- Historic Sites
The Riot That Remade A City
How a mass killing 150 years ago made today’s New York a better place
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
The problems we face today in the wake of episodes like Littleton seem less daunting but more intractable.
In the face of such crises, the prevailing populist, laissez-faire beliefs of Jacksonian Democracy no longer seemed sufficient. To the reformers America seemed to have devolved into a conglomeration of special interests posing as a nation, one bound to go on expanding endlessly—until it exploded, or fell apart.
What was needed was a society with active government and private intervention to push the many, disparate social and economic classes of Americans together, a whole host of public institutions—schools, theaters, parks, lecture halls, journals, and newspapers—that would, in Frederick Olmsted’s words, be “so attractive as to force into contact the good & the bad, the gentlemanly and the rowdy.”
“Open wide therefore the doors of your libraries and picture galleries, all ye true republicans!” decreed Andrew Jackson Downing in his journal the Horticulturist .
What followed was a slew of inventive public-private partnerships over the next decade and a half that achieved much of what the reformers had sought. Many of their fruits remain with us to this day. Everywhere, the reformers pressed for better public schools and sanitary conditions. In 1853 Peter Cooper founded the Cooper Union, an assembly hall and institution of free higher education for workingmen and -women, built just across from the site of the Astor Place Riot. Cooper Union still lures leading art, design, and engineering students away from Ivy League universities with its free tuition.
Undoubtedly, though, the jewel in the reformers’ crown was New York’s Central Park. Here was where the reformers set down to, in the words of Calvert Vaux, “translate Democratic ideas into Trees and Dirt,” to create “the big art work of the Republic.” The result, the 843-acre “Greensward” plan, designed by Vaux and Olmsted, was a remarkable hybrid of the educational, the utilitarian, and the simply gorgeous—the very apotheosis of American pragmatism.
As the park was planned, it would include a scenic reservoir, a parade ground, playgrounds, an exhibition or concert hall, gardens, lakes, fountains, and even a lookout tower. There would even be a dairy, to provide free milk to poor Manhattan families. Other working families would be “improved” not only with beautiful man-made landscapes and free concerts but also by their mere contact with more genteel New Yorkers.
There were, of course, considerable ironies attached to the park, not the least of which was the crucial support the Union League gentlemen received from self-interested real estate developers or the public monies they secured from the Democratic mayor, Fernando Wood, just the sort of unscrupulous machine politician they loathed. Meanwhile, some sixteen hundred of just the kind of working-class African-, German-, and Irish-Americans the reformers professed to “improve” were evicted from their small holdings to make the park possible.
Remarkably, though, much of the reformers’ vision was realized. Indeed, many of Central Park’s best features— the world-class museums of art and natural history that flank its lawns, the public zoo, free educational programs, Shakespeare productions, concerts, and operas—have been added over the decades, a development that would only have confirmed the reformers in their republican faith.
The do-gooders were not without their flaws, however. Their social and religious prejudices led them into much dead-end government meddling. Both intense poverty and political corruption remained rampant in New York, and the Civil War saw the city torn by the worst riot in American history.
Yet the very real accomplishment of Central Park, for one, remains with us, very much a grand commons of the Republic. Are we capable of carrying off such an endeavor today? And just what would it be?
The problems that we face now, particularly in such ambiguous episodes as Littleton, seem both less daunting and more intractable. Perhaps they are the sort of random tragedies that no strategy can prevent. Yet simply to shrug them off, to exploit them for short-term political gain, is to earn for ourselves the scorn that 150 years ago Andrew Downing directed against “social doubters, who intrench themselves in the citadels of exclusiveness in republican America, [and] mistake our people and its destiny.”