Neil Smith, Don Mitchell, eds. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018. 368 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-5282-4.
Reviewed by Graeme Pente (University of Colorado Boulder)
Published on H-Socialisms (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Radical New York
Revolting New York brings together short chapters, vignettes, illustrations, and maps to highlight the long history of near-continuous rebellion that has shaped New York City. Such moments of resistance “expose the social geography of [the] city … even as they force the remaking (or the reinforcement) of that geography” (p. 1). Across nearly twenty chapters, the many authors collectively build a picture of the issues of race, class, and policing that have defined revolt in the city and show New Yorkers’ tradition of taking to the streets and occupying public space. By focusing on these numerous moments of revolt, the contributors reveal—effectively overall—how struggles over power have transformed the city.
The first half of the collection covers the history of rebellion in New York from its founding as a Dutch colony in the early seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century. The book shows that race has been a crucial factor in revolt from the beginning. The Munsee people, native inhabitants of Manhattan Island and its environs, rebelled against the new order of private property the Dutch were imposing at New Amsterdam in the so-called Peach War of 1655. Race was also a crucial factor in other violent episodes of the colonial era, especially involving rebellions of enslaved Africans in New York, whether real (the Slave Revolt of 1712) or imagined (the “Great Negro Plot” of 1741). If race could inform uprisings against the colonial order, racism was often a factor in urban riots, such as the infamously destructive Draft Riots in 1863 amidst the Civil War or the Tenderloin Race Riot in 1900. Other uprisings centered on class and labor as New York became one of the foremost industrial cities in the country. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 was an urban rebellion that, in retrospect, throws the hardening class lines in the city into sharp relief. Strikes, rallies, boycotts, and other demonstrations characterized the general struggle of labor organizing and the currents of communist, socialist, and anarchist thought that surrounded organizing in the decades from the 1870s through the Great Depression.
While a little more than half the book covers uprisings in the first three hundred years of New York’s history, the latter part of the collection treats the last fifty years. This half moves rapidly to the 1960s and examines popular struggles over access to the city. As capital has increasingly dictated the reshaping of the city through processes of targeted disinvestment and gentrification, different ethnic groups and the poor have tried to maintain their places in the city and its public spaces. These struggles especially defined the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001), from popular attempts to preserve community gardens to the use of Union Square as a place of public mourning beyond the official response to 9/11. Increasing police brutality has also characterized capital’s domination of New York in the latter half of the twentieth century. Violence has been a major part of police responses to popular revolt, from uprisings in Harlem in 1964 and 1967 to the student occupation of Columbia University in 1968 to 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq. These forces of order have grown adept at managing protest and public space on behalf of the interests of the powerful in the city, even while regular New Yorkers have maintained the tradition of revolt at Occupy Wall Street, anti-Trump demonstrations, and resistance to the “Muslim ban” at JFK airport.
Perhaps Revolting New York’s greatest strength is the sheer number of major incidents of rebellion that it catalogues. In large measure, its claim that “struggle has been the decisive force” in “producing New York City space” is thus convincing (p. 15). There is some strong analysis on the cultural meanings of revolt—for example, the ways in which revolt in the colonial period served as a release valve by temporarily upending the social hierarchy—and how twentieth-century uprisings similarly functioned as flashpoints for growing frustrations over the social and economic order, from the Harlem riots of 1935, 1943, and 1964 to the massive 1977 blackout and riots, the only incident to involve all five of the city’s boroughs. The two chapters on Tompkins Square Park by general editor Neil Smith are also instructive of the ways the city’s public spaces have changed. With one chapter in each half of the book and their events taking place a century apart, the transformations of Tompkins Square Park highlight the nature of spatial meaning and struggle in New York. City authorities reacted to the park’s centrality in labor organizing and class conflict in the 1870s by carefully reshaping the public space: planting trees and building a fountain and playground in it. Smith shows how the park again became a rallying point for class-conscious resistance to gentrification in the city during the 1980s when homeless people and right-to-the-city activists reclaimed the park as a political space. Such moments clearly demonstrate the centrality of space to revolt and to New Yorkers’ conceptions of the city. Throughout the book, a series of well-drawn modern maps by Joe Stoll at the Syracuse University Cartography Lab and Map Shop reinforces the reader’s sense of the city’s geography and where these moments of rebellion occurred, even if the maps generally serve as illustrations rather than key parts of the analyses.
Revolting New York came out of a geography seminar on urban revolt led by general editor Neil Smith. Unfortunately, Smith passed away before the project’s completion. The other general editor, Don Mitchell, oversaw the finalization of the book. Most of the contributors have begun academic careers or are completing PhDs in sociology, anthropology, and geography; only one is trained in history. Given the academic backgrounds of its contributors, it is surprising that the book sometimes struggles in the execution of its purpose to explain “how 400 years of riot, rebellion, uprising, and revolution shaped a city.” It often vacillates between providing strong historical, sociological, or geographical analysis and merely cataloguing the many moments of rebellion across the centuries of New York City history. Sometimes this tension manifests in unevenness between the chapters. In some, the author offers substantive analysis of how the particular riot or revolt changed or challenged the power dynamics in the city. In others, the author merely provides a description of the events. If Smith’s chapters on Tompkins Square Park represent the heights of what the book can be—and there are other entries that are very nearly as effective—then the unevenness of the book as a whole can be frustrating. At times, the concept of space loses its centrality, only to reappear in another chapter with convincing force. In almost all cases, however, the geography of where these uprisings occurred rarely enters into any analysis that is present. At times the neighborhoods that demarcated quite clearly the class divisions of the city are critical to the history, as in the Astor Place Riot, and peppered throughout the book are Stoll’s maps. However, the authors tend to use the maps to illustrate rather than analyze events. In the end, the book makes clear the long history of violent resistance in New York but does not offer much explanation as to why this is the case. It is, as Mitchell admits in the introduction, a work of synthesis. The authors rely almost exclusively on secondary sources from historians, especially on Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s mammoth Gotham (1999) for the period before 1898. There is obviously nothing wrong with a work of synthesis as such—though it seems a little unusual for an edited collection—but with inconsistent analysis from the perspective of the authors’ disciplinary trainings, it can leave the reader wishing that geography and space or the cultural meanings of revolt were more often brought to the fore.
For all these frustrations, many of which are admittedly common to edited collections in general, Revolting New York ultimately succeeds in showing how much rebellion has been a part of the hundreds of years of the city’s history and how these struggles over power and space have transformed class, race, and policing in this important American city. The book can serve effectively as a reference or—in our trying years of the early twenty-first century—a worthwhile reminder of the rich tradition of revolt in New York.
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Graeme Pente. Review of Smith, Neil; Mitchell, Don; eds., Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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