As we make our way through Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, we’re dipping into some of the maps and essays featured within the atlas—each offering a vividly imagined version of New York that reveals a richly layered, social history. For more peeks inside, head here.
This week, we take a look at New York City’s history of resistance. “However you classify riots,” write the book’s editors, “New York City has been good at them, or at least good at having them. . . . Riots happen when those in charge can contain that energy no more—or fail to give it proper release.”
Walking through New York means passing through sites of popular uprisings and violent clashes, where people took to the streets to protest and make their strife known. In his essay, “The Violence of Inequality,” contributor Luc Sante writes that nearly half of New York’s riots have been about race, beginning as early as 1712.
The Negro Riot of 1712 was New York’s very first social upheaval. Its facts are scant—between twenty and seventy African slaves allegedly set fire to a building on Maiden Lane, then the city’s northern boundary, and attacked whites attempting to douse the flames, killing nine. Of the forty-three slaves arraigned, eighteen were acquitted, twenty hanged, and three burned at the stake. In 1741 the facts are even murkier—a ship was seized, possibly for piracy, and its African crew were sold as slaves, but they managed to break free and burn down a number of houses, including the governor’s mansion. The Doctors Riot of 1788 was sparked by medical students digging up cadavers for dissection from the Negroes Burial Ground. A petition from African American citizens was ignored by the authorities, but when a newspaper article alleged that the body of a white woman had been dug up, citizens attacked the hospital and the violence resulted in some twenty deaths.
In the 19th century, these riots were sometimes sparked by opponents of slavery—the Eagle Street Riot of 1801 began with an attempt to free slaves—and sometimes by supporters, as when anti-abolitionists ransacked the home of an abolitionist and attacked the abolitionist-owned Bowery Theater in 1834.
The white abolitionists of the period tended to be well-educated members of the upper classes; their activities were resented by many in the white working class—mostly Irish Catholic immigrants—who saw free blacks as competing for their jobs and accepting lower wages. Tempers rose to the point of violence in the Anti- Abolitionist Riots of 1834, when a mob ransacked the Rose Street home of the abolitionist Lewis Tappan and attacked the Bowery eater, whose stage manager was a British-born abolitionist—he appeased them by sending out an actor in blackface to sing “Zip Coon.” The Brooklyn Cigar Factory Riot of 1862 was the work of local Irish and German unskilled laborers who resented the fact that African Americans, who commuted from other parts of the city, were employed as skilled cigar rollers and made more money.
The map and Sante’s essay focus on mass eruptions sparked by race as well as those rooted in wealth and class—inequality being a chief theme among these uprisings. 2011’s Occupy Wall Street makes its mark on the map as does the deadliest riot in American history, The Draft Riots of 1863 where thousands of pro-South and pro-slavery New Yorkers lashed out in a deadly mix of racial hatred, economic insecurity, and class warfare as they rampaged through Manhattan, beating and murdering black men, soldiers, and police. But the map also contains some of the weirder and more inexplicable riots in the city, such as the fashion faux-pas that launched a citywide crime spree: The Straw Hat Riot of 1922.
Take a peek at a few highlights and plots on the map below:
Nonstop Metropolis is available in paperback and hardcover.