Agree to Disagree: A History of Tompkins Square Park

No one seems to mind the smell of Tompkins Square Park. While pungent and vaguely similar to that of a Porta-Potty, the local population passively ignores the stink. Walking through Tompkins Square Park, the casual passerby realizes it’s not the most beautiful space in New York City. It is a space unintentionally neglected, but not on purpose, rather, because of circumstance. The smell represents partition between the New York City government and park goers. Like an unhealthy relationship, it is often better that the two remain separated rather than try to work out their differences.

There were elaborate plans for Tompkins Square Park when the government filled the swamp and planted trees in an area of Greenwich Village called Alphabet City between E 10th and E 7th in the 1830s. To the city government’s dismay, the economic panic of 1837 and heavy immigration to Manhattan in the mid-1800s caused the neighborhoods surrounding Tompkins Square Park to fill the necessity for labor housing rather than the desired prestigious tenants. From this moment on, the story of Tompkins Square Park has been an ugly custody battle between New York City and working class Alphabet City (Van Horn.)

The People of Alphabet City

Tompkins-Park-Eviction_New-York-City-Untapped-CitiesThe citizens of Alphabet City share common personality traits from the 1800s to today; they’re stubborn, unapologetic and have the tendency to react passionately. Alphabet City was primarily occupied by Irish shipbuilders before the American Civil War. After the Civil War, German manufacturers moved to the neighborhood. As businesses opened and industry grew, the population became increasingly dense, and quality of life suffered. Tompkins Square Park was liberation from their crowded and unclean conditions and became a sort of communal backyard for Alphabet City. Most importantly, it allowed these stubborn,unapologetic working class people to organize politically. The park became a place to assemble about issues regarding the community and to protest; Notable activists such as anarchist Emma Goldman, beat poet Allen Ginzberg and squatter and activist leader Jerry Wade, lived in the area and had a significant presence in the park. Perhaps it is because of these power house bohemians that the space developed its countercultural undertones, which over generations became part of its reputation.

In addition to its poor housing conditions, Alphabet City quickly gained the reputation of having a drug and alcohol problem, as well as having a high homeless population (Van Horn.) Tompkins Square Park, Alphabet City’s communal backyard was an ideal place to indulge in vice. The devoted sense of community, bonded by lifestyle, created a secure comfort zone for Tompkins Square Park to beckon counterculture.

By the early 1900s, during Emma Goldman’s time in the area, the word ‘bohemian’ was often used in reference to those of Greenwich Village; many of whom who fit this description and spent their nights and weekends in Tompkins Square Park. Bohemians thrive on self-expression and progress which sometimes resulted in protest and riot, Tompkins Square Park proved to be an appropriate element of Greenwich Village. Goldman was a well-known activist who advocated for women’s rights and birth control and would hold assemblies in Tompkins Square Park. She was often described as an anarchist and her progressive ideals became the government’s association with the park ( ).

It was no surprise that during the 1960s New York’s counterculture flocked to Tompkins Square Park, further emphasizing its reputation of attracting bohemian, strong-willed and passionate park goers. Allen Ginsberg contributed to the continuation of counterculture in Tompkins Square Park by being a literary influence of the time, endorsing gay rights, freedom of speech and sexual freedom. He and his colleagues would meet in the park to discuss and produce their writings (Lloyd).  Desire for social progress was both Goldman and Ginsberg’s goal, which made the government of New York weary of the park and those who assembled there.

One character who makes New York police officers especially anxious is Jerry Wade. Wade, who self identifies as a “hippie” and “anarchist”, has been causing the New York City police problems since the mid-80s. He was a leader in the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 in addition to being arrested countless times for smaller altercations in the park. He out lashed in the name of freedom of expression and promotes the use of marijuana (Anderson). A dangerous combination, from the police department’s perspective, is his disregard for the law and his uncanny ability to rally people to join a given protest. Whenever police were called to Tompkins Square Park, it was most likely that Wade was involved and often was among the first arrests made.

Besides the flamboyant characters that seem to be drawn to the park, the city of New York has countless reasons to put up its (de)fences.

Chains and fences: Blocking off the Public

From 15-foot chain linked fences to small ones on either side of a pathway, anywhere there could be a fence, there is. The multitude of fences in Tompkins Square Park is just as telling about the relationship between park goers and NYC as is the smell. The park is sectioned off by function (playground, basketball court, pathways) which isn’t aesthetically pleasing and is slightly off-putting. The fences were installed in 1936 so that the park could serve a purpose geared toward recreational use rather than general public space. Although ‘function’ was the official reason for redesigning the park, it was a quiet effort to exert control, provide structure and hopefully quiet the countercultural milieu.

Why does New York City’s government need to be so discreet when exerting control? Isn’t it the government’s purpose to provide structure for its citizens? The government’s apprehension is the direct result the citizen’s aggressive nature to intervention.

Even prior to the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1874, the battle to control the park was already in motion. New York City had idealistic plans for the space but a large support system allowed it to remain a communal backyard for Alphabet City rather than simply a government approved public space. However, on January 13, 1874, Tompkins Square Park experienced its first major confrontation when a large crowd of workers met in the park to organize a march. 10,000 workers demanded relief from economic depression, in their bohemian activist nature.

The New York Police department wanted to stop the march, but also they wanted to stop Alphabet City’s domination of Tompkins Square Park. In reaction to the workers who met in the park that day, the New York Police Department bombarded Tompkins Square Park on horseback, recklessly swinging clubs and nightsticks. This act of violence and violation of citizen’s right of assembly was a result of the city’s fear of losing control of the area (Van Horn).

In 1988, the park’s hours were changed from 24 hour accessibility to a 1:00AM curfew. The curfew was put in place to cut down illegal activity such as drug use but mostly to remove the homeless from the park. Given people like Jerry Wade who has the ability to fill the air with angst and entitlement, rebellion was inevitable. Police were in position every night in anticipation of what the New York Times referred to as “melee”, calling the protesters “anarchists”. The simmering anger about the new park restriction exploded on August 6th, there was a full-fledged riot that lasted all night and into the morning. The weapons of choice? Bottles and bricks. 

Many police officers and citizens were injured in the battle, highlighting how easily disagreement can escalate to violence. The people of Alphabet City were chanting slurs such as “die yuppie scum!” to the police as the air filled with hate from both sides. The memory that sticks with the neighborhood and government alike is the phrase ‘police brutality.’ Police officers didn’t only beat the rioters but also bystanders and photographers (Moynihan). They used their weapons to disarm, but took action a step further and caused serious injury. While the lack of personal control that the police officers exhibited was alarming, they were not entirely to blame. The police officers were met with unwavering antagonism and absorbed the passion of their opponents. Control over Tompkins Square Park had been worsening the relationship between the New York police and the park goers for years but the night of August 6, 1988, both sides lost their patience.

Holding the Peace, for Now

New York government is constantly trying to control the rebellious citizens of Alphabet City much like society tries to normalize and mute counterculture. It is not a surprise that this communal backyard has gained a rough and rowdy reputation since it has always been the center of defiance. As of now, Tompkins Square Park and the New York City government are in a period of peace; New York is tired and Tompkins Square Park goers are keeping to themselves. As a result, Alphabet City isn’t as boisterous and New York City is keeping its distance. The moderate neglect by the government, which results in the smell wafting through the park, ispreferred to the turmoil that results from government intervention.



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Feature photo: New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Poor people’s parks – Tompkins Square. 1873 Print From Hearth and home. (New York : Orange Judd & Co., 1873-) . Catalog Call Number: PC NEW YC-East Digital ID: 801462

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