Rebellious New York: A Radical Guide to NYC 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.


The Statue of Liberty, donated to America by the French people to commemorate the centenary of American Independence, is one of the most iconic symbols of New York City (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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 Rebellious New York group with Michael Pellagati, the Occupy New York tour guide (Photo: Hannah Awcock).



My group getting stuck in to the collections at the Interference Archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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!


This stall was selling posters and t-shirts with a clear anti-establishment theme (Photo: Hannah Awcock).


Police violence against civilians, particularly those belonging to ethnic minorities, is a controversial topic in America at the moment (Photo: Hannah Awcock).


It takes all sorts to make up a political campaign! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.


An image from the 1913 New York City clothing workers’ strike, with placards in Italian, Yiddish, and Russian as well as English. The museum on Ellis Island deals with all aspects of migrant life, including work (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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 Gay Liberation Monument in Christopher Park consists of 4 figures (Photo: Hannah Awcock)


Detail of the two male figures. A plaque, which explains the context of the riots and the history of the memorial, can be seen in the background (Photo: Hannah Awcock).


Christopher Park itself is small and quiet, but very close to the busy 7th Avenue, and I saw a lot of people coming in to look at memorial during the 20 minutes I was sat there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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?

Rebellious New York: A Radical Guide to NYC

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.

New York's iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

New York’s iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

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.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

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.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

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.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

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.

The Interference Archive.

The Interference Archive.

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.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

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.