Mansion on the Hill

And a protest on the hot pavement

Protestors gathered outside of Gracie Mansion, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's official residence (James Marcus)
Protestors gathered outside of Gracie Mansion, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's official residence (James Marcus)

Gracie Mansion was built in 1799 as a country retreat for its owner, the shipping magnate and financial wizard Archibald Gracie. Since then, the elegant Federal structure has served many purposes. It was at Gracie Mansion that Alexander Hamilton raised the original seed money for the New York Post, and the building also functioned as an ice-cream stand and public restroom well into the 20th century. Only in 1942 did Fiorello La Guardia take it over as a mayoral residence.

Almost every New York City mayor since has followed suit. The only exception has been Michael Bloomberg, who already owned plenty of mansions, many of them with more contemporary plumbing. But when Bill de Blasio was elected in 2014, he moved his family into the house overlooking the Hell Gate channel in one direction and a tony Manhattan neighborhood in the other. Which is what brought me to that neighborhood, and to de Blasio’s doorstep, the other day.

I was there for a protest, along with my girlfriend, Nina. The thousand or so people crammed together along East End Avenue had come to lament the death-by-choking of George Floyd—and the ongoing asphyxiation of black Americans by their white neighbors since we showed up here four centuries ago. This was happening everywhere in the country. Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Omaha, Chicago, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans: the roll call of great American places, like a Whitman poem in miniature. It was happening, too, in tiny towns with entire populations smaller than the crowd on East End Avenue.

Outside Gracie Mansion, we were sitting on the hot asphalt. This made the crowd’s mission harder to gauge. A march has a trajectory: a march is going somewhere. A seated protest is something else, a statement of fixity and mule-like recalcitrance. Surely these qualities are as necessary right now as toe-to-toe aggression. Yet the organizers felt the urge to keep the crowd energized.

“No justice!” cried one of the organizers. “No peace!”

Although he didn’t have a bullhorn and his voice was hard to hear, the crowd took up the chant. “No justice!” we all shouted, hoping the viral droplets would be contained by our masks. “No peace!” We said it over and over. There was the huge, heartening sound of many voices saying the same thing. Not, however, at the same time: the chant traveled from the front of the crowd to the back in passionate and incomprehensible waves.

I liked that effect. It conveyed the lovely anarchy of the protest itself, which had nominal organizers but no real structure—it was simply the sum total of its participants, the aggregate of their hope, rage, determination.

“Where is the mayor?” the crowd was now chanting. I doubt that anybody expected de Blasio to put in an appearance. His election had ushered in great hopes back in 2014, but at the moment, his fumbling approach to the pandemic, followed by a mealy-mouthed defense of the dysfunctional NYPD, had wrecked the big man’s progressive bona fides. “Where is the mayor?” The crowd was getting louder, clearly enjoying the thought of dogging de Blasio in his den.

Nina and I were sweating. A few protestors circulated with hand sanitizer and water bottles. WHITE SILENCE = VIOLENCE, read one placard. FUND OUR COMMUNITIES, read another. DECRIMINALIZE LOW-LEVEL OFFENSES, read yet another, more modest in its ambitions. Way overhead, a drone lolled in the blue sky, tilting this way and that on its rotors. I assumed it was transmitting video for a news channel, but it could have been a tool of the surveillance state, or just Amazon delivering nitrile gloves to a penthouse.

Now the word went out that the police were sending extra troops. I had counted about 25 officers in various grades of riot gear at the north end of the protest, and a police car was parked at the south end, too. I couldn’t imagine why such a tranquil crowd would warrant more enforcement. But they didn’t arrive for some time, and meanwhile Nina and I decided to leave. We had been sitting on the asphalt for almost two hours. We were also among the older participants: the crowd, with its array of skin tones and mask-muffled accents, definitely skewed young. After chanting “Black lives matter!” and doing some clapping, we got going. I felt a little sad as we walked up the rise to the south and got a view of the entire crowd—a Peaceable Kingdom squatting low on the ground, the same altitude at which George Floyd had breathed his last.

Things ended less peaceably than they had begun. Later that evening, part of the crowd from Gracie Mansion merged with a vigil at nearby Carl Schurz Park. Then, several hundred protestors headed south to midtown, at which point they were in violation of the mayor’s curfew—a Cinderella ordinance that magically transformed protestors into looters and anarchists upon the stroke of eight o’clock.  The NYPD moved in, scattering the procession and arresting 10 young people who were bundled into an unmarked black van and driven away. Within minutes, the street was empty, leaving only the high-end storefronts with their plywood fortifications and the occasional scurrying figure of an essential worker.

The protest was one among many, even in New York City. I liked that, too—the decentralized narrative, the manifold marches, the sense of belonging to something so much greater than yourself. Sitting on that pavement near Gracie Mansion filled me with joy. The dreary conclusion of the event, and indeed the shameless brutality that keeps unfolding in full view of a thousand body cameras and cell phones, filled me with despair. Half the country was in thrall to a delusion, the other half an etherized accomplice, awakening only under duress. How could things ever change?

Then I reminded myself that some of the most implausible outcomes—even those billed as Sisyphean nonstarters—eventually come to pass. Some immovable objects develop structural cracks. As for Gracie Mansion—well, it wasn’t the first building on the bluff overlooking Hell Gate. Before that, there was another country retreat, which George Washington outfitted with cannons during the Battle of Brooklyn, in 1776. The Americans and the British, insurrection and empire, exchanged artillery fire across the East River. The redoubt above Hell Gate was blown to bits. Washington himself noted that the defeat had filled his troops with “apprehension and despair,” and that the revolution was on the verge of collapse. It seemed the American experiment was nipped in the bud. Instead we ended up with our prosperous, poisonous, piecemeal republic, which we may be able to save after all.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James Marcus is a writer, an editor, and a translator. He is at work on his second book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Thirteen Installments.


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