Book Review: Revolting New York by Neil Smith and Don Mitchell

Disclaimer: An advance reading copy of  Revolting New York by Neil Smith and Don Mitchell was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions presented in the review are my own.

Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City by Neil Smith and Don Mitchell. University of Georgia Press.

Genre: History, Nonfiction (Adult)

Publishing Date: 1 April 2018

My rating: 5/5


Revolting New York tells the story of New York City through an exploration of revolts, revolutions, and riots. Various authors contribute to this investigation and analysis of almost four hundred years of social history. By chronicling the causes, execution, and effects of protests and riots over a four-hundred year timeline, the authors examine how the social geography of New York City has evolved.

“Riots, rebellions, uprisings, and revolutions expose the social geography of a city … even as they force the remaking (or the reinforcement) of that geography.”

As a graduate of history and political science, this book immediately appealed to me. I love reading histories in order to gain a clearer understanding of contemporary issues and politics. I’m also deeply in love with New York City: it’s architecture, the massive expanse of the city itself, and also New Yorkers who I find to be some of the most genuine and creative people I’ve met. As we all know, however, history books can become dry and boring quite easily if authors bog the reader down with facts and numbers. The authors of Revolting New York though have proven themselves captivating writers who managed to keep me engaged the entire read.

“The historical geography of revolution in New York City is revolutionary in the sense that popular uprisings, and the reactions to them, have constantly remade—altered, revolutionized—the cityscape.”

The breadth of topics covered within this book are impressive, to put it modestly. The book begins with the Revolt of the Munsee (1655) and ends by analyzing the Occupy Wall Street Movement (2011). The riots and protests covered range from slave revolts, race riots, women’s rights movements, anti-war sit-ins and protests on various university campuses, riots sparked by police violence, immigration-related protests, and wealth-gap protests and riots. Each author, in their individual way, succeeds in explaining how New York City’s “city and and cityscape [is] made, unmade, and remade over and over again.” The exploration of these various social relations and social struggles is an incredibly interesting topic and, unlike many other interesting topics which are unfortunately presented with bland writing, Revolting New York analyzes and criticizes these moments of history in a compelling, thought-provoking, and engaging manner.

“…the spaces within which we live are made—structured and restructured—through social relations and social struggles.”

An important aspect of history is that everything evolves from everything before it. That is to say, contemporary issues have evolved from unresolved issues of the past. Piecing together the history of contemporary issues by looking at the social upheavals, riots, and protests of the past helps to fill in our understanding of why things are the way they are today. My favourite topics were riots related to race relations, especially post-Civil War, and riots related to police brutality. As both race relations and police brutality are contemporarily significant themes in American politics, learning about their antecedents helped illuminate the discussions we participate in today. In analyzing New York City as a microcosm of the rest of the United States, the authors are able to explain modern day complexities through the social history of one particular city.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in American history, and especially anyone interested in understanding how race relations and the relationship between civilians and police emerged and evolved in New York City or the United States in general. For anyone wary of history or nonfiction books, Revolting New York is a great first foray into these genres and guaranteed to keep you engaged.

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