Ever wonder why American cities have hulking, 19th-century fortresses scattered amidst Starbucks and apartment complexes? I did.
Since I work out in a YMCA that’s housed in a mammoth armory and my office is located next to a midtown Manhattan brick behemoth, I figured I’d bone up on how these enormously imposing structures came about—and why it is that such primo real estate was given over to these Medieval-looking buildings.
Turns out that after the Civil War—the one that modern-day racists want us to think was about “states’ rights” (not the right to own and sell human beings, they insist)—the newly rising industrialists were nervous about the scrofulous masses getting out of hand.
Here in NYC, a taste of workers’ militancy was on display in the draft riots in 1863, in which more than 100 mostly Black New Yorkers were killed when some white workers fought against the privileges of the wealthy who could pay $300 to avoid the draft. It was a horrible displacement of class rage by a bunch of workers who themselves were scapegoats, as many of the rioters were Irish. Historian Mike Davis has a pretty good description of this “schizophrenic consciousness of the immigrant poor: their hatred of the silk-stocking rich and their equal resentment against Blacks.”
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of other white workers in New York signed up to join the war to abolish slavery, but those days of street violence provided a terrifying glimpse of class tensions and the rising rich were spooked.
Robber barons of the Gilded Age, such as John Jacob Astor and William Vanderbilt, stepped in to finance the construction of domestic fortresses to store arms and house regiments of soldiers in the event of civic unrest, that is, strikes.
Wouldn’t you know it, but those clever bastards were on to something!
The decade of the 1870s was known as the Long Depression. Well, in all truth, they first called it the Great Depression, but the 1930s sucked even worse so they later changed the name. (Note to era namers: don’t get too comfy with Great Recession for the current period.)
By 1873, a quarter of NYC’s workers were unemployed, thousands of businesses were failing nationally and even the booming railroad construction industry squeaked to a halt. Bosses slashed wages across the country.
Workers launched a movement for “Work or Bread” and marched by the thousands in Boston, Chicago and New York. In January 1874, more than 7,000 gathered in New York’s Tompkins Square, which horrified the elite so much that they sent police in to beat and terrorize the crowd, inaugurating what historians agree was a period of “extreme repression.”
A national railroad strike in 1877 both expressed and fed into a greater escalation of class tensions. One Pittsburgh railroad magnate responded to the strike action in that city saying, let’s feed them “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” City after city was paralyzed in the strike, which rose as the economy began to recover a bit, and yet greedy bosses still insisted on wage cuts and longer hours.
One speech before 20,000 workers in Tompkins Square that summer derided the policies of President Rutherford B. Hayes (a forgettable one-termer with an awesome beard) as a choice between “the hangman’s rope and the soldier’s bullet.” The police charged the crowd and beat dozens until folks dispersed.
By the end of the 45-day strike—and I’ve skipped over several more bloody battles in between—Wall Streeters were convinced they needed to have a way to regularly deal with workers’ militancy. The War Department (notice how they didn’t call it the Defense Department in those years) began funding a system of armories in cities across the country. Some were started with public funds, but the robber barons poured millions of their ill-gotten-gain into these fortresses to protect their booty.
In NYC, the first armory in the world opened in 1879 on the Upper East Side—smack in the middle of the wealthiest neighborhood in the country. These folks weren’t taking any chances with their new mansions. The Seventh Regiment Armory, also known as the Silk-Stocking Armory, still stands along Park Avenue stretching to Lexington Avenue, between 66th and 67th Streets. Today, it occasionally hosts the Royal Shakespeare Company and art shows.
I’m happy that my own local fortress has a pretty great Y where Tumbling for Toddlers and a women’s shelter has long ago replaced the canons and drilling regiments. But not all these armories have been turned over to benign uses and sometimes they’re retooled for their original purpose.
After 9/11, I was strolling down Lexington Avenue on my way to give a talk at Hunter on “Don’t Turn Tragedy into War,” when out of the Seventh Regiment Armory marched dozens of M16-wielding soldiers. Evidently, these relics of the past can be called into service again.
My scheduled talk at University of Pennsylvania Thursday, December 2, has been postponed until the New Year. I’ll keep you posted.