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The Riot That Remade A City

June 2024
5min read

How a mass killing 150 years ago made today’s New York a better place

The children are back at Columbine High School now— if they can still truly be called children after the terrible violence perpetrated upon them. We can only hope that the murder of twelve of their classmates was a random moment of madness. We can only hope, that is, for in the time since the killings in Littleton, Colorado, we have proved ourselves unable to address whether or not they reflect any greater, underlying problems in American society and, if so, what we should do about them.

It’s hard to know where to begin with governmental responses to the massacre: With President Clinton’s campaign to have movie ticket-takers check IDs more closely, a move so meaninglessly symbolic it could have warmed only the heart of Dick Morris? Or Congress’s brief, vitriolic debate, in which both sides trotted out their favorite whipping boys before agreeing to do nothing.


Yet considering the contempt, rightly or wrongly, that most Americans now have for our elected officials, we can’t be very surprised at their performance. What is surprising is that we have not expected more than a resounding silence from our private sector. That is to say, from the rest of us. After all, 150 years ago, faced with another act of senseless violence and a government that they deemed to be corrupt and ineffectual, a small group of New Yorkers responded with a re-examination of our entire society and ended up giving us institutions from which we benefit to this day.

The incident that galvanized this burst of philanthropy was the Astor Place Riot, a bizarre tragicomic incident of a sort that seems to happen with such regularity in New York City. The riot began on May 10, 1849, when Great Britain’s leading actor, William C. Macready, took to the boards to play Macbeth at the city’s Astor Place Opera House. Macready’s bitter rival was one of the foremost American actors of the time, Edwin Forrest, a stalwart of the traditional style of stage acting, which emphasized much bellowing and leaping about. He was also a favorite of New York’s predominantly Irish poor and working class.

Macready was not much liked by anyone, and particularly not by his fellow actors, who loathed his insistence on such things as rehearsals and performing Shakespeare’s plays as he had written them. New York’s upper class, however, did affect to prefer his revolutionary new acting style, with its emphasis on relatively subtle gestures and line readings (not so subtle that he did not gain the nickname Die Again Macready for repeating his signature death scenes upon demand. Actors!).

Forrest blamed Macready for orchestrating the failure of his recent tour of England. By the time Macready took the stage in Astor Place their feud had escalated into out-and-out class and ethnic warfare. Thousands of “Forresters” stoned the Opera House, stormed its doors, and tried to seize the muskets of the state militiamen prudently on call. After firing over their heads, which only enraged the rioters more, the militia responded by shooting point-blank into the crowd, killing twenty-two of them on the spot and wounding many more (it was estimated that an additional nine died later of their wounds).

The event sent shock waves through New York’s gentry. Few of them doubted that the shooting was necessary to save the Opera House—and Macready—from destruction. More important, though, it encouraged them to take a serious look at the society they lived in—and to see what they could do to improve it.

The new reformers were hardly representative of New York’s upper classes as a whole. They included such men as the industrialist Peter Cooper; the journalists Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant; and a trio of friends in the new field of landscape architecture, Calvert Vaux, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Andrew Jackson Downing. For the most part they were wealthy, white, Anglo-Saxon men, drawn from the city’s old Whig merchant elite. They would soon be among the founders of the Union League and the Republican party. All these things would influence their critique of American society.

But above all, as Iver Bernstein points out in his seminal work The New York City Draft Riots, the reformers shared the conviction that they “teetered on moral catastrophe.” Their feeling was understandable. New York in the 1850s was passing through an especially squalid, if exciting, epoch in its always turbulent history. Mobs of street youths fought one another—urged on by the very gangsters and ward heelers who had egged on the Astor Place mob. The city’s public servants were little better. New York’s volunteer fire companies were notorious for their impromptu brawls, while in 1857 competing municipal police forces actually staged a donnybrook on the steps of City Hall.

The execrable urban conditions the reformers observed firsthand were caused in good part by waves of new immigrants from Ireland and Germany, flooding not only New York but Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago. They overwhelmed the primitive social services and infrastructure and were exploited by ruthless bosses and by corrupt machine politicians—like those who had encouraged the mobs in Astor Place. Reactionary new parties such as the KnowNothings and the Anti-Masons used them as scapegoats, promoting a sense that the nation was threatened by sinister, hidden forces: the Pope, Freemasonry, “the money power.”

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.”

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