- Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City
In this enjoyable and learned volume, Michael A. Lerner cites the temperance movement as one of the most influential reform efforts in American history, and National Prohibition, the crowning achievement of the movement, as perhaps the nation's single most dramatic attempt at moral, political, and social reformation. Lerner is right on both counts; his perspective, however, is that of case study, and he explores the struggle to dry up the country through the singular lens of New York City. The author concedes the early successes of the temperance crusade. Progressives and other reformers had identified alcohol problems as serious threats to public health and social order, and the beverage alcohol business, frequently corrupt, enjoyed little public esteem. By 1920, when the Volstead Act became the law of the land, most of the country already was dry at the state or local level; furthermore, early data suggested that Prohibition indeed had produced declines in drinking-related health and social problems. Reformers therefore were optimistic about the likelihood of drying out New York, in spite of the city's long-standing antipathy to the temperance crusade.
But the New York experience, of course, was hardly the victory drys had anticipated. In fact, Prohibition ran into trouble on virtually every front. Reformers had hoped to bring New York's teeming immigrant population over to the temperance cause, but, to the increasing exasperation of drys, most new ethnic groups clung stubbornly to their wet cultural norms and resented reform initiatives. The closing of landmark city watering holes, with a corresponding loss of jobs and revenue, drew protests on cultural and economic grounds. In addition, it gradually became apparent that New York drinkers were not necessarily consuming less, but had simply shifted their drinking to new venues. Eventually, these included illegal but quite accessible speakeasies as well as elaborate nightspots. Owners of some of these establishments, including Texas Guinan and Helen Morgan, became major celebrities, and their flouting of the dry laws enraged reformers while reinforcing a growing public perception of the Volstead Act as unenforceable. Worse, it also became obvious that the federal Bureau of Prohibition lacked the resources necessary for an adequate enforcement effort, and that state and local officials were only reluctant allies. Indeed, enforcement agents frequently became enmeshed in corruption scandals, lured by pay-offs from bootleggers and illegal clubs, even as massive numbers of Volstead cases threatened to overwhelm the courts. Lerner traces these developments in considerable detail, all of it supporting his observation that, far from uniting New Yorkers in a common reform cause, the Eighteenth Amendment instead "had polarized New York between irreconcilable dry and wet camps, one bent on enforcing Prohibition at any cost and the other set on rebelling against it" (page 59).
This "irreconcilable" divide reflected more than a fight over whether or not someone could buy a legal drink. Rather, Lerner sees the bitterness deriving from a clash of competing cultural visions—perhaps the first true "culture war" of the [End Page 811] twentieth century. He carefully depicts the wet-dry conflict in New York as representing a wider conflict between an older, more homogeneous America, and an emerging nation that increasingly emphasized personal liberty, co-existence between the country's constituent populations, and a tolerance of different cultural norms. By the 1920s, drys certainly understood that New York, composed of multiple ethnic groups and combining any number of social, political, and cultural outlooks, was one of the greatest imaginable threats to their reform agenda. Lerner makes this case clearly and forcefully, repeatedly citing examples of wet and dry voices talking past one another, but understanding the gulf between their positions only too well. Perhaps there was room for compromise, but no willingness.
While Lerner is on firm interpretive ground, his account of Repeal is less satisfying. He accepts reports that the results were beneficent, but given their feelings toward Prohibition, New York officials and media hardly would have said otherwise. Lerner might have taken a closer look. Other scholars...