Why There are Fortresses Next to Starbucks

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.


6 responses to “Why There are Fortresses Next to Starbucks

  1. Why do you and Mike Davis hate the schizophrenic? What is so wrong with schizophrenia? What do you even know about schizophrenia? I’m tired of your shit.

  2. i quote: “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.””

    schizophrenia has nothing to do with… having “mixed consciousness”. by that definition everyone is schizophrenic. Mike Davis and you (and the SW in general) are totally alienating oppressed people with this bullshit rhetoric of “madness” and “insanity” and other boogey-men. shut up!

    • Maxwell-First, I have never considered this point of view before, as the word is colloquially used in the way that both Davis and I meant it, “mixed consciousness,” as you note. I shall henceforth avoid this expression because I certainly have no interest in insulting anyone. as for the manner in which you raised it, might I suggest that when addressing people who have devoted their lives to fighting every form of oppression, you might want to give us the benefit of the doubt. In solidaruty-Sherry

  3. When I toured New England a number of years ago, I remember a tour guide at a city in Rhode Island (I think it was) pointing out a house with a turret and places to shoot from. Fortresses weren’t just in New York. Richard Mellon is famous for his comment, “You can’t mine coal without a machine gun.” He broke the United Mine Workers union in 1925 in Pittsburgh. Does anyone have any suggestions for a good book about the economic depression of the 1870s? I’ve known of it, but never had the time to read more about it.

  4. “The Great Labor Uprising of 1877”, a book by Philip Foner, presents good coverage of this period.

  5. Hey Sherry,

    Great article. It actually helped me a lot. Recently at my school I became aware of an event called “Pride in Tel-Aviv” Party at C-STREET. This event self-declares it’s purpose is to celebrate the rights LGBT people receive in Israel. This was very bothersome to me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it why. Of course I am already siding with Palestine, but how could I use this event to explain to my LGBT peers that they should as well?

    At first, it seemed as though I would be taking a celebratory event and trying to just rain on everyone’s parade with irrelevant issues they care nothing about. They would say “uhm, what does Palestinian apartheid have to do with us? We just like the fact that Israel gives LGBTs rights. Can’t we just party and have a good time without having to carry the weight of the world?”

    But thanks to this appropriately times article, I was able to come across the word “pinkwash.” Suddenly it all clicked in my mind. They are USING the LGBT community to cover up (“pinkwash”) the crimes they commit against Palestinians. And we, as people in the LGBT movement in the US (a movement based on the idea of human rights), cannot allow LGBT rights to be used to cover up even more heinous acts of human rights denial. I have had a few friends who were planning on going to the event “like” my facebook comments on this. Hopefully they will second guess attending.

    Thanks, I really appreciated that article.

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