Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

May 21, 2009

Lisa Keller's Triumph of Order could hardly be more timely. As controversies over balancing the competing demands of public protest and public order continue to arise throughout the world, here is a superbly researched and richly detailed story of how two of the world's greatest cities dealt with this challenge in the 19th century. Originating from a Cambridge doctoral dissertation on the London portion of this topic, Keller has provided the kind of comparative study that is often sought but rarely achieved.

She first traces these issues back to ancient Greece and Rome and explains how these cultures dealt with them. Greek democracy was hardly universal in its city-states, while Rome, which was initially much more democratic, became far less so when it evolved from a republic into an empire.

Keller argues that London and New York were the most appropriate subjects for her analysis. In 1850, London was the world's largest and most important city. New York, while then only one third of London's size, was already the world's most heterogeneous metropolis, with the world's biggest hotel, department store and public transit system. By 1900, London was far more populous than ever before and had lost none of its pre-eminence, but New York, with the consolidation of five boroughs two years earlier, had become the world's second-most-populous city. By 2000, both remained the most important financial and cultural centres of their nations and of the entire world, even if they were no longer the biggest cities.

Two differences have historically distinguished the cities. First, where London was always a political capital, New York had been the US capital only from 1785 to 1790 and thereafter had to defer to Washington on some political issues. Second, where London had long had green spaces such as Hyde Park for congregating, and eventually had it and Trafalgar Square as huge central places for mass protests, New York's Manhattan, as a constricted island, had never had equivalent early green spaces and had to create them, especially with Central Park, and to rely on it and on Union Square and Tompkins Square for mass protests.

But the two cities have been linked by their common commitment to democratic values, to which today's giant cities - Beijing, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Singapore - scarcely subscribe. The US and the UK are centuries-old stable democracies that do not allow domestic military intervention. They grant their inhabitants endless economic and other opportunities and diversity of opinions. Their most successful municipal leaders, as Keller shows, have not been one-sided "law and order" autocrats but rather genuine supporters of free speech.

Keller divides her story into five categories: elites, police and militia, the public, free speech and assembly, and the law. She uses the unpublished correspondence of many government officials and ordinary citizens along with memoirs, biographies and government documents, and brings us into the world of various bureaucracies previously unknown to outsiders. She concludes that London ultimately offered greater tolerance toward street activities than did New York, which increasingly tried to pre-empt protests before they could occur.

The book's title might appear to contradict the complicated and shifting balances between protest and order that Keller illuminates so well. Not so: the tide has shifted in the early 21st century towards increasing surveillance, as epitomised by London's countless CCTV cameras, webcams and other videotape machines and by America's Patriot Act of 2001. The tide has also shifted towards ever-tougher limits on large protests, as exemplified by restrictions imposed during the 2004 Republican national convention in New York. This possible "tipping point" greatly concerns her, but this sophisticated book is not a shallow cry for more freedom. As she puts it, "this is not a celebratory story, but it is a provocative one".

Triumph of Order is the all-too-rare scholarly book that, being so well written, is fully accessible to the proverbial general reader, and its nearly 50 photographs nicely complement the text. Beyond that broad audience, historians, city planners, civil libertarians and government officials in both cities and in both nations should read this splendid work.

Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

By Lisa Keller. Columbia University Press 368pp, £28.95. ISBN 9780231146722. Published 2 December 2008.

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