It has been nearly a decade since the Tompkins Square "uprising," when anarchists, squatters, and junkies fought the police who'd come to evict them from their encampment in the trash-choked park. The riot was brief but bloody; the insurgents howled as cops pulled down their cardboard and plastic tent city. But the neighborhood people elderly Jews, Russian emigres, Puerto Ricans from the tenements and housing projects—watched in silence.
In those days, Alphabet City was a genuinely scary place: abandoned buildings disfigured each filthy block; feral teenagers prowled the streets. Outsiders buying drugs often ended up robbed and beaten, since the place lacked even the order imposed by a drug gang monopoly.
After the riot, the city closed the park for refurbishment. Reopened, it had three new playgrounds and a dog run. Most of the grass formerly suffocated by rubbish and human sewage had grown back. The graffiti had vanished from the water-fountain gazebo, with its no-longer-ironic dedication to Charity, Hope, Temperance, and Faith. Police enforced a midnight curfew.
Still, everyone expected—and some die-herds hoped—that the old spirit of the park would return. The drug dealers and the homeless would trickle back; boom boxes would compete with bongo drums in the night. But it didn't happen.
Soon after the park reopened, the then-new Giuliani administration began to implement its "zero tolerance/quality of life" crime-fighting strategy. Well, more like "almost-zero tolerance"—the Lower East Side doesn't get the same "zero tolerance" as the Upper East Side. But there isn't a neighborhood in Manhattan that has changed as swiftly or as profoundly. The drug-dealing bodegas have almost all been shut down, and the crack houses cleaned out. The Ninth Precinct increasingly deals with the noise and disorder spilling out of the dozens of new bars and restaurants that have sprouted all along Avenue A and are beginning to pop up on Avenue B.
I came to live half a block from Tompkins Square Park two years ago. When some of my goateed neighbors bemoan the awfulness of "gentrification," I don't bother arguing. I am delighted by the changes, as are most of the real natives of the neighborhood. But I, too, have selfish reservations about the process going too far: the area's patina of grunge keeps my rent down even as the neighborhood keeps improving.
Those who feel nostalgia for the bad old days want the East Village to be a permanent transgressional theme park for self-conscious bohemians trapped in perpetual adolescence, where working-class Puerto Ricans are forced to play the role of an offended bourgeoisie. An article in the Village Voice last year bemoaned "martial law," "quality of life overkill," and a "Ceausescu-like crackdown" in the park. The crackdown hasn't gone far enough, in my view: it ignores the public urination that takes place only 100 yards from the public toilets or the dope dealing a block west of the park on St. Mark's Place.
It's not as if Tompkins Square has been sanitized or its century-old radical tradition crushed. The rump of the squatters' movement still holds rallies in one corner. In another, powerfully muscled young men do pull-ups and swap body-building tips picked up in Sing Sing, while others with no visible means of support play basketball. Bums still cluster near the chess tables; bongo drummers still play. And yet there is a gentleness in the air that has come back with the flowers.
When I walk through the park every morning, I am cheered by the shouts of children on the swings, by the tai-chi class, the old people reading newspapers on the benches in the sun, the dog owners chatting each other up while their pets chase each other around the run. This is city life as it is supposed to be. Who could ask for anything more?