May 17, 2007

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Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner (2007, Harvard University Press, 351 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz news@hippopress.com

We Americans, from time to time, make stupid legislative decisions.

Michael A. Lerner looks at one of the more spectacular blunders in Dry Manhattan, an engrossing if, well, dry look at the history of Prohibition and the city. Religious fundamentalism and anti-immigration sentiments helped to push a liquor ban through statehouses across the country; lack of funding for and unequal application of enforcement made the law a nightmare for the justice system (and helped to build a thriving criminal culture), and an eventual plea for common sense helped to kill the “noble experiment.”

So, you know, take heart. Sometimes we also fix our stupid legislative decisions.

Lerner’s book, which focuses not just on Manhattan but primarily on New York City, really does set up Prohibition as being doozey from the beginning. Many of the city’s immigrants met and kept abreast of news and local politics at beer halls, cafés and other alcohol-serving establishments. Thus the locales became tied up in the minds of some (Republicans, in the case of New York) with unions and other political movements with whiffs of socialism as well as with the old-style political machines, such as Tammany Hall. Anti-immigrant feelings — never hard to stir up in America — and flat-out racism helped to sell people in the hinterlands on Prohibition. (Remember, this is more or less before suburbs. You were either urban or rural and the power in many states, even states with large cities like New York, was still frequently with the rural politicians.)

Once it was passed, nothing went right with Prohibition. Famous New York eateries closed and oodles of speakeasies opened. Instead of a dining culture — drink included — New York’s nightlife became a drinking and dancing culture, emphasis on the drinking. Neither the Feds nor the state governments had nearly enough money to enforce Prohibition laws and local police resented having to arrest their neighbors on such iffy offenses. The result was under-trained, easily bribed Prohibition enforcement officers and well-run and violent criminal organizations.

What enforcement there was also betrayed the prejudices of the “experiment.” As movies on Turner Classic Movies demonstrate, the swells kept right on making martinis and old-fashioneds while the arrests tended to be made on the working class. Society changed during Prohibition — women weren’t the tee-totaling monolith many of the “drys” expected them to be. From the feminists to the flappers, girls wanted their drink and, as the 1920s wore on, were willing to mobilize for it.

Lerner’s style is a bit repetitive. More context on Prohibition in the rest of the country could have helped explain why New York City was eventually able to help tip the country to “wet” again. We have few personalized characters here — crusaders and party bosses aren’t developed as fully as you’d hope from a book this focused on a topic this potentially lively (and with as many parallels to modern politics).

If, however, your knowledge of Prohibition is based on the “Homer vs. the 18th Amendment” episode of The Simpsons and old Al Capone movies, Dry Manhattan’s slice of history isn’t a bad place to start in your study of our relationship with the drink. B