Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tompkins Square Park, 25 Years Ago

On the night of the 2003 blackout, I was sitting in Tompkins Square Park with my then boyfriend, enjoying the festivities that always spontaneously erupt during any emergency in New York City. We were in the old bandshell area, saying hello to people and enjoying the nice campfire glow from several garbage cans that had been set on fire. Several shirtless 20-something guys were dancing around one of the garbage fires, whooping like happy monkeys liberated from the zoo. A policeman finally ambled by and told them that he had to douse the fire. “Awww!” whined the kids and then they all began pleading, “Not now! Not now!”

My boyfriend and I burst out laughing, both of us flashing back to 1988, when the kids in the park would have been shouting, “Pigs out of the park! Who’s fucking park? OUR fucking park!” Where did all that anger, all that conviction, that sense of ownership, go? In the new New York, the puerile cry is, “Not now, dad! We’re having too much fun!“

Police Riot by Erik Drooker
It’s been 25 years since East Village residents stood up against 400 policemen in a heroic last stand against gentrification in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood was completely different then. Picture being constantly accosted by drug dealers on the corner. "Sense? Sense?" they would say. Or the names of various heroin brands, "Presidential? Poison?" Lines of scruffy people scratching their faces snaked out of bodegas that had nothing but a few dusty Goya cans in the window. Every so often you'd see some cops making a sweep of arrests, but most of the time, drug dealing went on right out in the open. Many buildings were hulking burned-out shells. Whole blocks were comprised of crumbled heaps of rubble.

It was like the Wild West, completely beyond the law. There were no regulations about anything. Depending on who you are, this could be really nerve-wracking or incredibly liberating. Shoot outs happened on the streets, drugs were sold openly, a thieves market flourished on St. Marks Place. But you could also do a show in the bandshell anytime you wanted. Or walk down the street in nothing but your skivvies and glitter in your hair. Or turn that empty store into a performance space. And you could live pretty decently on $800 a month. Which is why the neighborhood became a magnet for artists and radical thinkers from everywhere in the world.

So when white flight began to reverse itself, the first place people made a beeline toward was the East Village. In 1986, the Christadora House was converted into the first luxury condominium with a doorman in the neighborhood. Situated on the poorer side of Tompkins Square Park, it had formerly been a community center and settlement house, so it became a target of a lot of hostility and a symbol of gentrification. You just couldn't help but notice how the upper-middle class people who had started moving in were scared by the homeless people in the park and the lawlessness in the neighborhood. And they had the money and clout to do something about it. By 1988, there were enough of them to pressure the Community Board to shut down the park.

Then as now, Tompkins Square Park is the heart and soul of the neighborhood. Sure, there were plenty of problems with the park in the 1980s, but it wasn't just a destitute wasteland that no one in their right mind would enter. It was just poor, full of Latino kids from the nearby projects, and homeless people, who had erected a camp on the southeastern end. I remember lazy warm nights sitting on tire swings in the Avenue B playground with my high school friends, dancing with old Latino guys to the rhythm of conga players, performing in the bandshell to hundreds of spectators including families with kids. So when a sign appeared in Tompkins Square Park that police would be enforcing a 1AM curfew, many people were outraged, viewing it as a takeover by the wealthier people in the neighborhood and a trick to evict the homeless people. On July 30, the police announced on megaphones that they were closing the park and clashed with people who refused to leave. Incensed, neighborhood activists planned a bigger and more organized protest the following Saturday, August 6.

The evening began with a few hundred people marching around the park carrying banners that read GENTRIFICATION IS CLASS WAR and chanting, “Who’s fucking park? OUR fucking park!” About a hundred policemen were stationed in the park, about a dozen of them mounted on horses. Someone started setting off M80 firecrackers, but despite all the expletives and explosions, it was actually pretty tame. Videos made by Paul Garrin and Clayton Patterson, however, reveal that many of the police officers already weren’t wearing badges or had taped them over. They were apparently prepped for a brawl.

At 12:30, when it began to get close to the curfew, police tried to shut the park down and things began to get heated. Bottles were thrown and someone was arrested. Then at 1AM, the mounted policemen suddenly charged at the crowd. The commissioner called for reinforcements and their arrival added to the pandemonium. The police indiscriminately began beating people up, whether they were protesting or just simply passing by. “Move along, black nigger bitch,” a policeman said as they pounced on Tisha Pryors and her friend, Downtown reporter Dean Kuipers.  “I’m going to crack open your skull,” a policeman waving a nightstick shouted at media activist Paul Garrin, who continued to videotape as they grabbed him and threw him against a wall. A hundred people ended up in the hospital in skirmishes that persisted until 6AM, but the police were unable to close down the park.

Within the next week, over a hundred of complaints of police brutality were logged. “The police panicked and were beating up bystanders who had done nothing wrong and were just observing,'' stated Allen Ginsburg in The New York Times. The ranking police chief was later and the precinct captain was temporarily relieved of his post. The incident is called the Tompkins Square Park riot, but it's important to remember that it was the police who rioted. They were so out of hand that they radicalized a whole bunch of people who had never considered themselves particularly political.

Photo from Tompkins Square Park before the police rioted. By Q. Sakamaki from
his fantastic photo book on the riot published by PowerHouse Books. 

I wasn't there that night. I had spent the afternoon performing on 10th Street at the first show for Theater for the New City's summer street theater, which that year was about an evicted family squatting a Coney Island funhouse. We all went to get a drink at Bandito's on Second Avenue afterwards so I was about three blocks from the melee and missed it. Though I do remember seeing people running past and wondering what was happening. After hearing about the incident in the park from various people, I turned up at 7A Cafe the next night to see what was going on.

The place was packed and it seemed just like any other night. No one seemed to pay attention to the television on the corner of the bar but when an anchorperson began talking about Tompkins Square Park, the bartender turned off the music and amped up the volume. In a flash, the entire restaurant stopped talking and stood up, watching the news report in silence. It was one of the most beautiful moments of solidarity I've ever witnessed. We were all in it together – it was our park, our neighborhood at stake. When Mayor Koch announced that he was reversing the curfew, we cheered and hugged each other. Then the bartender turned the music back on and we went back to dinner. Life went on as usual. For a few more years.

In 1991, the cops descended on the park once more and this time, they were able to close it down. Maybe everyone happened to be out of town for Memorial Day. Maybe the energy of the neighborhood was all spent by then. Maybe the gentrification that had begun in the mid-1980s had already cemented into a resinous gloss of triviality and conformism. When the park re-opened a year later, the bandshell had been removed and there was a volleyball net in its place. Which always seems to me to be some weird irony. Gone was the opportunity for ad-hoc theater and music events in the park. But we can all play volleyball! Spontaneous raucous events in the East Village did persist for a few more years – people continued to crawl through the fence for late night parties at Dry Dock Pool and meander across to the East River on Sunday nights for salsa dancing and illegal gambling – but the closing of the park was like the taming of the West. A vital part of the East Village spirit of resistance died.

This coming week, several events will commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the riot in Tompkins Square Park.  Those of you who weren't there can get a rare glimpse of the good old bad old days. And those of us who were there can look back on that summer 25 years ago when Tompkins Square Park was still our fucking park. 

Event Listings:

  • The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MorUs) is sponsoring a film festival in their space and several in several gardens. Filmmakers will be in attendance, some of these films are real gems. 
  • facebook page of all the events - the panel discussion at Theater 80 on August 6th will be interesting, especially with a slideshow of War in the Neighborhood, the great graphic novel by Seth Tobocman. 

Videos of the Tompkins Square Park police riot:

Articles on Tompkins Square Park police riot:

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