Memo From Manhattan: The Tompkins Square Park Riot
By Sharon Zukin
Today, the sixth of August, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riot in New York’s East Village. Though on that night many neighborhood residents were protesting in the streets — a crowd that included activists, artists, punks, skinheads, squatters and anarchists — the riot was caused by police brutality. Many still blame the police for enforcing a 1 a.m. curfew on the park, knocking demonstrators and bystanders to the ground and clubbing them till blood flowed.
The riot marked the end of politics as art and life as a performance, hallmarks of the alternative cultures for which the East Village was known. But even more important, the police denial of access to the park signaled the local triumph of gentrification.
The stain of gentrification had spread slowly through the neighborhood. Built as a working class district in the mid-nineteenth century, this northern half of the Lower East Side housed generations of immigrants, first from Germany and then from Eastern Europe, and eventually Puerto Ricans who came to New York in the 1950s. Many of the old tenements were in dismal condition. Buildings on Avenue A, on the park’s perimeter, were abandoned. In some of them, squatters illegally siphoned water and electricity. Their DIY renovations symbolically waved a red flag in the face of the police, private property owners, and the city government.
Yet some landlords had already begun to carry out renovations and charge higher rents. Christadora House, on Avenue B, which during the Great Depression offered social services to the neighborhood’s poor, had recently been sold by the city government to a private investor and converted to condos. At the time of the riot, an apartment there sold for the then astronomical price of half a million dollars.
On the night of 6 August 1988, protesters shouted at the police and shattered the Christadora’s glass doors. They carried hand-painted banners that said “Gentrification is Class War.” They understood that police brutality, access to the park, and affordable homes were locked in the same struggle: a struggle for the city’s soul.
“A Hot Summer Night”
The events of the night were indisputable. Even before the days of cell phone videos, reporters and photographers recorded graphic images of violence. They “showed police officers striking people with nightsticks, kicking people who were on the ground, and covering their shields to hide their identity.” That is the dispassionate description on the website of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has the authority to evaluate police actions.
Also beyond dispute is the local precinct’s desire to assert its control. But looking back on that night in a recent documentary film, one of the protesters, who calls himself a squatter/anarchist, now says, “It was a hot summer night, and all the cops were young.”
Whether by inexperience or a drive for power, both sides that night were primed for conflict. The NYPD has never had a reputation for tolerating political demonstrations and the local precinct, perhaps with little guidance from central command, believed it was enforcing the community’s will.
A Changing Community
In fact, the 1 a.m. curfew that closed Tompkins Square Park was supported by many who lived in the area, including traditional Puerto Rican families, Ukrainian and Polish exiles from communism, and young, “white” newcomers with higher incomes and education.
Many of them had suffered from, and been drawn into, the underground economy of illegal drug dealing that the police targeted with Operation Pressure Point in the mid-1980s. Hispanics for the most part were victims of a heroin epidemic. But they also cleared drug debris from the many vacant lots where abandoned houses had stood, and turned those hostile spaces into community gardens. Though they had no reason to love the police, they wanted more police protection against drug dealers and a calmer, more orderly street life.
Some residents, not only Hispanics, wanted relief from the panhandling and public displays that hippies who came to the area in the late 1960s engaged in. Others wanted relief from the loud music that people performed at night in Tompkins Square Park and nearby bars.
But the counterculture of the sixties had changed the East Village. Migrating from all over the United States, and from overseas as well, hippies made the neighborhood a focal point of youth culture, experimentations with marijuana and LSD, and polymorphous sexuality. Unlike earlier artistic migrants, like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and jazz musician Charlie Parker, who were a “creative class” for the Fordist era, the newcomers didn’t blend easily into local coffee shops and diners. Instead, they colonized the sidewalks and formed communes in vacant stores. They opened cheap used clothing stores, music exchanges, and shops for drug paraphernalia.
The combination of Beats and hippies, living in dilapidated housing with only sporadic police control, was a magnet for artists and free thinkers of all kinds. Some of them affiliated with punk rock and nihilism — the raunchy music club CBGB was nearby — while others started art studios, opened fledging art galleries in their bathrooms, and performed in multi-purpose bars. This was the downtown crucible in which Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna and Blondie were formed.
When the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the East Village art scene in 1985, it was clear the neighborhood was headed toward gentrification.
The Political Brew
During the 1980s, gentrification throughout Manhattan made the brew of local politics even darker. The mayor saw the East Village turning a corner from low-income housing and squatters to market rents. New York University, whose campus spread eastward from Washington Square Park, expanded its student body and many students would pay high rents for tenement apartments. Rent control laws were steadily losing political support; city government programs subsidized improvements that went beyond the controls and brought higher rents. Under these conditions, skinheads, squatters and anarchists posed a fiery response, but it and they were not accepted by others in the community.
The local community board could not balance the antithetical cultures of all East Village groups. Pressed by competing demands, board members endorsed a nightly curfew for Tompkins Square Park that the city government proposed. This is the issue that led the police to incite a riot.
After the riot of 6 August, police officers were censured and some lost or left their jobs. Within a few years, the Civilian Complaint Review Board was reorganized to remove police members. But the question of who would control the park, and the even larger issue of gentrification, were not resolved.
In 1991, a homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park was forcefully destroyed by the city government. During the previous few years, rising numbers of homeless men and women had spilled into more streets and parks. Some of them had been chased out of Washington Square Park by the police and out of Union Square Park by the business improvement district that managed it. In Tompkins Square Park, they slept on benches and erected tents.
As in 1988, the tent city was not accepted by all groups in the community. Parents saw the park as dirty and dangerous and could not bring their children to the playground. Many residents felt threatened by the large homeless presence and by the problems of untreated illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse they brought with them.
Mayor David N. Dinkins took the same point of view. “This park is a park,” he said. “It is not a place to live. I will not have it any other way.” So did the parks commissioner, Betsy Gotbaum. “What we’ve learned is when you start to see that stuff — people putting up tents and tepees — you’ve got to go in and get rid of it,” she said. “Otherwise it will turn into a shantytown, and that’s not what parks are for.”
My late friend and colleague, the geographer Neil Smith, staunchly argued that this view reflects a deep-seated hatred of the poor, and that it ushered in an era of “revanchism” that pushed low-income residents outside the centers of cities and found comfort in repression. This is not entirely correct.
Though no one can argue that many of the poor and even not-so-poor have not left the East Village, the middle class are not to blame for rising rents. Real estate developers have a long-term interest in “producing” urban space and city governments need to raise revenues from whoever has deep pockets. When many private owners control housing, government has no incentive to interfere.
But Tompkins Square Park has gone through the process of privatization that Neil foresaw. For many years the city government has continued to cut the parks department’s budget, leading this park, like many others, to depend on private funding. Since 1995, Tompkins Square Park has been partly financed by a private, nonprofit group, East Village Parks Conservancy. For $4,000, you can dedicate any tree in the park, including three historic Great Sycamores and any elm. For $3,000, you can dedicate any tree except the sycamores. And for $2,000, you can dedicate any tree except the sycamores and the elms. Moreover, its dog run was the first in the city to be privately funded by another group of “friends.”
You can gaze on the now beautifully landscaped park from a window across the street, in the Christadora. In 2011, a one-bedroom apartment there sold for almost $2 million.
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts Memo From Manhattan on the OUPblog.
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Image credit: Poor people’s parks – Tompkins Square. From Hearth and home. 1873. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Collection.