People who’ve read “Greenpoint’s Forgotten Past” have asked me who my favorite character from local history was. Without a second’s hesitation I say, Pete McGuinness, the King of Greenpoint.
So who was McGuinness and what made him so special? The short answer: he was the political “boss” of Greenpoint for thirty years until his death in 1948.
The longer answer is that he was perhaps the most beloved person ever in Greenpoint and a legend. He wasn’t just from Greenpoint- he was Greenpoint, so synonymous with it, that it was hard to think of one without the other.
His rise to power was improbable- a grammar school drop-out dockworker who challenged the powerful corrupt local political machine and won. His thirty year hold on power was even more improbable still, but most incredible of all was that Pete turned out to be the amongst the rarest of politicians, being both honest and effective.
He got us the G train, McCarren Park Pool, two parks, a bridge and more. The Seabury Commission investigated allegations of corruption against him, but he proved himself to be as clean as a whistle.
It was, however, his personality, more than his achievements, that made him memorable. A three hundred pound ex-boxer with a booming voice, vice-like handshake and massive heart, Pete praised our heavily industrial area as “The Garden Spot of the Universe” and the name stuck. Controversial, irreverent, and above all funny, Pete combined Brooklynese Greenpoint speech and salty longshoreman humor to make himself the darling of the city tabloids. Perhaps the most colorful Alderman in the history of the City legislature, Pete represented Greenpoint during prohibition and although he personally did not drink, no lawmaker in America was ever a bigger foe of prohibition. He seized headlines by proposing a bill to transfer government-seized booze to local hospitals as medicine, explaining “It’s a criminal shame to allow whiskey to lie idle while people are lying at death’s door who could be saved by it.”
McGuinness won thirty local elections until his opponents gave up even trying. What made him so popular? Every night he held court in his local political club doing favors and solving problems for dozens of his constituents, getting them jobs, fixing their problems with landlords and even freeing them from jail. One of fourteen children, Pete grew up poor and never forgot his poverty. Every year, he organized a Christmas party that gave hundreds of struggling local families a turkey dinner, holiday food, and presents for the kids.
He died at age sixty of a heart attack and the whole neighborhood grieved. Ten thousand people lined the streets of Greenpoint to bid his hearse farewell. His death marked the end of an era. Greenpoint never again had a boss like Pete.