- Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City
Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City by Michael A. Lerner has accumulated a number of accolades since its release in 2007, ranging from a glowing review in the New York Times to a Slate Magazine Best Book of the Year distinction. The author holds a Ph.D. from New York University and presently serves as the Associate Dean of Studies at Bard High School Early College in New York City. Lerner’s book is refreshingly straightforward; it is a monograph analyzing the prohibition era in New York City, with a central argument that the nation’s “noble experiment” failed miserably (2).
Lerner’s book is well organized and functions in a classic case-study format: analyzing a localized aspect in detail, but applying its historical lessons at a broader level. In Dry Manhattan, the author studies New York City and applies the lessons to American prohibition in general. Lerner begins his book by emphasizing the political roots of prohibition and briefly discussing the unique environment which allowed its inception. Lerner adheres to his formula by focusing on the Anti-Saloon League lobbyist efforts in NYC, specifically the arrival and effectiveness of New York State Superintendant William H. Anderson. However, in Lerner’s opinion New York had a larger importance, stating that “Anderson’s success or failure in New York would prove critical to the national campaign for Prohibition. . . . While New York was only one state, it loomed larger than most in the battle for a dry United States” (8). The Anti-Saloon League believed that New York would serve as a symbol for the larger movement—the idea being that if the League could succeed in the nation’s most notable “ethnic city,” a point which made it [End Page 360] “the state most hostile to its cause,” it could succeed anywhere (13). Lerner’s treatment on the origins of Prohibition exemplifies his style used throughout the book, using an extremely detailed record of New York City’s experience and then, when appropriate, giving his work a wider meaning by proving its pitfalls were universal.
While Lerner’s discussion of the origins of prohibition is interesting, the majority of the work focuses on the absolute failure of the near 14-year period. Central to the breakdown was the abundance of issues stemming from logistically administering the 18th Amendment. Lerner argues that New York was the focal point for enforcement agencies such as the Bureau of Prohibition, whom eventually “engendered widespread opposition to the 18th Amendment” (2). Lerner points out that the “Dry’s,” those people in favor of prohibition, seemed doomed from the beginning due to the ambiguous and incomplete nature of the prohibition legislation. The 18th Amendment did not ban the consumption of alcohol, only the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” The second important prohibition legal measure, the Volstead Act, was also problematic, leaving several loopholes for liquor ownership and also failing to mention possession of alcohol as an offense. While possession was the most notable absence in the new laws, the Volstead Act also left openings for medicinal whiskey, industrial use of alcohol, and religious sacramental wine. These cracks in the legality of alcohol caused a number of problems and side effects. For example, Lerner reveals that after the Volstead Act bars and restaurants closed due to a decrease in profits; however, in their place was a boom of new pharmacies opening up around the city, most of which freely vended liquor under the auspice of medicinal whiskey. Many of the shortcomings of prohibition were actually brought about by ineffective and ambiguous legislation.
The fall of the auspice of a prohibition utopia was swift; in fact, what Lerner calls a “full scale riot” against the 18th Amendment followed mere months into the new program (60). As prohibition continued, the anti-prohibition movement grew in size—eventually enjoying a three to one margin over Dry’s according to one nationwide poll. The rebellion in...