The Unruly City: Paris, London, and New York in the Age of Revolution
By Mike Rapport
Basic Books (May 2017)
Reviewed by Miriam Liebman
In recent years, scholars have published numerous books on the Age of Revolutions and the connections between the countries involved; usually the United States, Great Britain, and France. These books have focused on people and ideas. But in The Unruly City: Paris, London, and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, a professor of modern European history at the University of Glasgow, takes a different approach, focusing instead on the geography of “the city” and how it may or may not have been more conducive to revolution. Venturing into the transatlantic history of revolution, he is concerned principally with the importance of place to success and failure. In particular, he is interested in how “spaces and buildings in these cities both symbolically and physically became places of conflict, how the cityscape itself became part of the experience of revolution and may even have helped shaped its course.” For Rapport, space itself has agency, which in this study has two meanings: a specific place, or the city itself. The Unruly City explores not only how New York City’s (and London’s and Paris’s) landscape propelled and hindered revolution, but also how people interacted with the urban geography.
While there is a tradition of comparing Paris, London and New York, their differences are equally as important. But according to Rapport, they changed the very trajectory of revolution in each city. Three sets of chapters treat each in roughly the same time period (the first addressing the 1760s and ‘70s, the second the 1770s and ‘80s, the final the 1780s and ‘90s). This organization allows the reader to get a “real time” developmental sense of what happened in each city during the Age. The method also enables Rapport to highlight the connections between the cities; for example, how news and ideas traveled from one to another. He is most successful with his chapter on New York and the French Revolution, tracing how different groups of people reacted to the French Revolution and showing its transatlantic impact. Indeed, the final three chapters, as each city reckons with the events in France, are the richest and most exciting. Rapport traces revolution, and counterrevolution, throughout the cities, taking the reader from location to location, and even down individual streets, providing the reader with an on-the-ground experience.
His conclusions may be the most valuable part, with far-reaching historiographical significance. There are three major takeaways. First, revolution is in part about the takeover of physical space. The struggle for physical spaces are part of the revolutionary experience and the ones who win also take over the physical spaces. For example, fighting for control of Paris or the Loyalist expulsion from New York City. Second, revolutions that go beyond political ones will also imprint changes on the urban landscape in order to display the changes to citizens, which meant displaying new symbols. In New York, the American eagle was fixed on building while in Paris, the Phrygian bonnet was placed on buildings. Finally, revolutions do not occur just within spaces, but also across space, which can mean across neighborhoods and cities. While London did not experience the same changes as New York and Paris, it did experience a surge in political organization and engagement in spaces throughout the city, including bookshops and other meeting places. Rapport believes these three cities transformed the Atlantic world, even the modern world. References appear to cities during World War II, although, oddly, not to Haiti or Latin America. (Rapport says in his introduction that he will not include these places because they do not have cities with the political, economic, and cultural authority that New York, London and Paris had at the end of the eighteenth century.) One could argue, however, that New York did not have the same political, economic, and social capital that London and Paris, two very old cities, had at the outbreak of revolution.
Unlike most academic books on this topic, Rapport seems to focus his narrative towards a popular audience. Graduate students and experts in the field will not find the historiography up-to-date or the narrative particularly new. The cityscape often falls out of focus as politics takes its place, unless Rapport is writing about a specific example. This sometimes has the effect of nullifying or diluting his argument that space was an essential ingredient of those politics. The best examples are the liberty pole in New York and the Bastille in Paris; here the politics and changing cityscape directly impacted one another. By looking at spaces, however, not people or ideas, the transatlantic nature of the project also gets lost at times, only returning to view when one city deals with another’s revolution. But for those interested in exciting revolutionary times who would like to understand the similarities and differences between these three world famous cities, this book is a great starting place.
Miriam Liebman is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.