New York is one of America’s great cities. It has long been well-known for its world class museums, restaurants, shopping, and its beautiful parks. Tourists and residents alike flock to the Big Apple’s green spaces to experience a bit of nature and relaxation in the middle of a city. And when a businessman in the early 1900s tried to restrict the enjoyment of the parks, riots erupted.
It all came down to chairs. For years, mostly affluent New Yorkers would frequent the city’s parks because their neighborhoods were located close by them. But when street cars made travel within the city easier, the lower classes began visiting the parks and relaxing on their benches.
Oscar Spate, a businessman, saw a way to profit from this scenario. He proposed the idea of renting rocking chairs at 3 to 5 cents apiece to the better classes of people who visited Central Park and Madison Square Park. This would allow the wealthy to avoid having to share seating space with the unwashed masses. In addition, the poor would have greater access to the free benches. Some European city parks charged for chair access, and Spate felt it could work in the United States, too.
Spate was granted a permit for his chair rental business, and he began placing green rocking chairs throughout the parks. Attendants monitored the chairs and asked people who sat in them to pay for the privilege.
New Yorkers did not take to this business venture. Attendants became the victims of verbal abuse from people who were ousted from the chairs for non-payment. They also reported that only about 1 in 50 people agreed to pay for the seats. Soon, the city’s officials were grumbling that the practice went against the principles of providing equal park access for all.
Then, New York experienced a heatwave. It got so hot in the city that nearly 1700 people died or ended up in the hospital with heat related problems. To escape the stifling heat, New Yorkers from all over the city went to the parks to sit in the shade. The problem with this was that Spate had removed many of the free benches, and the ones that were left were placed in the sun. Only the rocking chairs had any shade at all.
Angry residents sat in the rocking chairs anyway but refused to pay. Attendants forcefully removed them, but that just made the situation worse. People began physically assaulting the attendants and throwing stones at them. Riots then broke out in Madison Park, and a protest march took place in Central Park.
Spate ordered his attendants to stack the chairs and only put them out once someone had paid to use them. In protest, people would pay for the chairs and then destroy them. Before long, most of the chair attendants had walked off the job. The police even had to become involved when a group of rioters threatened to lynch a chair attendant.
To end the riots, the Parks Commission canceled Spate’s contract. Spate tried to sue for breach of contract, but the judge refused to allow paid seating to continue. Spate then gave up on his scheme. Some of the chairs were sold to a department store. The rest were placed back in the parks, where people could use them for free. To this day, there is no paid seating in New York’s city parks.