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Winter 1993
City Journal Winter 1993.
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  I deas and Observations

Letter from Tompkins Square Park
Nicholas King
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Billows of gold and green-black leaves against a pale blue sky, sunlit grass, a gazebo and ball courts, brightly painted playgrounds, chess tables, a fountain dripping . . . Tompkins Square presents the face of a classic New York park.

People tended their young children or played backgammon or walked their pedigreed dogs.

On a newly installed bench (with hooplike arms designed to make stretching out uncomfortable) sat a man in a leather-bound African hat producing soft, melancholy throbbing from a drum cradled in his arms. “This is a Third World toy,” he explained, “just a can with leather at the ends.” He wasn’t homeless or a squatter, he said, and was thinking of heading south soon, to Florida “optimally.”

He pointed to the park’s southwest comer, carpeted with the first fall of leaves. “You wouldn’t recognize it now, would you?” This was where the famous encampment of homeless had stood until the city charged in and removed it a year ago last August. Over a hundred homeless people had lived there in tents and orange crates for several years, tending their campfires and doing their laundry. The park received an expensive face lift and reopened in August with a midnight curfew, which is, so far, respected.

Tompkins Square, the East Village’s ten-acre rectangular park, was built in the mid-nineteenth century and has always been a focus of city upheaval and protest. “Walked through most of the dangerous regions past Tompkins Square,” noted that bon bourgeois and urban diarist George Templeton Strong in 1857, after the beginning of the fighting between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, the archetypal New York street gangs. “Meetings are being held in the region of Avenue A with bonfire and gunpowder orations. . . . Shameful . . . that there should be a whole ward within which life and property have been notoriously unsafe for three days, which I cannot walk through tonight without serious risk.” The name of the park, incidentally, comes from Daniel Tompkins, a powerful if forgotten figure of the early nineteenth century—mayor of the city, governor of the state, and even vice president under James Monroe.

Twenty years later things were no better. Eighteen eighty-seven was called the “Year of the Riots” as revolutionaries, including the next generation of German “Forty-Eighters” and even leftovers from the Paris Commune of 1870, milled around the Lower East Side. By mid-July, the police feared that the mob would attempt to set up a New York commune along similar lines, by taking over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and even Jersey City. It was all to start, rumor maintained, in Tompkins Square. So three regiments of National Guardsmen were barracked in nearby armories, and telephone lines were set up for instant communications among troops in the square and guard headquarters. Five thousand people came to listen to speeches in English, French, and German, but to everyone’s disappointment and greater relief, nothing more than a little jostling resulted.

By this time the Lower East Side had become the principal immigration center in the city. Originally the neighborhood around Tompkins Square and east of it had been German; but gradually the Germans gave way to Italians and Jews (the Jewish theater was long a fixture of lower Second Avenue). They in turn were replaced by Poles, Ukrainians, and other Eastern European minorities. Today, the Poles and Ukrainians are still fairly visible and new immigrants arc still attracted to the enduring local churches and monuments—witness the solid, resolute mass of St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church facing the square’s northwest comer. East of the square there has been a considerable Hispanic presence for many years.

Because of a topographical bulge, Manhattan bellies out several miles north of South Ferry, creating Avenues A, B, C, and D—the famous Alphabet City that is the heart of the East Village. Tompkins Square is its anchor. To the west, the park faces the gateway of St. Mark’s Place. To the east the city stretches blankly away: Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth streets burrow across Avenue B and then spread out like spent arroyos in the anonymity of Avenue C. It is a kind of zone of the interior, miles from the subway, in which people can take refuge and nurse their scars, even or especially the scars that never felt a wound.

In our time the East Village has carried on the role played by Greenwich Village up through the 1920s, one essential to the cultural traditions of New York: a place where the city will receive its romantic or political outcasts and give them shelter, amusement, and if possible, occupation.

The cheap lodging offered by Tompkins Square and the East Village in the 1970s and 1980s attracted such outcasts, and made them bedfellows with a resident population of drug dealers and junkies, prostitutes, beggars, and drifters. These were the days of the Pyramid Club, packed with Wall Street yuppies in jeans hoping the Mercedes was safe around the corner, or of Eight B.C., where the local intelligentsia relaxed in leather from head to toe—in other words, of night life as a fashionable zoo.

Thus East Village denizens became the “Slaves of New York,” semi-celebrated in novel and movie. They dressed in tight black clothes and loud silver jewelry, their faces and hair often masks of makeup and dye. They strummed instruments, painted on walls, acted in street skits, and earned what it took to make it to the next day.

This also being our time, drugs and alcohol consumed a lot of their energy. They dedicated themselves to movements, fashionable and radical. They were enemies of injustice and of the law, too—an attitude that constitutes the raw material of violence and unrest. Their front-line foe was the gentrification, or more academically, the embourgeoisement, of the neighborhood. Brownstones on the north side of the square and elsewhere were going for high prices, and the sounds of hammering and sawing by fledgling householders were heard along the sidewalks. Garbage cans appeared in neat rows chained to lampposts, with the names of the owners painted on them. Pedigreed dogs, especially retrievers and exotic hounds, strained at the length of their roller leashes.

A prime target of hostility was the square’s lone high-rise, a 16-story luxury condominium called the Christadora. occupying the site of an old Ukrainian community center on the northeast corner of Eighth Street facing the park. Developed in the Eighties, Christadora apartments sold for as much as $450,000 to upscale professionals who came to enjoy the neighborhood life.

They soon realized that this life was being destroyed. Punk-rockers with their rowdy, noisy parties that lasted through the night, and drug dealers and scavengers who plied their trades by day, seemed to own the community. As for the park itself, the homeless entrenched themselves in tents and orange-crate shacks with campfires and laundry lines. In vacant lots nearby squatters were running small farms, with cock-a-doodling chickens, a goat or two, and patches of tomatoes and greens. The Christadora itself was a habitual target of scorn and insult. “Yuppie Bastards” and “Crush Wall Street” were typical of the slogans painted on its flanks. During sporadic outbreaks of rioting, rocks would crash into the lobby as tenants fled back to the safety of the elevators.

The big explosion came in August 1988. A park curfew, usually disregarded, was finally enforced by police, excluding everyone but the homeless who actually lived there. On a Saturday soon after, several hundred demonstrators gathered to protest and faced a phalanx of police backed up by mounted patrolmen. The demonstrators, surging forward, threw bottles, bricks, planks, and giant firecrackers, and the police responded vigorously with nightsticks. The demonstrators fell back and regrouped, and the two sides engaged again in smaller numbers. On it went for several hours. No one was killed or maimed, but 44 people, including a dozen police, were treated for injuries. Inevitably there were some bystanders involved, and the press immediately cried police brutality.

Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward bowed to the chorus in blaming “questionable” judgment and “premature” action on the part of his officers, a far cry from the police style of a century before. He asked for a special panel to review the incidents. “Everybody has an agenda about this place,” he concluded lamely, as the press interviewed alleged victims and television stations broadcast snatches of the inevitable videotapes. The New York Times seized the opportunity to assemble a cast of local characters who protested their innocence.

“The idea was to bring people peacefully to the park,” said Frank Morales, a squatter identified as a former Episcopal priest. Morales was one of the protesters arrested along with Jerry the Peddler and Johnny the Communist at an earlier demonstration. Although a distinct group very different from the homeless, the squatters, who live in the vacant lots or abandoned buildings around the square, nevertheless took up their cause.

Sporadic but nonviolent demonstrations on behalf of the homeless continued until August 1991 when the city decided that the park, littered by this time with garbage, old clothes, syringes, and dog waste, had to be purged and returned to its original condition and purpose. Police moved in and evicted the homeless—who had the option, admittedly uninviting, of moving to East Village municipal shelters—and closed the park for cleaning and restoration. The closing was criticized, but there was enough collective will to make it stick, even though Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum was denounced and spat upon and her life was threatened. The September 1991 City Council election brought further political support for the restoration of the park. Antonio Pagan, who heads a nonprofit housing program and advocated restoration, narrowly defeated incumbent Miriam Friedlander, a diehard champion of the square’s homeless.

The city was at last willing to take the position that its duty toward the large majority of its residents, and their right to use the park, outweighed the claims of the homeless, many of whom were drug abusers. “I could not see the connection,” Gotbaum said, in a remark which may eventually harden into a principle, “between the housing shortage and the abuse of the park. It is an outrage that anyone in this country should be homeless, but there is nothing progressive or kind about giving park land to those unfortunate enough to be without homes.”

The park was reopened last August after a $2.1 million renovation. At the ceremony, Mayor Dinkins was heckled as he promised to do everything possible to keep the park from once more becoming an encampment for the dispossessed. Far from representing the homeless, Gotbaum declared, the protesters were nothing more than “foulmouthed rabble.” And so the pendulum swings back to George Templeton Strong.

The sounds of nighttime revelry are rarely heard now around Tompkins Square. It is as though a group of strolling players had folded their tents after a tumultuous season and left the stage, as so many players like them have done before. If you hadn’t seen the neighborhood in its more frenzied days, you would find little about its present atmosphere to distinguish it from neighborhoods in other parts of the city.

The Pyramid stands apart as an out-and-out gay bar with a leatherish clientele. And most of the exotic places, like Save The Robots, open so late that they have become afterhours joints. The Holiday Cafe on St. Mark’s Place is a typical Tompkins Square bar; it could date from 1962 or even from 1952, with its semicircular wooden seating arrangements, its backboard mirrors and row of bottles, its port and starboard lanterns, and beyond, a room of booths for privacy. The customers—fairly young, mostly blue collar, black and white—drink beer and watch football on the comer television set.

Television football is a standard feature of most watering places, but not of a surviving yuppie establishment nearby, which features a long grey brick wall behind the bar and a chastely framed work permit hung prominently, almost teasingly, above it. Here, on a recent visit, the beverage of choice was beer, too, with an added fashion message: late-night martini cocktails in stemmed glasses for the ladies. At the far end of the bar a pair of steps rose to a slightly higher level, where a miniature pool table stood bathed in pink light. Silhouetted against it, a young woman wearing a black miniskirt and black slouch hat leaned against the door jamb.

As you travel cast on Sixth and Seventh streets from Avenue A, all is calm. A potential customer heads toward an all-night bodega. Street lights burn brightly. A police patrol car noses silently up to a stoplight. Drug action on the street has declined considerably, thanks to an increase in these patrols—a fact acknowledged by Community Board reports. In fact, a strong police presence, however unobtrusive, is an essential part of the new Tompkins Square. It may be that a generally stronger police presence will be one of the primary achievements of the Dinkins administration.

Brownstone stoops are occupied, as they used to be, by people gossiping through the evening. One elderly couple is even sitting in the front yard of an apartment house. In the next, less tidy block of Avenue C, a large rat glistens as it scuttles diagonally across the street, startling a young man who jumps into the air as it passes boldly beneath him. “Hot damn,” he exclaims.

I mount some steps to admire a refinished doorway, but start back quickly when the doors open suddenly and a trim, middle-aged woman with coils of dark yellow hair dashes out. I fear she may think I’m a burglar on reconnaissance. “I was just admiring the woodwork here,” I begin lamely, but she brushes the words aside in a rich Southern voice. “Isn’t it a wonderful house? I moved three months ago from Charleston. I just love it here.” This is the kind of person New Yorkers think is wrong in the head.

 

 


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