Rebels Rising and The Park and the People
In Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, Benjamin L. Carp argues that city dwellers coalesced into civic communities, defined boundaries of their communities, and contended with the challenges inherent in social and political change to bring about a revolution. Their revolution would bring America into the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. Revolutionary mobilization contained new challenges to local authority and broader, also perhaps more significantly, challenges to imperial authority. Carp explains that this urban mobilization helped make the Revolution possible. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar demonstrates the mobilization of a different sort: the mobilization to build one of the world’s most famous parks, Central Park in New York City. As America’s most important naturally landscaped park, Central Park is an urban space. With a comprehensive history of not only the park, but the people behind the park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar indicate the urban mobilization needed to begin construction of the park, and the mobilization still needed to maintain Central Park’s “democratic character.”
Carp’s main theme in Rebels Rising is that cities were crucial for successful mobilization. He examines a diverse sampling of cities throughout the thirteen colonies, detailing the mobilization of urban citizens in the five cities having a population of more than nine thousand: Boston, Newport, Charleston, New York City, and Philadelphia. Carp looks at each city individually as a case study on urban mobilization, but connects each together because of the political mobilization required to break ties with Britain.
Beginning with Boston, Carp explains the significance of the mobilization that took place there, especially because of Boston’s waterfront (harbor, wharves, and docks). Carp points to 1740 as a “decade of change,” and the beginning of citizen’s mobilization again Britain. The Sugar At altered restrictions and duties on rum and molasses and mandated more rigorous procedures for customs services. The Currency Act prohibited colonial issuance of money. The Stamp Act levied taxes on court documents, ship clearances, college degrees, and a variety of other legal documents. Combined into what Carp terms “The Stamp Act crisis,” urban Americans were particularly affected by these British interventions into American society. Next, the Townshend Acts extended the long arm of British control, levying duties on paper, lead, glass, and tea. Boston experienced numerous clashes over quartering of British troops and use of provincial funds. Finally, the Tea Act of 1773 brought Americans face-to-face in conflicts with the over-arching imperial policy. The Tea Act reaffirmed a tax on tea and gave significant advantages to the East India Company. The price of tea was lowered as a threat to force Americans into paying duties on imported goods. Boston patriots mobilized to protest the Tea Act by dumping tea into Boston’s harbor; this mobilization is now known as The Boston Tea Party.
Carp next examines the taverns of New York City to demonstrate another way urban citizens mobilized again imperial policy. As the center of political life in New York City, taverns and alcohol “inspired a disorderly disregard for hierarchy threatening civilized society.” What began as the use of taverns and sociability for political ends, morphed into tavern protests. Taverns became the perfect place for city dwellers to air grievances again Britain. Carp explains that tavern meetings in New York City were copied all along the eastern sideboard to rebel against Great Britain.
Carp delves into the religious environment of Newport, Rhode Island and attempts to show how Americans mobilized against Britain. While the wharves of Boston and the taverns of New York City were easier to politicize than houses of worship, residents might have used their beliefs to inspire political action. However, the argument never comes together for Carp. This section of the book is more interesting for the architectural history of Newport’s churches than the mobilization of citizens towards a Revolutionary end. Probably due in part to the plurality of religions and beliefs, citizens in Newport were chiefly concerned with the town’s commerce.
Charleston, South Carolina provides the perspective of city households in the wake of political mobilization against imperial authority. Using the household of Henry Laurens, Carp explains how elite gentlemen used a “sufficient exercise of power and a judicious management of political mobilization” to contribute to independence from Great Britain, but continue to hold the same political and social power as held before. Carp points out that Charleston women were at the heart of consumer mobilization. Their boycotts and spinning contests mobilized a section of society that is not usually given credit.
Finally, Carp wraps up his demonstration of revolutionary mobilization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphian mobilization took place “out of doors,” or outside the normal legislative sessions. Their use of the State House and State House Yards were perfect locations for assemblies and protests to be held outdoors. Philadelphians “out of doors” displays of protests show how mobilization took place in the everyday lives of city dwellers.
The Park and the People is not simply a history of Central Park; it is instead a history of the urban mobilization needed to construct the 843-acre park, the story of the people who built the park, and how the park relates to the city. New Yorkers mobilized not for a Revolutionary cause, but for a city park.
The Park and the People begins with an assessment of the origins of the park. The authors spend a bit of time delving into the identity of the “gentleman” from Europe who first posited the idea of a great park in New York City. Rosenzweig and Blackmar credit the wealthy merchant Robert Minturn as being the anonymous gentleman, as he had recently returned from a tour of Europe. Urged on by his wife, Minturn called together a committee to lobby for a great public park.
For Rosenzweig and Blackmar, the creation of the park by co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted is a crucial piece of the Central Park puzzle. However, the authors also closely focus on co-designer Calvert Vaux and the dynamic relationship between the two designers. While Olmsted is generally the recognized name in association with the vision of Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar give a seeming biased account of Vaux’s contributions.
An interesting aspect of The Park and the People is the author’s investigation of the meaning of “public park.” Beginning with the actual labor force who completed the grunt work of Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar examine these laborers, their family make-up, and their use of the park upon completion. When the park was completed, it was abundantly evident that the majority of park-goers were members of the elite social class. From the parades and parade grounds to the carriage drives inside the park, the authors explain how elite New Yorkers were the most frequent users of Central Park.
Another important person examined in The Park and the People is that of Andrew Green. Head of the Central Park commission during parts of the 1860s, he later became city comptroller in the 1870s. Green was present for much of the beginnings of Central Park, from wrangling with Olmsted and Vaux for position as superintendent, to his guidance through the park’s downfall through the 1870s.
While Rosenzweig and Blackmar spend an enormous amount of space on the creation and construction of the park, and on nineteenth-century Central Park issues, a relatively small amount of space is devoted to twentieth-century Central Park matters.
Taken together, Rebels Rising and The Park and The People both show how urban citizens were able to mobilize toward a common cause. In the case of Rebels Rising, citizens mobilized again imperial restrictions toward independence. In The Park and the People, New Yorkers mobilized to create the greatest urban park in the world. Both books point out how urban citizens join together for a common urban cause.