|Police Riot by Erik Drooker.|
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.
|Photo from Tompkins Square Park before the police rioted. By Q. Sakamaki from |
his fantastic photo book on the riot published by PowerHouse Books.
- 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.
- A 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:
- Paul Garrin’s video take on Tompkins Square Park – “Little Brother is now watching Big Brother”
- Paul Garrin inadvertently films himself getting beat by the cops
- Clayton Patterson on Tompkins Square Park
Articles on Tompkins Square Park police riot:
- Melee in Tompkins Square Park - NY Times 8/14/88
- Findings on Tompkins Square Prompt 2 Police Supervisors to Lose Posts - NY Times, 8/25/88
- Paul Garrin's account of the evening - The 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot: A Video Point of View on TacticalMediaFiles.net