Business owners sought compensation for their losses from the city on the basis of government’s failure to protect their property. The legal basis for those claims was section 71of the General Municipal Law, which read, “A city or county shall be liable to a person whose property is destroyed or injured therein by a mob or riot for the damages sustained thereby” provided that person did not contribute to the damage, had used all reasonable diligence to prevent damage, and brought the action within three months. <add something on origins of law> By July, 106 suits were before the Municipal Court, with 65 more rejected because they came after the three-month window allowed by the statute. [There is no indication that blacks filed any of those suits]. Prior to their trial, the business owners testified in hearings before the Comptroller. Press reports described the suits as alleging “insufficient police protection during the course of the rioting” and “inefficient” in handling the mob, or police “laxity,” under the headline “Cops not on Job,” or as using “kid glove methods.” Plaintiffs described police failing to respond when they phoned or called at station houses seeking protection, or not arriving until well after their businesses had been looted and destroyed. Suits came from just over half of the 300 businesses estimated as having been damaged by the riot, offering some indication of the scale of the disorder in Harlem, and the limits of the police efforts to impose order to which the Magistrates courts gave prominence
A full calendar delayed the first trial in the Municipal Court, before Justice Shalleck and a jury of six, until the end of September. The city sent three attorneys, eager to use it a test case to defeat the litigation. The plaintiff William Feinstein owned a liquor store at 452 Lenox Ave, near 132nd St, north of the police Emergency Squad that took up position at Lenox and 130th Street around 9 PM. Sometime near 11 PM, a group of about 30 people gathered at Lenox avenue and 132nd Street, and over the next few hours broke store windows, set fire to some stores and looted others. In this case, the police were present, but ineffective; their efforts to disperse the crowd, which included firing pistols, succeeded only in shifting them from one side of the street to the other. After an hour of shooting and violence, Feinstein’s white manager and his black helper became frightened and fled the store, closing the iron grills over its windows as they left. About an hour later, the crowd struck the store, breaking down the gates, smashing the windows, and making off with bottles of whiskey. Feinstein sought $680 in damages for broken windows and light fixtures and stolen stock; the city countered that what had not taken place did not constitute a riot, and that the staff had been negligent in failing to remove the whiskey from the store window once the disorder broke out. The jury took only 45 minutes to decide to award Feinstein $450; it took Justice Shalleck just over a month to decide to uphold that verdict. Several months later, in March 1936, the city also lost in the Supreme Court, which heard larger claims, when seven actions by storeowners seeking $20,000 in damages resulted in $1200 of awards – which did represent a far lower proportion of their claims than had been awarded by juries in the Municipal Court
The civil actions highlight that the disorder had persistent consequences for Harlem, not addressed in existing accounts, which extended beyond the period of heightened police presence that brought greater order to Harlem for several days after the riot. Many of the businesses damaged in the riot did not reopen, their owners having suffered too great a loss. Eleven of the 26 businesses identified as plaintiffs in the press do not appear in the survey conducted by the Mayor’s Commission between June and December 1935, with a further ten unable to be definitively identified. Many businesses did have insurance, approximately two-thirds according to a widely reported survey of 47 companies who paid out $147,315 to replace 697 glass windows broken in 300 stores. Six insurance companies joined in suits against the city, while Royal Insurance was a co-defendant in the second case heard in the Municipal Court, at odds with the city in arguing that a riot had occurred, and thus the company had no liability. But insurance was not available throughout Harlem. One plaintiff, Estelle Cohen, complained to Mayor LaGuardia that she had no way of making up her loss of at least $800 as “we do not carry burglary insurance on account of not being able to get it up in that section,” just south of 132nd Street. Business closures mean that the map in Digital Harlem based on the Mayor’s Commission survey does not represent the neighborhood in which the riot occurred, does not provide a context for the riot, so much as capture the neighborhood produced by the riot. Given that, the dominance of central Harlem by black businesses might reflect a changed racial order resulting from the riot.