Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tompkins Square Park

1) Women and Children by the Temperance Monument, 1904 (Museum of the City of New York, Byron Collection). 2) Rubble in Tompkins Square Park, 1986, photographed by Q. Sakamaki. 3) Tompkins Today: Food Bank Distribution, 2009, photographed by Tiffany Chang.

East Village

Avenue A to Avenue B on the East

East 10th Street to East 7th Street on the South

Square Park has become emblematic of New York City’s history of civil unrest and public protest, as the site of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Police Riot. Located in the heart of the East Village, the park’s early history was shaped by the immigrant populations—mostly German and Irish—that occupied the neighborhood’s low-income housing. As one of the few open spaces south of 14th Street, Tompkins Square naturally became a place to gather, both to escape the overcrowded tenements and to protest unfair conditions. Foreshadowing the park’s future, poor workers and their families assembled in 1857 and 1874 to protest unemployment and food shortages, both of which were met with immediate and unjustified police violence.

The early 20th century marked the beginnings of the park as it is seen today. With over a million tenement dwellers clustered into the Lower East Side, Tompkins Square offered one of the few open space respites from overcrowding. The Progressive Era relaxed the tense class relations throughout the United States, seen in Tompkins Square as wealthier New Yorkers erected playgrounds and monuments in the “great plebian plaza”. Following the Second World War, the neighborhood began to shift again, as newly arrived Puerto Rican, Jewish and Italian immigrants began to take over the cultural landscape. As Tompkins Square Park reemerged as an open space developing a new counterculture, young artists began to settle around the park, finding low rents and studio spaces. During this time, the neighborhood received a new name: the East Village.

Gentrification began to develop in conjunction with degentrification. While the young, modern bourgeoisie infiltrated the cheap apartments surrounding Tompkins Square Park, a large movement of homeless also began to settle in the park, which would eventually lead to the clash of 1988. During and up until this time, many of the City’s parks were dirty and unkempt, but Tompkins Square was arguably subject to the most deterioration after years of foot traffic and community abuse. Homeless shanties were feebly constructed throughout the park; drug addicts and AIDS victims alike sought refuge here.

The 1988 riot, which stemmed from resistance against a 1 AM curfew—intended to evict the homeless—challenged the planned development and conventions of space within Tompkins Square Park. Local anarchists and anti-gentrification activists joined the bloody clash with police. Adamantly as the City fought the use of the park as a shantytown, the rioters argued back: “Whose park is it, it’s our fucking park” (Smith 282).

Today, one would not suspect the park’s tumultous history: no plaques exist and nor have any monuments been erected. In 1991, the park was shut down for renovation and reopened in 1992, with evidence of the homeless population removed. However, the remnants of the park’s history are not completely lost. The park is notable for heavy gating, a feature that could otherwise go unnoticed if it were not for the openness of nearby Washington Square Park. The homeless and poor peacefully inhabit the park, where food banks often come to distribute necessities and meals. Beyond these small details however, the presence of development is inexplicably clear. Tompkins Square Park feels as if it is at a loss, haunted by both what it used to be and what it is expected to be. No matter how many dissenters and social outcasts occupy the space, every night, it still closes at 1 AM.

- Tiffany Chang and Josefina Peralta


Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of New York City). New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2000. Print.

Gardner, Deborah S. "Tompkins Square: Past and Present." The Journal of American History 77.1 (1990): 232-38. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2009.

Strausbaugh, John. "Paths of Resistance in the East Village." New York Times., 14 Sept. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

"Tompkins Square Park :." New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Web. 07 Dec. 2009. .

Watson, Sophie, and Neil Smith. The Blackwell City Reader (Blackwell Readers in Geography). Grand Rapids: Blackwell Limited, 2002. Print.

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