Rebels Without a Cause in Tompkins Square Park by Sarah Bank

Tompkins Square Park is defined by rebellion. For centuries it has been a gathering place for victims of income inequality and economic circumstance. The Tompkins Square Riot of 1874 marked the first violent clash between the police and protesters demonstrating for workers’ rights and government aid. (1) History would repeat itself over a hundred years later when police attempted to clear out homeless people in August of 1988 and unbridled rioting erupted. (2) In the late 80’s the police viewed the park as a decaying center of shantytowns and heroin, while its inhabitants and neighbors hailed it as an emblem of resistance against gentrification. The city tried and failed to enforce a park-wide curfew, and eventually ended up clearing it out and closing it from 1991 to 1992. (3) It was revamped with amenities for recreation such as basketball courts, dog runs, and chess tables. This renovation by both government and private corporations has challenged the counterculture identity of the park, rendering it a confused and muddled place.

Tompkins Square Park is currently a contested space: its main constituents being “resisters” of the East Village, young families and passive residents of the East Village, corporations, and the city government. “Resisters” wants the park to remain a place of resistance and, as I heard a punk singer yell, stay the “headquarters of hardcore,” while the government and corporations are imposing a recreational, family-friendly identity on the park in the hopes of benefiting local residents. On the Sunday afternoon when I visited, there was a highly attended hard-rock concert in the epicenter of the park, and a stench of drugs hanging in the air. However, there were also floor hockey and basketball games going on; the playgrounds were filled with children; and dog-walkers strolled about.

The park is definitely serving both of its purposes, but the issue is that these two purposes do not work in tandem. I found that the rebellious park users seemed uninspired: they wanted to be protesting in the spirit of Tompkins Square Park, but they weren’t protesting anything in particular. The punk rockers used politically charged language like “resist,” but never explicitly called out the structure, policy, or norm that park users should be resisting. The audience of twenty-something artist types drowning in denim and patches with slogans is not interested in using the space as it has been used in the past: to promote economic justice. They simply want to smoke weed on the stomping ground of their hippie ancestors. As David, a visitor, put it, he mainly goes to the park for “nostalgia.” (4) There is a longing for the rebellious attitude that no longer really fits the identity of the park, and as a result the environment lurks in the unsettling liminal space between past and future.

The park’s new identity is defined as a place teeming with children and residents of the East Village that are not interested in counterculture. It is really difficult for a recreational park to function well when kids are playing amongst drugs and the constant shouts of “fuck!” by singers. Conversely, squeaky-clean government playgrounds are reflective of the gentrification movement. Chris, a park-goer, said himself, in a half-joking tone, that there are always “a lot of interests… variety…. And different things going on.” (5) Park-goers like Chris acknowledge the eccentricity and humor of the unlikely mixture of kids and “resisters” in the park, and how the two groups might get in each other’s way. While they are separated geographically, with families in the fenced-off quadrants and the “resisters” in the open areas of green space, they are still together in the same park and walking in the same promenade. They clearly are a nuisance to each other: the performance of resistance creates a dangerous environment for children to play in, and punk rockers don’t want little kids running around and cramping their style.

This clash of uses and interests calls into question the history of the park’s gentrification, and asks how the park will function in the future. The park itself has been redone countless times by the city government because of its historically high homeless population and drug rate, as well as reputation of a place of violence. Remodels began with Robert Moses’s 1930’s winding roads that aimed to make protesting difficult, (6) continued with the park’s closing and complete overhaul in 1991, and has continued more recently with collaborations with private corporations resulting in basketball courts funded by YouTube or free Wi-Fi provided by AT&T. (7) Additionally, the park’s identity was forced to change with the identity of its surrounding neighborhood, as gentrification swept through Alphabet City starting in the 1980’s and continuing into the present day. Current real estate advertisements reference the neighborhood’s past but signify a new sort of future, describing the area as “bohemian,” “chic,” and “quirky,” and explaining that “despite a past history of riots and drugs, [Tompkins Square Park] is one of the City’s loveliest, with a well-loved dog run that brings pups and their owners from the surrounding streets and beyond.” (8) This demonstrates one of Tompkins Square Park’s issues: it is useful place for “owners from the surrounding streets,” but these owners presumably have the money to afford that now expensive real estate, and their wants might not necessarily coincide with the park’s rebellious and gritty identity that others seek to preserve.

The gentrification and arrival of rich inhabitants explains the presence of the recreational park-users and families, but it also explains the rebellious concert-goers. It would seem that they come to the park as anti-gentrifiers and as demonstrators, and some certainly do. However, others, like the uninspired and disunified group mentioned earlier, are actually granted their privilege from this gentrification. Neil Smith describes Alphabet City as “an urban frontier” that “displaces social conflict into the realm of myth” and where “the culture industry.. converted urban destruction into ultra chic.” (9) Smith wrote in 1992, but the trend of ignoring social conflict and commodifying idealized myths feels present in the park today. The arrival of wealth in the neighborhood makes it much easier to feel comfortable adopting the punk attitude and fashion without having to advocate for any sort of cause. The wealth has been largely successful at eradicating the violent riots of Tompkins Square Park. “Resisters” can easily masquerade as counterculture and pay homage to the rebellions of the past with the safety of knowing that there aren’t going to be any actual rebellions. In Tompkins Square Park, I did not feel that the police and the public were going to start throwing bricks at one another. This would probably not be the case if it were the 1980’s. In Tompkins Square Park today you feel, as Smith puts it, “exotic but benign danger”. (10) This layer of faux-resistance only further complicates the already murky identity of Tompkins Square Park, and hinders the creation of an identity that works for park-users.

Chris, the man I spoke to briefly in the park, said it best, “this park is a treasure to Downtown New York City. It needs to be protected. It needs to be safe. It needs to be cleaned up.” (11) I don’t know what Tompkins Square Park’s identity should be, and I suppose that’s up to the residents and the city to collaborate on and determine. It’s certainly important to have public spaces in cities where residents can gather to protest injustice, but it’s unclear if Tompkins Square Park can remain that public space for Lower East Siders. My hope is that the park can continue to be a forum for ideas and grassroots movements without having that spirit entirely commodified, but also serve the needs of the community if that includes families and children. Perhaps it needs to decide between the two identities. In his article describing gentrification and the privatization of parks, Alex Ulam describes partnerships between artists and activists for public space and private companies or city governments, which could be something to consider. He describes groups that envision government officially implementing activist techniques such as “yarn-bombing” or bringing chairs and benches to parking lots. However, Ulam worries whether this is simply “a window treatment for the ongoing pillaging of public commons.” (12) If that’s the case, that would only mimic the unhelpful empty rebellions currently taking place in the park. Tompkins Square Park can have its past “protected” and its future “safe” and “clean,” but there are new problems to be solved that go beyond the drug and homeless presence of prior decades.


1
Josh Getlin, “Nobody’s Park in New York City, it was Residents Vs. the Homeless and Everybody Lost,” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), June 13, 1991, https://search.proquest.com/docview/281320184?accountid=39333.

2.Ibid.

3Robert D. McFadden, “Park Curfew Protest Erupts Into a Battle And 38 Are Injured,” The New York Times, August 8, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/08/nyregion/park-curfew-protest-erupts-into-a-battle-and-38-are-injured.html?pagewanted=all

4David, personal interview, 1 October 2017.

5Chris, personal interview, 1 October 2017.

6 “Tompkins Square Park,” The Cultural Landscape Foundation, https://tclf.org/landscapes/tompkins-square-park

7Hunter Harris, “After Delays, Renovated Tompkins Square Park Basketball Court Reopens,” Observer, August 10, 2015, http://observer.com/2015/08/after-delays-renovated-tompkins-square-park-basketball-court-reopens/

8“East Village Real Estate,” Douglas Elliman Real Estatehttps://www.elliman.com/new-york-city/east-village

9Neil Smith, “New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West,” in Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 74-75.

10Smith, “New City, New Frontier,” 78.

11Chris, personal interview, 1 October 2017.

12Alex Ulam, “Our Parks Are Not for Sale: From the Gold Coast of New York to the Venice Biennale,” Dissent, Winter 2013, 8.

 

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