On my trips to New York City (in 2015 and 2016), I have scoured bookshops looking for a history of protest in the city, assuming that there must be one. After all, there are at least two books about London’s turbulent past. Whilst there is lots of great research about dissent in New York, there has not been an overarching survey–until now. Next year, a book will be published not just about the history of protest in New York, but about the historical geography of protest in the city. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City began as a project by Neil Smith with some of his post-graduate students at the City University of New York. When he passed away in 2012, Professor Don Mitchell took over the task of editing the collection, and it is finally being published next year. As you can imagine, I’m quite excited about it, whilst also being a bit frustrated that I didn’t get there first!
Last week, Professor Mitchell gave a lecture about the project at Queen Mary, University of London. I went along to find about more about the project. Mitchell used various examples to demonstrate the strength of the relationship between dissent and the material landscape. We tend to view demonstrations, riots, and other expressions of dissent as unusual events, but they are actually very common, particularly in large cities like London and New York. It is actually more uncommon to have a peaceful period.
Mitchell started the lecture with an in-depth look at a decade of bombings in New York, culminating in anarchist Mario Buda’s attack on Wall Street on the 16th of September 1920 (I have written a review of Mike Davis’ excellent book about this bombing’s part in the early history of the car bomb here.) The bombings contributed to the deindustrialization of New York, as the small-scale manufacturing and transport networks that produced and planted the bombs were driven out of the city. Finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate the city’s economy. In attempting to strike a devastating blow against the bankers of Wall Street, Buda inadvertently helped them tighten their grip on New York.
Mitchell used this narrative, and others, to argue that “landscape is power materialised.” Whilst this is not a new argument, Revolting New York applies it in a new context. Space is produced through social struggle, the result of constant negotiation and conflict between groups with different visions for that space. Protest is just one form that this process takes. As such, protest shapes and reshapes the city you see when you look out the window (apologies to those of you who are not currently in a city!)
The lecture was an introduction to the Revolting New York project, outlining it’s history, structure, and key arguments. It is particularly exciting for me because of its parallels with my own work on London. The book will be affordable too, less than £25 for the paperback, so hopefully it will help bring historical geography to a wider audience. I for one can’t wait to read it!
Robin Nagle. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
On a visit to New York in March as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip, I was presented with a wealth of book buying opportunities. I was unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are my bank balance or my boyfriend) limited by BA’s baggage allowance, so I had to be highly selective about what I bought. Picking Up was one of the lucky few (well, 7) that made the cut. I enjoy books about cities, but I especially like books that approach a city from a direction that’s a little bit different. And, as Robin Nagle makes abundantly clear, what public service is more overlooked than rubbish collection?
All of us create trash in great quantities, but its a troubling category of stuff we mostly ignore. We particularly ignore how much care and attention it requires from a large, well-organized workforce. What would life be like if the people responsible for managing the waste of contemporary society were not on the streets every day? What do their jobs entail? Why don’t they get the kudos they deserve?
(Nagle, 2013; p.12)
Picking Up blends statistics, history and personal stories to tell a rich and detailed story of the Department of Sanitation New York (or DSNY- the book contains a helpful glossary so you can get your head around all the acronyms and slang that the sanitation workers use). The DSNY only receives public and media attention when something goes wrong; you don’t often stop to be grateful when your rubbish is collected on time, but you certainly do kick up a stink (pun intended) when a collection is missed. So Nagle had to work hard to gain the trust of the DSNY and its employees, first getting access to their archives, then being allowed to observe garages and collection trucks on their rounds, then, finally, getting a job as a sanitation worker herself. Her fascination with the topic, and her dedication to finding out more about the complex system that prevents New York City from drowning in its own waste, is evident in her writing.
Nagle uses her own transition from curious outsider to tolerated observer and finally valued colleague to structure the book. As she learns how to lift properly, how to navigate bureaucratic politics, and how to operate the complex and dangerous machinery (you are statistically more likely to die on the job as a sanitation worker in New York than a police officer or fireman) so does the reader. Well, not literally, but I felt like I was discovering more about this overlooked world with Nagle, rather than just being told about it.
An anthropologist by trade, Nagle is fascinated by what the ways that society deals with rubbish can tell us about ourselves and the societal norms we construct. The book doesn’t contain much theory- it is clearly aimed at a non-academic audience, but what is included adds a depth that I think the rest of the book could have benefited from. The discussion about the term ‘throwing away’ and its implications for how society views waste, for example, is fascinating.
I work from home quite often, so I regularly see my local sanitation workers coming to collect our rubbish and recycling on Thursday mornings. Before reading Picking Up, I might have glanced up to see what the noise was. Now, I am much more aware of the service they perform. Picking Up takes a new perspective on New York City, a difficult thing to do for one of the world’s most observed and represented cities. But it also encourages you to think differently about your own city, and what more can you ask from a book than to change your perspective?
Street art is everywhere in New York City, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. For those of you that are new to Turbulent London, I am especially interested in stickers, particularly those with political subject matter. So on a recent trip to New York City, I took my camera and my habit of photographing random bits of street furniture to see what protest stickers I could find on the streets of the city that never sleeps. This is the second time I have visited NYC since I started photographing protest stickers, and the first time I struggled to find many. This time however, I found so many stickers that I have decided to do two blog posts, hence the slightly awkward title (the first post, published last week, is here). In the last post, I looked at the different kinds of issues which protest stickers address, the different types of stickers you can find, and some of the most common themes in the stickers I found. This post is far less organised I’m afraid, its just everything else that I wanted to include!
New York City has a thriving street art culture. Almost every neighbourhood has walls covered in art, both official and unofficial. There are also a lot of stickers, of all kinds- I spotted one sticker advertising a new novel, which is something I haven’t come across in London before. Lots of stickers generally means lots of protest stickers, and during the week that I was there in early March I found loads. I wouldn’t like to say whether the amount of protest stickers is increasing, or I have just got better at spotting them since I visited last time, but it certainly felt like there were a lot. I found so many in fact, that I have decided to split this post into 2 parts, with Part 2 being published this time next week.
Protest stickers are a great way of seeing what kinds of issues are important to the people of a city. Some themes crop up again and again, whilst other topics just appear to be a particular bug bear of one zealous stickerer (I am still looking for a less clumsy way of referring to people who put up stickers!) Stickers are just one of the ways in which protest imprints itself onto the physical fabric of a city, but they can also be one of the most long-lasting, although their transience is one of their defining characteristics.
Don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2 of Protest Stickers: New York City 2!
Last week, I was lucky enough to run my Rebellious New York project on the Royal Holloway Geography Department’s second year undergraduate field trip for a second year. I really enjoyed it last year, getting to explore New York’s radical side with a group of enthusiastic students, and this trip was no different. I wrote about some of the many ways to explore New York’s turbulent past and present last year, but this time I discovered some new things, as well as revisiting some old ones.
I took my group on the Occupy Walking Tour with Occupy member Michael Pellagatti, as I did last year. Michael has added some information to the tour that puts the 2008 global financial meltdown that spawned the Occupy Movement in the context of the boom and bust cycle inherent to capitalism. We also had a talk at the Interference Archive, which provided an introduction to the archive and its collections. It is always useful to know why an archive you are working in was started, as it can help you to understand what sort of material might be present in the collections. The students all found something useful for their projects, and the volunteers were very helpful in pointing out potentially relevant material- a great illustration of how beneficial it can be to have the archivist on your side!
The weather was much warmer than it has been on my previous trips to New York, and it was lovely to see the open spaces of the city being used and enjoyed. Union Square Park seemed to be a particularly lively space, with people dancing, drawing, performing and protesting at the south end of the park on the Wednesday evening when we were there. Whilst walking tours and archives are excellent, protest is best experienced by actually experiencing it, and in New York there is no shortage of opportunities!
I spent some time on this trip exploring the rich history of immigration that is an integral part of New York. I visited Ellis Island, which processed 12 million newly arrived immigrants between 1892 and 1924. I also went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has preserved 97 Orchard Street, and has restored some of the flats to resemble what they would have looked like at various points between 1863 and the 1930s. Many immigrants crammed into tenements in neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side when they first arrived in America, and the museum does a fantastic job of bringing their stories to life. Immigrant groups did not wait long to get involved in politics in New York. Some of the biggest issues for new arrivals were work related; workers faced long hours, tough conditions and low wages. American workers often saw immigrants as competition, but they eventually realised that more could be achieved if they campaigned together. In addition, more established migrant groups helped new arrivals; German radicals helped eastern Europeans set up trade unions and Yiddish language newspapers when they first arrived on the Lower East Side. Radicals were also affected by the increasingly tight laws which aimed to reduce overall immigration numbers and prevent those considered subversive or unable to provide for themselves entering America. Anarchists were banned in 1903, along with epileptics and professional beggars.
The Stonewall Riots are considered by many to be the the catalyst for the LGBT civil rights movement in America. On the 28th of June 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. At this point homosexuality in public was illegal in New York, and businesses and establishments frequented by the city’s gay community were continually harassed by the police. This particular night was the final straw however, and a crowd gathered outside the Stonewall Inn and began to riot. The same happened the following night. On the first anniversary of the riots, the first Gay Pride parades took place in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The original Inn closed in 1969, but a bar called Stonewall opened up in the western half of the original location (53 Christopher Street) in 1990. In 2007 the name was changed again to the Stonewall Inn, and this bar is still open today. Across the road in Christopher Park is the Gay Liberation Monument, which was constructed in 1992. Although it memorialises the gay rights movement as a whole, the location of the monument so close to the Stonewall Inn demonstrates how significant the location is considered to be.
The radical history of New York is long and diverse, and it would take far more time than I have to get to know it properly, although I would like to someday. For now, I am content with exploring the traces these turbulent events and people have left in the fabric of the city on my brief visits, not to mention helping the wonderful Royal Holloway Geography undergraduates to conduct their own research on protest in the city. If you ever find yourself in this fantastic city, why not take some time to investigate the city’s rebellious side?
Laura Shipp is a Second Year Geography undergraduate at Royal Holloway. She is particularly interested in Political Geography and is currently undertaking dissertation research surrounding emotional geographies and perceptions of security in everyday circumstances. Following on from research carried out on an undergraduate fieldtrip to New York, she considers the ways that protest camps can entangle objects, change their associations and recreate their meanings.
In September 2011, Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan became overtaken as the home of Occupy Wall Street. A unique ephemeral environment was established which can only be described as a protest camp. From this picture, the park now has no physical marks of the camp’s existence and yet it had contained a temporary city with its own newspaper, food supply chain and Wi-Fi (Chappell, 2011).
Feigenbaum, (2014, pp.35) defines protest camps “as place-based sites of on-going protest and daily social acts of ‘re-creation’ largely describing both the situated-ness of such camps to their location but also the significance of seemingly banal process within them”. They are spaces where people coalesce and imagine a different social world, often in contention with the state (Frenzel et al., 2013). In make-shift bedrooms, kitchens and meeting places, objects have significance and become bound in new narratives. The meaning and use of objects evolve to fit exceptional environments which alters the legacy of the objects.
With an aim to put focus on some of the seemingly banal objects that became entangled with Occupy Wall Street I used two slightly abnormal methods for the study. The first was a tour of the main sites of Occupy Wall Street and an oral history from Occupy tour guide Michael Pellagatti. The second method was the Interference Archive which stores ephemera and news articles to create an animated story of social history (Interference Archive, 2015)
From what I found, the tarpaulin and the tent seemed to have an importance. Fundamentally, protest camps must negotiate the task of providing basic necessities to its occupants whilst getting across its message; this is partly done by occupying the space through thick and thin. Tarpaulins provided shelter required from the first week of the camp, as shown in the picture below.
The tarpaulin’s crowning moment, however, was Day 6 of the camp when a storm was forecast to hit Manhattan. After much deliberation, a human-tarp shield was erected around the equipment and the camp physically weathered the storm from under it. Michael stresses the prominence of this instance, claiming it as the “genesis of the movement”. It transformed the camp’s population from strangers with similar frustrations to a group dedicated to its cause. From this process, they were able to create both strong ties in that place as well as maintaining the resources they needed to survive as a protest (Nicholls, 2009).
The tarp has another significance, physically representing the struggles faced by the homeless population of New York. Often they are used to create makeshift bivouac shelters, retaining heat on city streets (Newman, 2014). They are the difference between life and death. Using those same items, the Occupiers were a visceral reminder of difficulties and people who may otherwise be ignored. What Ehrenreich (2011) argues is that not only are the two related, but Occupy Wall Street took up the cause of homelessness as its own, as a problem that is not dissociated with the greed of the 1%. As time passed tents became more prolific at the camp. The picture below shows the camp the week before its eviction.
From the outside they may have seemed like a sensible shelter for the protesters. From Michael’s perspective, however, they broke down the unity that came from living in each other’s company. The name of the park became sullied with incidents of sexual harassment and drug use (Moynihan, 2015). Without ensuring the security of its occupants a protest camp cannot provide well-being to them. These things are needed in order to create a ‘home’ and therefore sustain the camp (Frenzel et al., 2013).
Overall, the materiality of protests has many entanglements which can reconfigure their meanings. The role of the tent in dividing the camp shows how objects can become entangled within a protest camp in ways that can undermine them but also produces opportunities for objects to be unintentionally constructive, like the tarpaulin. What is so different about protest camps is their ability to politicise “the embodied practices involved in sustaining the protest camp as a home space” (Frenzel et al., 2013, pp.464). Through this process they connect the domestic to the political and give them the ability to influence each other.
A few months ago, I visited New York on an undergraduate field trip. As I explored the city, I took pictures of protest stickers as I do in London. This post is about some of the stickers that I saw. At first I thought that explicitly political stickers were less common in New York than London, as it took me quite a while to find any. However I discovered that in some areas, such as the East Village in Manhattan, protest stickers are just as common as in London.
Last week I went on a second year undergraduate field trip in New York as a member of staff. I was running a project group on protests and riots in the city, so I spent the week immersing myself in the radical past and present of the big apple. There are loads of things you can do to learn about New York’s radical side, and I had a great week getting to know them all.
With my group of students, I visited the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Centre in Washington Heights. The Centre aims to honour Malcolm X and his wife by continuing their legacy, supporting campaigns that fight for social justice and human rights. It is in the building in which Malcolm X was assassinated; the very spot where it happened is sectioned off, and some of the original floorboards remain. It is a very interesting space, and I think it is a much better memorial than a statue or mural (although the centre does have both of these) because it continues their campaign work rather than just passively existing as a reminder.
We also went on an Occupy Wall St. walking tour with founding member of Occupy and qualified tour guide, Michael Pellagatti. Pellagatti uses his extensive knowledge of the history of New York to put the Occupy movement into the context of other protests in the city, and his experience as one of the original members of Occupy Wall St. to give fascinating details about exactly what happened where in Zucotti Park and the surrounding areas.
The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition Activist New York is another way to learn about the radical side of the city. It details various protest movements, from resistance to religious intolerance in New Amsterdam to the recent controversy over plans to build a mosque at 51 Park Street near Ground Zero. It is a fantastic introduction to the city’s radical history, particularly if, like me, you have little prior knowledge. Unfortunately it is not a permanent exhibition, so won’t be around forever. The Museum also has a 20 minute video about the history of New York, which is a brilliant introduction to how the city developed.
If you are interested in doing your own research about protest in New York, then the Interference Archive in Brooklyn is an ideal place to go. The archive’s collection houses ephemera (leaflets, posters, t-shirts, badges, banners, zines etc.) from a wide variety of protests across the world. The aim of the archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements, and it does this through a whole range of events and exhibitions, as well as its collections.
As with other cities, there are also sign of contention and controversy all over the streets of New York. Graffiti is common, as are protest stickers, although I did not spot as many stickers in New York as I have done in London. Some of my students witnessed a Black Lives Matter protest in a clothes store whilst they were out shopping. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and shows how protest can occur in every aspect of urban life.
Although not as old as London, New York still has a vibrant and fascinating history, and protest and contentious politics are a big part of that history. Obviously there is any number of things to see and do in New York, but if you do go, perhaps consider getting to know its radical side, as it is such an integral part of the city.