Occupying Manhattan’s Public Spaces: 1776 and Today

Post written by Eric Robinson.

The Liberty Boys rally supporters to raise a new Liberty Pole days after the Battle of Golden Hill. SY 1770 #4.

Love it or hate it, the forlorn but determined group camped out at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan thrust New York City back into the center of a national debate. Our city has long been considered a political outlier because of its progressive voting patterns and ability to weather recessions, all while negotiating the largest dichotomy between rich and poor in the country.

 The new Liberty Pole, erected February 6, 1770. 1920.130.

Occupy Wall Street has articulated the country’s economic woes through a distinctly New York lens. However, when we take a long view of history we see that Manhattan’s public spaces have repeatedly served as a stage where national crises come to a dramatic head, dating back to the Revolutionary era.

In the decade after the Stamp Act the Sons of Liberty battled colonial authorities for control of the Commons, now City Hall Park. The “Liberty Boys” held meetings in the park, burned effigies of despised officials and planted a series of towering Liberty Poles. The January 1770 Battle of Golden Hill, essentially a riot, erupted days after British soldiers sawed down the latest Liberty Pole. The event escalated tensions around the colonies: the Boston Massacre took place just weeks later. On February 6, 1770 a new Liberty Pole was erected and served as the meeting point for the Sons of Liberty during the build up to the Revolution.

New Yorkers once again asserted control over their public space at the Bowling Green on July 9, 1776, as news of the Declaration of Independence reached the city. Continental soldiers pulled down the equestrian statue of George III and melted the lead into bullets providing much needed ammunition and poignant symbolism to the Patriot cause.

The communal action of July 9, 1776 was particularly gruesome. The statue of George III was removed and decapitated. The Americans placed the statue’s head on a stake just outside Fort Washington in upper Manhattan. Subject File, PR 068.
A Patriot relishes the idea of serving the Redcoats with some “melted majesty”. Ebenezer Hazard to General Horatio Gates, July 12 1776. Gates Papers, MS 240.

In subsequent centuries the abolition of slavery, the Civil War draft, labor reforms, the Vietnam War, nuclear energy and myriad other issues have been debated and contested in Manhattan’s public spaces: a tradition as American as apple pie and as New York as a slice of cheesecake.




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