Nothing incites the general public more than someone trying to charge for something that was once free. Yet that’s exactly what entrepreneur Oscar F. Spate tried to do in the New York City parks in the blistering summer of 1901. It all started in Central Park on June 22, 1901, when a group of people spotted rows of bright green rocking chairs along the park’s mall, near the casino. Usually in this same spot, stood rows of uncomfortable wooden hard benches, so it was a pleasure indeed for the park-goes to sit and rock and enjoy the wondrous summer day.
As the crowd converged on the chairs, people who had already paid for the right to sit, abandoned the chairs and fled from the park. One of Spate’s man quit his job on the spot, and he also fled the park. However, another one of Spate’s men continued to try to collect the chair fees. But he quit his job too after an angry old lady jabbed him in the back of the neck with a hairpin. On Monday July 8th, Madison Square Park was the site of almost constant rioting. A dozen or so boys went from chair to chair, sitting for as long as they pleased, accompanied by an unruly crowd threatening to hang any of Spate’s men who tried to collect any fees. A brave and foolhardy Spate employee named Otto Berman slapped one boy in the face. The crowd surrounded Berman and his life was saved by six policemen, who bum-rushed Berman out of the park and into safety. Things had gotten so-out-of-control in Madison Square Park, police reenforcement were called in from the nearby West Thirtieth Street police station.
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Spate also told the reporters he was doing the city a favor, since charging for the chairs would keep the undesirables (read – the poor) out of the parks, thereby keeping the parks sparkling clean and free of loiterers who leave a mess in their wake. The outrage from the New York City press and from philanthropists came swift. Randolph Guggenheimer, the president of the Municipal Council, said he ”saw no good reason for allowing private parties to occupy park grounds and make money through a scheme like this.” The New York City Central Federated Union sent a statement to the press denouncing both Spate and Clausen for their ”hideous actions.” The New York Tribune wrote in an editorial, ”This is only another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the present Park Commission.” The New York Journal also wrote an editorial defending the ”rights of poor people to sit in public park.” However, the New York Times saw no problem in what Spate was doing, as long as ”the prices were regulated properly.”
Park Commissioner Clausen tried to defend his actions by telling the press that there were always plenty of free benches for people to sit on, except, of course, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The New York Tribune pointed out that those were the days with the biggest demand for seats in the parks. As this issue became monumental, Spate became more resolute. He ordered more chairs be placed in Central Park, and also in Madison Square Park, which was across the street from his office. Some people paid to sit, and those that didn’t, were unceremoniously thrown out of the chairs by Spate’s thugs in gray suits.
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