The Rocking Chair Riots

The Central Park Mall in 1901

The Central Park Mall in 1901

New York is an amazing city, we’ve got more than 8 million residents who speak one or more of the 800 languages found here. Every year over 47 million tourists come to see our skyscrapers, sample our many cuisines, fill our Broadway theatres, and stroll through Central Park. Naturally with so many people sharing these crowded streets, we don’t always see eye to eye. One thing we can all agree on though is despite its many wonders New York is often lacking in creature comforts. Have you ever run from establishment to establishment trying to find a bathroom in SoHo? In the last few years however, one thing had gotten easier, finding a place to sit. Janette Sadik-Khan, the Commissioner of the New York Department of Transportation, has created a large number of pedestrian plazas where once there were roads and equipped them with tables and chairs for all to use. This was exactly the opposite of what happened in 1901 however, the year of New York’s Rocking Chair Riots.

Nestled between 66th and 72nd Street, The Mall is the only formal gathering area which was planned in Central Park. Seen as a necessity for a great park, the elm lined path’s intent was to move visitors to the center of the park, additionally serving as a promenade and resting place. The area quickly attracted the city’s upper class citizens who used it to socialize and show off their fine clothing and carriages. For some time, lower class citizens avoided The Mall and spent the majority of their visit in the further south Children’s District. This changed however around the turn of the century as street cars made travel to Central Park easier for the ever growing population of New York’s working class. Lower class citizens began to spend time in areas they’d not traditionally frequented, including The Mall.

A man by the name of Oscar F Spate saw this as an opportunity to make some money, $250 to $300 per day (approximately $7,150 to $8,600 today) by his estimates, charging people three to five cents to sit in rocking chairs placed in the city’s parks.

His idea is that under the pay system, lazy loungers, none too clean, who heretofore monopolized the benches, will hereafter have all the room they want, and that others can group together by moving their chairs to places which suit them – that is by posting for the privilege. – The New York Times, 1901

In other words, if you’re wealthy and don’t want to sit by a poor person, you can pay to sit in a more desirable rocking chair. Spate approached president of the Park Commission, George C. Clausen in April of 1901 with his idea, explaining that it was already being done in London and Paris. It’s worth mentioning that to this day you can pay for chairs in London’s Hyde Park. Clausen happily gave Spate a permit for the price of $500 ($14,300 today) per year.

And so in May of the same year, elegant green rocking chairs were placed alongside the existing free park benches in the Central Park Mall and further downtown in Madison Square Park. Accompanying them were burly attendants dressed in gray who would approach those who sat in the chairs to ask them to pay for the privilege of sitting.

Despite it’s European roots, New Yorkers where not impressed by this new business model. The attendants who made a mere $1 per day (about $28 today) were berated on a regular basis. One of them reported to the press that approximately 1 in 50 people who sat on the chairs actually chose to remain in the seat and pay the requested fee. In June of 1901, Alderman Randolf Guggenheimer, the equivalent to today’s Speaker of the City Council, told the New York Times, “It is ridiculous for the Park Commission to grant such a permit. The parks belong to the people and should be free to all… there is no propriety in providing elegant seats to those who can pay for them and allow those who cannot pay to put up with poorer seats or no seats at all.”

Alderman Guggenheimer intended to do something about the chairs but before he got the chance to, things began to heat up, literally. Late June and early July brought temperatures in the high 90s to New York. With no air conditioning to soothe them, about 1,700 New Yorkers died or were hospitalized with heat related afflictions. Residents sought the refuge of their beloved parks only to find that most of the “free benches” had been removed and those that were left were not protected by the shade of the trees. In defiance, people ignored attendants and sat in the chairs. Initially they were forcefully removed but eventually crowds of people outnumbered the attendants and even threw stones at them. Before long, riots broke out in Madison Square Park. Uptown in Central Park, people began marching with signs protesting Clausen and Spate’s actions. Oscar Spate countered the reaction by informing attendants to stack the chairs in a heap and to only give them out when people paid for them. The protesters resolved to pay for the chairs only so that they could smash them on the ground.

The city did little to protect Mr. Spate or his chairs and his attendants became frustrated and quit their jobs. Meanwhile, a man named Max Radt, vice-president of Jefferson State Bank sued The Park Board in New York’s Supreme Court. The following ruling was issued eliminating Oscar Spate’s contract with Clausen:

It appeared upon the trial that, as an incident to the privilege given to Spate under his agreement, the ordinary park benches were, in or about the month of May, 1901, removed from shady spots to make way for his chairs, and that any person who was either unwilling or too poor to pay for a chair would have to either swelter on a free bench in the sun or seek shade, fresh air, rest or relief from excessive heat in some other place than in the public parks.

It seems to me that the agreement in question is a pernicious one, and that the “special privileges” therein conferred are utterly opposed to our institutions. The parks are for the people, and not for any particular class of the people. At all times a source of health and enjoyment, they are especially refreshing during summer, when relief may be had from the torrid heat in the shade of their beautiful trees. To sustain the privileges of the defendant Spate would be tantamount to holding that the natural benefits derived from our parks could be bought and sold, and that a special tax could be imposed as a prerequisite to admission within their boundaries…

As the agreement made with Spate is, in my opinion, plainly illegal, and in derogation of public right, it follows that the plaintiff, a taxpayer, can invoke the power of the court, and there must be judgment for plaintiff, with costs.

Upon this ruling, Spate gave up his business and Clausen purchased the remaining chairs and placed them in the park with a sign on each which read, “For the exclusive use of women and children. Free.”

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