- Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City ed. by Neil Smith, et al.
As a native New Yorker who had worked in New York City, I began reading Revolting New York with great anticipation. I was not disappointed in this volume, which reads more like a saga about the persistence of New York's unique character despite all of its different areal permutations, immigrant groups, political factions, and global connections since its founding (as New Amsterdam) in 1624. As Colin Woodard explained in his American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures [End Page 262] of North America (Viking Penguin, 2011), New York City (hereafter called the City) is "the most vibrant and powerful city on the continent, and one with a culture and identity unlike that of anyplace else in the United States" (65).
In Revolting New York the editors and authors have focused on the social geography of the City via a history of its riots, rebellions, uprisings, and revolutions. These spasms are so frequent that they are part of the City's natural order, often taking the form of popular protests, but sometimes official suppression of unwanted behavior or, worse, official refusal to restrain mob violence against the "Other." The book is divided into nineteen chapters, beginning with the 1655 revolt of the Munsee, loosely affiliated bands of Lenape, and ending with the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011. Minor disturbances are covered in vignettes at the end of some chapters.
One of the goals of the editors is to link the violent events to changes in the landscape and the spatial arrangement of land uses in the City. Although this goal is not always realized, as most of the authors are not geographers but anthropologists, sociologists, and activists, there is plenty of grist to satisfy readers interested in the evolving geography of the City. For example, two parks in lower Manhattan—Tompkins Square and Union Square—were often staging grounds for mass protests that escalated into uprisings. The City's officials responded by redeveloping the squares to make them less open to mass occupation and movement. The Astor Place Riot (1849) involved a working-class mob trying to burn down the Astor Place Opera House, a den of elitism. The mob was stopped by a militia shooting and killing twenty-two and wounding many more; the violence drove the upper class and their opera house northward to the Union Square area. Finally, the Tenderloin Race Riot (1900), in which police refused to stop white mobs attacking black citizens, drove many African Americans north to Harlem.
This volume makes clear that revolt usually has been tied to race, ethnicity, and class. Rioting associated mainly with race occurred in 1655 with the revolt of the Munsee against the colony of New Netherland, in 1741 with the "Great Negro Plot" when fires over several weeks led to white mobs rounding up hundreds of blacks (who made up 20 percent of the population) and hanging or burning at the stake dozens, and the Harlem riots of 1935, 1943, and 1964.
In the nineteenth century the emergence of the City as the industrial [End Page 263] and financial center of the nation's capitalist economy exacerbated class (as well as racial) tensions. By 1863, 1 percent of the population controlled 61 percent of the City's wealth. As the wealthy luxuriated in fine townhomes and decamped in the muggy summers to resorts, rampant inflation increasingly condemned the working class to shantytowns or even homelessness. Tensions were already high from the recruitment of southern blacks to fill factories and break strikes. As soon as the local draftboards drew names for the draftlottery, begun in 1863, riots erupted. The rioters burned the mansions of rich Republicans along Fifth...