dollar sandcastle – contributed to the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

    I knew NY had lost all its shipping and its large manufacturing base (I’ve walked around the far-from-bustling Bush Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal), but never really understood why. So this was fascinating. Ah, containerization.

  6. One feeling reading The Box raised in my was anxiety, as the NYC officials made shortsighted decision after shortsighted decision.

  7. brooklynforever

    As a child growing up river in Poughkeepsie and Kingston, NY I can remember many friends whose fathers were teamsters or stevedores working the docks in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They often had large families and were able to support them with the incomes they made from the transportation industry. I have fond memories of my own father who drove truck for a brewery and later delivered pies. I can remember riding next to him on top of the metal casing of the engine (pre-seat belt and child car seat days!) while he made his rounds. Everyone knew the pie man and his business was successful. Containerization put an end to so many jobs. As a result, the transportation industry took a huge hit in the late sixties and early seventies. I stood witness to the loss of jobs, increased crime and drug use, declining economy in the Hudson Valley and the concomitant disappearance of families with a large number of children. Take me back to Brooklyn.

    • I’ve been watching The Wire courtesy of Netflix and season 2 is all about the Baltimore harbor. It’s very much about deindustrialization and the problems of attendant job loss, crime, endemic (politicians, police, everybody…lots of bad guys to go around) corruption, etc, etc. It’s “The Box” and “On the Waterfront” brought up to date in a gripping way. The consensus is “This is the best show on television.” I agree. It would be best to get oriented by looking at season 1. It’s set in the housing projects and is about mostly street level drug dealing. Season 2 is about containers, how the boxes get to shore and into the bloodstream of the city, corrupting everything.

  8. I agree with what Jean mentioned in an earlier response that this book is certainly well-written and easy to become engrossed in.

    My overriding emotions in reading Chapter 2 were those of increased connection, understanding, and empathy for the longshoremen. They were a tough and gritty group as a whole and certainly endured through difficult and unpredictable working circumstances.

    As for Chapter 5, I actually felt a bit sentimental in reading about an era in Brooklyn’s history (despite it not being an entirely rosy era) that was somehow lost as the wave of the container era and the New Jersey side of the harbor flourished. Change can often be a good thing, but it also come at a cost.

  9. Throughout chapter 5, I kept thinking about Chelsea Piers – the sports and entertainment complex that now occupies the piers of lower Manhattan. As a result, I was glad to see it mentioned towards the end of the chapter. For me, Chelsea Piers serves as a reminder of not only what types of work/life have disappeared from NYC (&, more broadly, the US), but also what types of work/life have replaced them – service, recreation, tourism. It is this transition, and the viability of gainful, stable employment within it (particularly for those left behind by concurrent educational/social changes) that concerns me and makes me (despite the oft-unstable, corrupt, and harmful nature of industrial economies) nostalgic.

  10. I only recently ordered the book through interlibrary loan as I only recently received the list of readings. As an elected offical (as well as an academic) I can’t afford to be nostaligic about the change in our communities when confronted with urgent realtities. Also as resident of Western New York which has been depressed through most of my adult life I can only look at envy towards the city which sometimes catches cold while we struggle to overcome pneumonia.

  11. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Larger by Marc Levinson edifies the reality of how the world got to be the way it is in 2010. I had, probably like many, assumed Internet Technology and immense changes in capital flow drove our recent an present economy. I hadn’t really thought about the container as having such an influence on a global scale through time and space reduction. To read about “break bulk” vessels and how they had to be loaded by hand was engrossing. I was particularly interested in the longshoremen. I thought I recalled seeing a card that my father, Vincent, once showed me when I was a girl, and after a search for a box in the attic, I found the card that was issued from the War Department, which said that in 1944 he worked as a longshoreman. I also found many other personal “landmarks.” I never knew, for example, that my favorite grandmother, Rosalind, was born Nov. 1, 1888 in Manhattan. Oddly, that’s the day my daughter, Rosalind, moved just last year from Monroeville, Pennsylvania to Manhattan. As I am doing more reading, nothing seems too tangential.

    I had never thought about the danger of the back breaking work and the corruption the longshoremen faced until now. The personal connection brought tears to my eyes. Then, reading about McLean putting an end to the status quo later on restored my faith that progress sometimes involves improvement.

  12. So Tom Friedman didn’t tell us the whole story: containerization has been flattening the world for a long time. And while there is always a sense of loss that comes with change, we must also be careful to not romanticize the past. Levinson’s realistic picture helps one keep perspective. In stark contrast to “Reading Lucy,” where Lucy became more and more of an individual as I read on, Levinson gives us an image that depersonalizes the men themselves. His language — swarms of nameless workers, clambering up gangplanks or deep in the holds of ships — spoke to me of the activity of a bee hive. The powerful images of what he termed “brutally physical” labor, of men fighting daily for work, can weigh heavily on the soul.

    On another note, for those who remember “All in the Family,” didn’t Archie Bunker work of the docks?

  13. This is my second go round with this subject. My first was my doctoral dissertation where I looked at refinery workers in the Houston area in the 1950s and 1960s. Basically, it was the same story: machines came in, jobs went out. Although I know a few of them and their families now, I’ve never really felt sorry for them or particularly nostalgic about them. Whenever they had the chance, they fought pretty hard to keep people of my skin tone from getting a job or getting a chance. When you add women to the mix, they fought pretty had to keep the majority of the area from getting a chance. They had an I got mine you get yours mentality. Then they got theirs. Consumer prices declining due to increased efficiency may just be dry economics, but it did improve the lives of those these folks excluded from the docks.

  14. As one scholar of the Western film has noted, the Western is always about loss and regret. And so it is with every aspect of American history and culture that can elicit a sense of nostalgia: there is always a sense of loss and regret. Levinson in “The Box” does indeed elicit that sense of loss and regret for the loss of Brooklyn’s once vibrant stevedore dominant waterfront docks–a loss brought on by the “container.” And once again as I “stray,” as I did in my “Lucy” comment, I stray in a very personal way. I was born and grew up in Freeport, Texas, at the mouth of the Brazos River where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Though throughout WWII the Port of Freeport was primarily concerned with shipping sulphur to various venues for manufacturing war munitions to win the War, after the War the Port was transformed into a small conventional port where all the loading and unloading of ships was via the labor of longshoremen. And all the nuances of trials and tribulations of longshoremen as Levinson presents were indeed manifested on a much smaller scale in our small port–even to the point that during one summer “strike” the dock bosses hired some of my high-school buddies as strike breakers and for far less wages than the longshoremen were making. The dock bosses went to some lengths to see that the high-schoolers were protected from the angered stevedores whose jobs they had taken. And I still laugh at the bravado of those buddies who for many years afterwards still presented themselves as the kind of longshoremen Levinson describes as seeing themselves “as drinkers and brawlers” and “rough-and-ready individuals.” As I indicated in my “Lucy” entry, as a high-school student I drove a laundry truck, and I routinely had to deliver and pickup laundry at the docks. And Levinson’s discussion of the segregation of longshoremen–especially at the American docks–made me think of my own “waterfront” experience delivering laundry to the many shrimp boats that brought their catch to the “shrimp houses” at the mouth of the Brazos River. Those “shrimp houses,” where shimp were unloaded from the boats, “deheaded,” and processed and loaded onto trucks for various destinations, were also segregated; i.e., there were three such “houses”; one employed only Hispanics to do the manual labor, one only African Americans, and one only “poor” whites. Since I delivered laundry to the boats at all three, I got to know the managers. And often on Sundays they would hire me at a dollar and hour to man a snow shovel in the hold of a boat and shovel iced-down shrimp (and the ice) into a large wire basket that was hauled up by a crane and emptied onto a conveyer belt that conveyed the shrimp into the shrimp house itself where the “headers” (laborers hired to dehead the shimp and paid twenty-five cents per bucket of shrimp heads) would head the shimp, while other laborers would pack the shrimp into iced down crates that were then loaded on waiting trucks to be taken to various destinations. An irony here somewhat like the need for “container” innovaton as delineated in “The Box” is that the shrimp caught in the Gulf were iced down in the hold of the boat, and when the boat came it–regardless of the day of the week–it had to be unloaded as quickly as possible because the ice was melting. Many of the regular shrimp house laborers did a great deal of alcoholic cedlebrating on Saturday nights and were in no shape for Sunday morning work, so the shrimp house managers were obliged to hire high-schoolers like me to work those Sundays. But the irony is that that problem was essentially eliminated by the larger shrimp companies with the advent of large refrigerated boats–the equivalent, as it were, of “containers” and refrigerated trucks. At any rate, when I left Freeport for college in 1956 the docks were still dominated by union longshoremen. And at the risk of boring you any further with an already too long entry, let me say that when I returned to the Gulf Coast area near the Port of Houston in the late sixties, union longshoremen dominated the Port of Houston. And in the coming years I watched the Port of Houston experience exactly the same changes as Levinson so interestingly narrates in “The Box”–and for the same reason: the container. In fact, every day today as I drive the 15-mile trek from my home in Clear Lake down State Highway 146 to my college in Baytown, Texas, I pass what used to be salt-grass prairies and drive-in theater acreage but what now are acres of cargo containers, warehouses the length of three football fields, and every other vehicle, it seems, is a container truck going to or coming from (I pass its entrance every day) the Barbours Cut Container (!) Terminal, which is part of the Port of Houston complex and is the largest terminal and the first port in Texas constructed to handle–and only handle–the standardized cargo containers (over one million or more per year) that are the subject of Levinson’s book. Before reading Levinson, my greatest nostalgic sense of loss and regret was the lost of that drive-in theater. Levinson, however, creates a nostalgic sympathy for the plight of the longshoremen–as does Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” Indeed, in addition to Levinson’s comments of direct parallels in “Waterfront,” I was taken with the more nuanced parallels to “Waterfront” such as the longshoreman Dugan’s “arcane skill” as he proudly steals a fifth of Irish whiskey. As Levinson writes, “Longshoremen prided themselves on such arcane skills as the ability to tap whiskey from a sealed cask supposedly stowed safely in a ship’s hold.” And there are other parallels I’m sure will come up in our discussion of “Waterfront.”

    • Just to add to Dale’s very vivid (no risk of boredom) post on the Container Landscape in the Houston area: I drive home from my college along a major east/west thoroughfare and if I’m coming home around 9pm I’m regularly stuck at an at grade RR crossing while a train trailing mile long container cars, marked Evergreen or China Freight, chugs slowly, majestically northward. It amuses me that the fourth largest city in the US still has at grade RR crossings. It’s not too different from the cattle drives through the main drag of Ft. Worth in celebration of Texas’ heritage. For all its size and wealth Houston remains something of a hick town.

  15. I got so much out of this – surprisingly so because I’m not an online reader. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever read a book (partially, yes) online. I’m not ready to go out and buy a Kindle just yet, but…this was a pretty cool experience (I do miss writing all over my books, though).

    While reading this, alternatively confused and fascinated, I tried channeling Lucy so she could help me suss out the details of this grueling work; assist me in the ships taking shape in my imagination. I wonder if she knew the weight of the hooks and handles, recognized the sweat of the workers. How deep of an understanding might she have had of the relationship of her job to the jobs of the longshoremen? Surely she knew the worth of physical toil. Would she be familiar with men hung like orangutans? Or was she too far-removed from the next step in which her ships would take?

    Reading these chapters, I consistently returned to the shape gender took during this time of war and the immediate years following. This was the cusp of equity but women tended to bear the weight of menial labor and not brute force. The “Rosies” of the moment supported the U.S. endeavor to participate in war, but at the end of the day this participation did very little to further participation in American hegemony. Women risked gender role placement; men risked lives. Women participating in “men’s” work faced risk twice over. Of course, working class women were already in the field – but that’s another discussion….

    The Box is a fantastic read. I’m a sociologist by trade, an interdisciplinarian by passion. This text calls several fields of study into analysis which makes for such a rich read. I’m most interested in reading about relationships among workers and the various ways in which socioeconomic class served to shape those relationships. What, for instance, were workers willing to risk in order to feed themselves, their families? How were these risks part of their class consciousness? What changed with varying levels of privilege? Was the government’s utter lack of regulatory inspections due to the expendability of the working class…much like the expendability of Liberty Ships?

    What was most interesting to me throughout these chapters was the way in which Levinson painted working class culture (particularly his keen insight into workers being loyal to each other before “the company”). It kept me locked into a story behind the technicalities of containerism and “shiptalk” (was he avoiding perhaps, writing a story about containers, containerly?), which I struggled in following without the support of a dictionary. I pictured workers in San Francisco because I knew, physically, where they would be. Just a few months ago, I padded down these streets, passing their ghosts along Fisherman’s Wharf as I barreled through street kids haggling for beer money in their place.

    Levinson’s stories of union mischief, cheating and haggling clearly shaped working class culture as well. It’s a testament to limited choices in life toward mere survival that working class people have always been forced to succumb to. What are the choices, really, when they’re limited to the possibility of homelessness or hunger? What would these men have done, other than pay the bets and bribes? Strikes have always cost lives and livelihood, thereby further representing the way in which risk shapes the lives of the working class. Having to register, log, and follow governmental crackdowns on the rhythm of work seemed to further restrict freedoms of labor for the workers. Unpredictable wages, but permanent work was just another sort of risk and continued lack of real choice in work life. It’s hard to see governmental regulation of work and workers as a boon to the life of longshoremen and their families. Regardless of the improvements, risk still dominated the field.

    As with much working class culture, it seems that race and ethnicity were at the forefront. Families and racial similarities dominated waterfront working culture much in the way that working class neighborhoods have historically been racially and ethnically segregated, even by just a block. Working class neighborhoods, then, were mirror images of the nearby waterfronts; so much so that out-and-out refusal of the Other was practiced out loud. As a side note, I lived in Portland for two years and found that segregation still dominates the culture there, although it is clearly a quiet segregation (sometimes that’s the loudest). I thought it was interesting that in this story, even when racial, ethnic, or cultural segregation was not the rule, the culture of the workers kept social segregation firmly in place. And the generational rhythm of work and working class certainly kept segregation firmly in place.

    Shaping the waterfront of New York and transnational ports in Ch. 5 reminded me of what I routinely discuss with my students in class these days: that we’re woefully inept, as humans go, in keeping up socially and culturally with the speed of our technological advances. The human condition can only withstand so much before it collapses in on itself – as it did in New York by Levinson’s example. Too much need, too much speed, too many people in the kitchen, an influx of crime, and far too much corruption crippled labor and the working class, but did not do too much damage to those in power.

    At this point, I’ve likely written far more than my share. I’ll just cut this one short. Thanks for the reads this week! And if you’ve read this far, bless your heart!

  16. I have been to Manhattan many times (but never to Brooklyn) and I was unaware of the industrial landscape of New York City during the early 20th Century. It was interesting to learn about the huge significance of New York City docks and also learn how the Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey docks contributed to their decline. In a broad context, containerized shipping seems to be an important element (along with others) of technology and industrial efficiency that must be viewed in the context of labor. I can appreciate the passion and hard fight of the dock workers and unions. It was exhausting to me to read about all the efforts (on both sides) devoted to resist the change inherent in industrialization. Isn’t our contribution as educators to train people to think and adapt to a changing world? I do not view the dock workers as victims. Humans can train for new jobs and containers made transportation more efficient. As an environmentalist, I mourn the loss of the natural environment caused by industrialization and wish that all the money and efforts that were spent resisting the change to containerization were instead devoted to preserving and/or restoring the natural beauty of New York.

  17. I feel that I should feel ashamed because I do not have a father who was a longshoreman and know little about this part of the world of workers, but I grew up always feeling as though my parents were somehow sending me messages that “the hook is hanging.” The notion of somebody reminding a worker that there is work to be done resonates. And I love that this study is an international study; what affected the longshoremen in Brooklyn also affected those in Marseilles.

    Imagine, as we complacently toddle off to our respective jobs, having to go through a “shape up” each morning once we got to school to see who got to teach, or being a 70 year man looking for the kind of work that would send men home stooped in pain and excess! And the whole idea of a “welt” when half the men took off to a nearby pub while the other half worked; no wonder these guys were referred to as “gangs.”

    I love, too, that even though the New York “officials” required the Port Authority promise to built terminals for containers so that the World Trade Center could be built, those promises resulted in the Port Authority only taking “a closer look” (94).

    What I wonder is what happened to all those people with only 5th and 8th grade educations when the whole shipping industry moved to New Jersey. Assuming that fhe population of Brooklyn fell between 1971 to 1980 to 14%, as Levinson claims, then Brooklyn has made an astonishing recovery; there’s the story that I’d like to know! I rode my bike along the waterfront last summer, and it all felt spooky to me because there was such desolation between the water and the rest of the hubbub of the yuppity Brooklyn neighborhoods.

  18. richardhanley

    Several readers have been speaking about “shape ups.” If you want to see one, go to the parking lot of most any Home Depot between 7:00-9:00 am and watch the men stand around and get picked up by the vans–when they do.

  19. That’s EXACTLY what I kept picturing. Day Labor here on the West Coast gets thicker all the time – and with AZ heading in the direction it is, we can expect more people.

    Women also participate in this waiting around for a buck. And there is also a seedy underworld not too far off from the “lot lizards” at truck-stops. Women’s bodies have a role unto themselves.

  20. Are you SERIOUS? I never knew this and I do wonder about the role of women’s bodies as “lot lizards.” It reminds me of a heavily tatooed man in a muscle shirt, sweaty and obnoxious, taking the suburban train home on Wednesday night; he was ranted, I mean banging the trash cans ranting, because it had taken him 2 hours to get home from his day labor job in Northeast Philadelphia, and he had to be back there by 4:30 am. His rage hit me in my own gut; I was going home after a chamber music concert.
    OUCH!

  21. Yes, totally serious. Here’s a quick article I pulled up from a Google search. This also deals with a secondary level of male prostitution.

    Boy, are we straying with this or what?

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1659411/posts

  22. Oh, my, this is too, too dreadful. I’m still not sure this is straying, and it’s the currency that’s the kicker.
    By the way, how do I post one of my photos on my blog (yours is lovely) AND link to the Along the Shore site? You seem a knowledgeable sort.
    Gratefully,
    Faith

  23. Hi everyone,

    I left this post yesterday – but I guess I wasn’t registered and, thus, it never appeared! Anyway, it is a bit off thread now, but it reflects my thoughts right after reading:

    Throughout chapter 5, I kept thinking about Chelsea Piers – the sports and entertainment complex that now occupies the piers of lower Manhattan. As a result, I was glad to see it mentioned towards the end of the chapter. For me, Chelsea Piers serves as a reminder of not only what types of work/life have disappeared from NYC (&, more broadly, the US), but also what types of work/life have replaced them – service, recreation, tourism. It is this transition, and the viability of gainful, stable employment within it (particularly for those left behind by concurrent educational/social changes) that concerns me and makes me somewhat (despite the oft-unstable, corrupt, and harmful nature of industrial economies) nostalgic.

  24. Reading of the visions and schemings of McLean put me in mind of others of that ilk, specifically Sam Walton, Colonel Sanders and J. Willard Marriott, men of their time who made a lasting mark. For good or ill, or perhaps both, they changed the way business in America was conducted.

    As a child growing up in Miami, Florida, the ocean was my friend, and brought pleasure and recreation. The vision of sweating workers, loading heavy items to and from docks was the stuff of fiction. The dock in downtown Miami, at Haulover, where the fishing boats came in, was as earthy a situation as we would have the chance to witness. Levinson’s work puts a gritty, business-like face on the people and the labor of the larger concerns.

    Chapter 5 draws a broad picture of the type of basic labor confrontations that made headlines after World War 2. Corrupt leadership, both in labor and government, along with ill-managed cities, certainly made everything more difficult for the Lucys and the Alfreds of the last fifty years.

    But the essay on Lucy really sucked me in. I began to picture this woman, as she dealt every day with the world of working women in the 1940s. She may have looked something like my mother, or my aunt, both of whom worked for the government in those days.

    I so wanted to fill in the gaps: her wedding, building a home and having a family. Did she still work? Interestingly, she passed away the same year my mother did, and so my imagination allowed me to fill out her missing history with a life much like my mother’s. Strong women, both of them.

  25. The Box is a magnficent read. I had no idea how profoundly the shipping container transformed the New York waterfront. I had never heard of Malcolm McLean and his crucial role in this technological revolution. This is an excellent selection with which to begin the workshop. It puts into perspective the pressing need to find a new role for these neglected and abandoned waterfront sites. The longshoreman culture was one of hardship and struggle. The decline of this way of life was inevitable and, in the scheme of things, a positive development from both a social and economic perspective. I look forward to witnessing first hand how Brooklyn has responded to this historical and technological challenge. I purchased the book online and look forward to reading it from cover to cover. Brooklyn Was Mine was supporsed to arrive in the same package but, unfortunately, Amazon.com sent me an Irving Stone novel instead. I will catch up when I receive it later this week. I enjoyed reading the very positive comments about it.

  26. When discussing day labor, are you talking about legal workers or illegal workers?
    Faith–if you want an avatar photo, you need to go into your account profile and upload one (this system uses gravatar).
    If you want a photo on your own blog across the top, you need to go into the dashboard and look for appearance and themes. You can upload a picture there.

  27. Hi everyone,

    I left this post yesterday – but I guess I wasn’t registered and, thus, it never appeared! Anyway, it is a bit off thread now, but it reflects my thoughts right after reading:

    Throughout chapter 5, I kept thinking about Chelsea Piers – the sports and entertainment complex that now occupies the piers of lower Manhattan. As a result, I was glad to see it mentioned towards the end of the chapter. For me, Chelsea Piers serves as a reminder of not only what types of work/life have disappeared from NYC (&, more broadly, the US), but also what types of work/life have replaced them – service, recreation, tourism. It is this transition, and the viability of gainful, stable employment within it (particularly for those left behind by concurrent educational/social changes) that concerns me and makes me somewhat (despite the oft-unstable, corrupt, and harmful nature of industrial economies) nostalgic.

  28. Addell Anderson

    As I read Chapters 2 and 5 of this text, I could not help but relate it to my own experience growing up as a “child” of the Big Three automakers in Detroit. The parallels were quite obvious: racism affecting hiring practices; lack of foresight in planning for new technologies and rising energy costs; and union policies which got in the way of changes that would have kept the industry more competitive. Expectations for education attainment also suffered. When I graduated from high school in the 1970s, one could still get a good paying job at one of the auto plants without going to college. Very few of my classmates thought higher education to be necessary, since they did not have to defer the obtainment of a home, nice car and family. Even after it became clear their children would not be able to access these same jobs when they became of age, education (not just higher education) was not a priority in the households of many of my former classmates. This mindset has left “us” ill-prepared for the current economic realities.

  29. (long post, sorry!) have just started reading Chap 2, and the references to Liverpool are reminding me of how depressed (economically) that city still was when I was living there for a year in 1997, several decades after the decline of their dockyards and docking industry, and they still hadn’t really recovered. They were investing in popular music, basically, as the new industry (in addition to all the ‘shadow economy’ things nearly everyone seemed to have going on the side, hustling to make a little money). And at the time, it was working – club culture and seeing live music was getting people to spend what little money they had. More importantly, it seemed to give a lot of people hope – creating something, instead of waiting around for their welfare check. Additionally, it brought in music ‘tourists’/clubgoers from other regions to spend their money in Merseyside.
    And that leads me to think of Pittsburgh, another post-industrial city that invested in an arts and entertainment district, which paid off for the city in terms of revitalizing that quadrant of the city, at least.
    Miami, where I live presently, has had fitful attempts to re-purpose unused industrial space. The Design District seems lately to be gaining steam, in terms of new retail and (rather expensive, naturally) residential space, though it’s promise of revitalizing nearby neighborhoods has yet to materialize.
    It’s amazing to me how the tendency in so many cities seems to be to rail against unstoppable economic change, or at a national level to try to pass laws to protect an outmoded means of manufacture, instead of taking concrete steps to adjust, like retraining workers, or pursuing alternate industries – things which, on the face of it, would seem to be a better use of resources. And how so much of the identity of a place is tied to what we do, that sometimes (as a city or a nation) we’ll sacrifice everything to hold on to the ways things were, in a vain attempt to avert the future and change.

  30. jennifer hauss

    After reading chapter five, I asked myself if there are any positives to New York “losing” to New Jersey because of the Port Authority’s “bi-state” mindset. Yes, I know this left economic devastation, but it seems to me it may have saved NY environmentally and it may have kept many trucks out of the city. I’m not usually optimistic – desperate timess…

  31. jennifer hauss

    This reading also reminded me of a season of The Wire where they dealt with the Stevedores of Baltimore (my hometown) working on the docks at Sparrow’s Point – the shape up, breakbulk, and Russian mail order “wives” in containers – all brought into the 21st century.
    Sorry for the late posts – I was at a conference all weekend.

  32. James Seymour

    Sorry it has taken me so long to write, but I did read the entire book over the last few days, as it interested me. Some of the chapters that were not assigned contained far more technical information than I wanted to read, such as how the containers reached their current specifications, and other chapters contained more good material, like how the Vietnam War and the US military influenced the container industry. Frankly, I, probably like most people, never even considered how the container industry developed or changed the marketplace.

    I found the book’s perspective quite different than the one in the piece about Lucy. In =The Box=, triumphant capitalists created progress in business despite the efforts of labor unions and government bureaucrats. No letters with a big pink lipstick mark here. I would have liked to have seen this material personalized with account of the displaced workers rather than mainly focused on the capitalists and other leaders at the top. Then again, as a social historian, the people’s stories always interest me.

  33. While reading the excerpts from “The Box” I was reminded of the very active day labor industry here in Georgia. “Shape-ups” are the subject of legislation and newspaper reports on a regular basis. The economy has forced even more people (mostly men) to this type of work, but now even the construction work has dried up. As mentioned, in a previous post, some of these workers are legal and some are illegal. All are most likely supporting families and trying to make ends meet.

  34. I’m with Karen Levin on this. When history is humanized, our collective story is conveyed with greater poignancy and impact than when it is reported in general detail. As I read the two assigned chapters of Levinson’s book, I did not feel much emotion. Levinson is a good writer, and his text was informative, slaking my curiosity about such things as the precarious and corrupt environment in which longshoreman were forced to labor or the reasons northern New Jersey (Port Newark and Port Elizabeth) was a more practical site for transportation of cargo than Manhattan and Brooklyn. I felt a distant sorrow for the unnamed people impacted by economic change, but not as much as I might have experienced in reading the specific story of a longshoreman or a particular family affected by the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Though it wasn’t discussed directly, I felt a kind of pain in realizing the type of environmental sacrifice that was taking place every time new docks were erected and the waters were dredged around the city, especially when the physical change did not result in any practical gain for workers or citizens.

  35. I think that Chapter 5 in its discussions about what the politicans wanted then has not changed and it is still what politicians want today in the residental developments that are changing the waterfront areas. Ironically these ‘upcoming’ neighboorhoods and Brooklyn in general now need to be served by big box stores because they are the only ones who can afford the rents. Any other thoughts about this?

  36. Honestly, I had never given waterfronts and longshoremen much thought before reading Chap2 in Levinson. The vivid description of a Longshoreman’s work day was enough to exhaust me just reading it (and appreciate my easy task of grading student papers). I understand the need in those early years for a powerful union and why the wages of the gangs ate up “half the total expense of an ocean voyage.” The corruption going on rather made sense when consideration is given to the laborer’s ubiquitous need for work (perhaps we’ll be seeing more of this type of corruption in the future if the recession hangs around). Longshoremen had the “global fraternity” and high wages, but at the same time, low social status. Again, it seems that discrimination was rampant everywhere, but not so much for racial or prejudicial reasons, but rather for “turf” holding. I’ve heard the same about fishermen and crabbers, that outsiders were not only unwelcomed but outright sabotaged by the group.

  37. My observation of the Brooklyn waterfront taught me that the industrial and the post-industrial coexist and continue to influence one another. There are multiple distinct working class “cultures” not just one culture or one working pattern. There are ethnic and family ties among the working people in the community, and for some people those ethnic identifications are more important than occupational culture or class. Some of the older industrial patterns are passing away, literally disappearing as social and technological changes remove the basis for the social organization of production, or a distinct class culture. I interviewed residents of Greenpoint Williamsburg in the mid 1990s as part of an ethnographic research project in which I was situated as a resident and a member of ‘the artists’ community. I want to share my situation and the stories of two older men who lived in different cultures in the same area. A man named Eddy who lived on Franklin Street in Greenpoint told me the history of his working life. His family had owned the building in which he lived since the late 19th century when they were immigrants from Ireland. He called himself the last of the Irish because almost all ethnically identified Irish families had moved to Long Island or Queens in the mid to late 20th century, leaving room for the entry of larger numbers of new Polish immigrants and hispanics. Greenpoint all around the building became Polish, filled with the families of new immigrants from Eastern Europe, or their children, who like Eddy may hold on to those buildings for a hundred years family history. Eddy came from a large extended family that was Roman Catholic. Eddy’s parents were factory workers who grew up in the neighborhood and walked to work. Eddy himself started work in a pencil factory when he was 14 years old. He would come home covered in grey lead dust. The building had no bathrooms as we know them. There was a common sink in the hall and a small flush toilet in a closet. Eddy’s mother insisted that he could not enter the house until he bathed in the public baths, a small building with a cement design, classic roman columns, in which working men congregated to get clean after work. The bath cost a nickel. Eddy inherited the building and raised his own family there, installing modern plumbing and dividing the building into rental apartments in his lifetime. In the 1950s-1960s the manufacturers where he was employed during his life closed or moved to Long Island. He describes this as a trend where the businesses started to leave the city because they wanted lower taxes and more room. His last employer in electrical manufacturing gave Eddy the choice of moving with them or giving up his job. He chose to stay in Greenpoint. His strong family ties and his identification with the working class in the neighborhood were stronger than his ties to any one employer. When I spoke with Eddy in 1999, he was renting the bottom apartment of his building to “young people” and he seemed happy to have younger working people in the house. They were white, and that mattered. They spoke English and were of European heritage somewhere, and that mattered. The young people called themselves artists, but they also worked for a living and were therefore acceptable as part of the new working class. The second man I want to recall was named Punch. He sat in a wheelchair in Williamsburg, near the subway station or a hispanic bodega where he bought cans of beer or 40 ounce bottles. I interviewed Punch about his work history, which was sometimes difficult because of his thick Puerto Rican Spanish accent and his dissassociative spells. I imagine that drinking and sitting in the sun all day caused him to be dehydrated, but he preferred beer to water and never accepted a hand out from me. Punch was born in Puerto Rico. He came to New York City as a young man where he found work in factories in Williamsburg near the waterfront. He described working in a polyfoam factory where they made the foam upholstery that goes into automobile seats. The factory was poorly ventilated and excruciatingly hot. Punch claimed that it was over 100 degrees near the rolling drum where he worked. The chemicals made him ill, but it was a job. He started drinking heavily after work to cope with it all. His name Punch is a nick name. He enjoyed fighting with other men. He bragged to me about fighting, trying to feign and jab from his chair. I must be a pretty younger woman to take up this much of his time. Despite his long poverty, he is far from dead. Fighting and drinking may have contributed to his short employment in different factories, but Punch claimed that he had a stroke while he was working at the polyfoam plant. Punch has not worked since 1975. He sat in his wheelchair, collected some public assistance, may have been homeless for some time, but lived in a shared housing arrangement with other Hispanic men in 1999. A Puerto Rican flag was painted on the wall of his building. I stopped to speak with him one day when I was waiting for someone from Manhattan who was arriving via the subway and Bedford Ave stop. Across the street, young artists and people who associate with the artists, perhaps employed in cultural arts institutions or cultural production, had set up a table to organize a green community politics event and petition. Punch looked at them hard, squinted, tried to figure out who they were and what they were doing there. He told me he thought they were organizing housing for homeless men and may be able to help him. He mistook them for social service or charity workers. Green politics? What’s that? Punch had to guess.
    The person I was meeting had agreed to speak at Galapagos, a space devoted to arts performances and arts films series. The artists were new community builders, entering the area in small numbers in the 1970s and 1980s and then attracting increasing chain migrations of artists and their friends. From 1989 until the present day their in-migration to the neighborhoods had filled the emptiness created by deindustrialization and the flight of manufacturing out of the city. I lived with an artist who was employed in a museum. We socialized with other artists and people employed in cultural institutions, living on what anyone would recognize as working class salaries. Our higher education levels created a basis for identification as ‘special’ rather than normal working class people. Artists and creative workers make stuff, new ideas, and new worlds, usually remaking, recycling and revaluing what they find in the environment. An artist might say, “I’m a factory worker,” but it would shift his social identification outside the imagined community of professional artists. I met artists who made statements like, I work as a bookkeeper or I work as a frame shop manager or I work as an administrative temp. Temp work and contract work created a culture in which the artists, like the longshoremen, were never sure of their incomes or what they might have to do next week to pay their bills. My girlfriend’s motto was “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” Like the longshoremen, the artists dragged around boxes, bags, cement, lumber, but it was purchased to rebuild, reshape and revalue the spaces they inhabited. People were situated in multiple cultures inside the same neighborhoods. The people who controlled ideas at the university often recalled the cultural worlds of their fathers and mothers that included the longshoremen in Brooklyn, the Yiddish speaking Jewish community on the lower east side, the union men, the brothels of old, the drug addicts and street walkers who played the avenues in the 60s, 70s and into the mid 90s. It was hard for them to understand the artists’ worlds too. Like Punch, they might remember the times past, and try to make sense out of the young people in the new working classes. I found the diverse and multivalent social identifications of working people on the Brooklyn waterfront energizing, engaging our our imaginations to pull, hammer and push, from the desolation of the empty lots to the creative fruition of full productive spaces.

  38. I just got the book and finally had a chance to read these chapters. When reading I’ve been reminded of what has been replaced, destroyed or reinvented in my lifetime. Some of these memories are bitter sweet because they refer back to the “good old days” when our world and values mattered. It seems that we have become a “disposable” society when refering to something that may not be current in its use or image. Therefore, instead of trying to figure out how to reuse it, we replace it or get rid of it all together.

    Some industries, as discussed in the box, are victims of progress. Progress is good when it betters the world, society and the way of life. Sometimes we need progress to push us to do better. This may have been the case with the dock workers when thier jobs were depleting due to the efficiency that developed in the shipping industry. It would be nice to know what professions the workers pursued when they lost their jobs on the waterfront.

  39. and to another level of what is noticed…

    after reading “the box”, i was playing with my grandson and his trains/planes/boats table. in the six months he has had this i had not noticed that the table included three miniature containers, one identified as belonging to toys ‘r us. over the railroad bridge was the crane. and with small magnets and a turning device, the containers could be hoisted from the bed of the train car and placed on the lower-level boat.

    containerization for kids!

  40. I’m writing from a post-industrial city in the Midwest, so Levinson’s work provides a valuable comparative read of post-World War II forces at play. Nostalgia for an earlier time that may now appear to be a “better” time is perfectly okay, as long as we do not hold on to this nostalgia too tightly. As I have seen in my own locality, inadequate and/or delayed synergy between labor, capital, civic powers, and local government can, indeed, render a community unable to effectively “adjust” within a de-industrialized environment. The forces of “progress” will inevitably leave some behind while creating new opportunities for others.

    As far as evoking feelings, Levinson’s story reminds me of the complexities of de-industrialization and that this “progress” can be wrenching for many. Levinson’s longshoremen are not so different from Detroit’s autoworkers.

  41. Keith Anderson

    I am reminded as I read this material of a company named Inland Containers that produced cardboard boxes in the rural town of Rome, Georgia, where I grew up. Actually, they’re still in business. It was one of the few unionized companies in the region, besides Georgia Power, located right next door. The paper mill down the road still spews its noxious odors into the air, and ships its materials into the plant. The father of one of my best friends from high school worked there, in Inland Container, and I was always struck by how informed he was, relative to the surrounding population. He always had a book in his hand, spoke knowingly and intelligently about world affairs, and was one of the few people in the county who voted for McGovern. I can’t say to what extent his insightfulness could be attributed to his belonging to a union, but another neighbor of mine who worked for Georgia Power seemed to be similarly well informed. Neither, incidentally, had any formal education beyond high school. They prediated Fox News. I wonder now where those cardboard boxes were sent that were manufactured at Inland Container. I hadn’t thought about the place in years. More of my comments are to follow. I’ve just gotten ahold of The Box through Interlibrary Loan.

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