Tompkins Square Riot

Terry Miller's 1990 history, Greenwich Village and How it Got That Way, maps the borders of the East Village: Fourth Avenue to the west, 14th Street to the north, Houston Street to the south and Avenue B to the east. Two decades later, this eastern border has expanded to include Avenues C and D. Miller maintains that the term “East Village” was invented by real estate developers in the late 1950's to sell what had always been considered the northern reaches of the Lower East Side. The moniker was an attempt to attach some of the West Village's cultural cachet to an untapped market. Many of the residents resented this name change. In a 1984 New York Times article, one resident stated of her home of 30 years, "As soon as they said 'East Village,' they tripled the rent. It's the East Village to the real-estate brokers. To us it's the Lower East Side.''1

The branding of the area has been a success. However, the process of gentrification has met resistance. Perhaps the most visible example of this resistance occurred on August 7th, 1988, when Tompkins Square Park became the scene of a riot, bringing these deep issues into the media's eye. The riots were a result of deep-seated frustration surrounding changes in the neighborhood. In the early 1980's residents complained about "yuppies" taking over their apartments and raising the rents. One resident asked, "Why are all these people coming here, where they're so riotously out of place? I don't want my neighborhood to change.''2 As Miller notes, the rioting, "may have been sparked by a disputed local curfew, but it was fueled by fundamental questions over the sort of neighborhood this was to be."3

The headlines of Monday, August 8th, 1988 tell the story from a variety of perspectives. The New York Times’ small front-page piece, "Park Curfew Protest Erupts Into a Battle and 38 Are Injured,” describes a clash between “hundreds of demonstrators protesting the overnight closing of a park in Manhattan’s East Village…[and] 450 riot-equipped police officers.” The clash, which started around midnight on Saturday and lasted until dawn, involved protesters hurling “rocks, bottles, fireworks and insults," while “phalanxes of police officers wielding nightsticks charged into crowds on horseback and on foot as the battles swirled through the streets.”4

The Daily News and New York Post tell their story in a predictably more dramatic fashion. The News blares “Tompkins Park Fury” in super-bold type next to a photo of an incredulous man comforting a screaming woman whose face and arms are dripping with blood.5 The Post dedicates most of its front page to a photo of two helmeted cops handcuffing a bandana-clad 20-something in a billy club chokehold. The headline reads, “Night of Rage.” Inside the fold, the story‘s banner is “Battle of Tompkins Park: Dozens injured in bloody East Village clash.”6

The Daily News front page provides more details: “400 cops clash with crowds; Koch lifts ban.”7 The park had been subject to a 1 AM curfew for the month preceding the riot. According to the Times, while all New York City parks were subject to the same curfews, few were enforced. The recent enforcement of the Tompkins Square Park curfew had motivated a rally at the St. Mark’s and Avenue A entrance to the park, attended by about 250 people at 11:15 PM on the night of the 7th.
Due to a heat wave, tensions were already high. The Times states that the police, “having learned of plans for a large-scale demonstration” mustered an estimated 100 foot and mounted officers at the park.8 The News further explains that police not only had clashed with several hundred who had refused to leave the park during curfew enforcement the prior Sunday, but that police had mustered in response to anonymous flyers distributed throughout the week warning nearby residents that “Our organization will destroy your homes…”9

According to the News, at midnight, officers blocked all eight entrances to the park.10 According to the Times, the protesters marched once around the park chanting and then gathered on Avenue A near St. Mark’s at around 12:30, blocking traffic. The Times tells of police Captain Gerald McNamara restraining his men despite M-80s, bottles and pieces of wood being thrown at them. The Times goes on to state that at 12:55, McNamara gave the order for ten mounted police leading between 55 to 65 officers on foot to charge north from 7th Street. Pandemonium ensued. According to one witness, poet and longtime Village resident Allen Ginsberg, “the police panicked…”11 All three papers report accounts of helmeted officers shouting obscenities and attacking innocent bystanders without provocation. By dawn, thirty-eight people had been injured according to the Times, (52 according to the News) including reporters, photographers and police officers. “Nine people were arrested on riot, assault and other charges, and six complaints of brutality were filed against the police.”12 Two weeks later Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward accepted responsibility for the debacle and “emphasized that the youth and inexperience of the patrol officers” had contributed to the misconduct. The ranking chief on the scene that night was forced to retire and Captain McNamara was temporarily relieved of his command.13

Notably, the papers offer conflicting reasons for the rioting. On page one the Times stated, “The violence was the apparent result of a police effort to halt late-night noise and rowdyism in the park that have generated a feud between the neighborhood’s quiet-living older residents on the one hand and its younger denizens, drug pushers and punk-rock skinheads on the other.”14 The Parks Department spokesman echoed this sentiment, saying that the curfew was imposed on Tompkins Square Park July 11th, “after neighbors complained that the park is a noisy after-hours hangout for the homeless, drug users, drunks and the ‘skinheads’ who shave their heads and wear black leather.”15

Deeper in the small print, the Times suggests another explanation, that the park had become a “flashpoint in a community undergoing the strains of ‘gentrification.’ As rising rents have displaced the historic culture of artists, musicians, social rebels and poor people, new and more affluent residents have made their presence felt, and a backlash of resentment among long-standing residents has piqued the feud.”16 Their first explanation suggests a placid old-world enclave besieged by hooligans and criminals, while this second suggests an enclave of artists, radicals, and the homeless besieged by newly arrived yuppies. Were park denizens offending long-term residents of the neighborhood or the newly arrived?

The Times doesn’t seem sure, but the Post does. Under their main story detailing the night’s events another article proclaims, “It’s Yuppies Vs. the Hippies." A local restaurant manager is quoted saying, “This is basically about people who’ve bought $300,000 condos and don’t like to see needles in the park when they go jogging in the morning.” A one-year resident says, “It would be nice to come home from work at night and feel safe.”17 The News gives the last word to a longer-term neighborhood resident’s description of the park: “It’s a cesspool. Everybody who has no place else comes here. Kids from the suburbs, homeless, junkies. Six years ago it was an oasis. Now people come from all over to get high get drunk, carry on. They’ve even driven the squirrels out.”18

The people who lived and hung out in the park saw the situation differently however. In the anarchist newspaper The Shadow, a man identified as Allen describes the atmosphere of the park:

Back then, there were so many punks, skinheads, metal heads, drunks, junkies, hard luck homeless, etc…in the park at night that it was actually extremely safe to sleep there. Everybody knew everybody else, and no one fucked with you if you were cool. There sincerely was a code of sorts, an honor amongst thieves kind of thing. The day of the riots, everyone knew that mayor Koch had decided to impose a 12:00 curfew on the park, which at the time was pretty much a slap in the face of the entire community. What people nowadays don't realize, is back then, people really didn't have a problem with what the park was all about. Yeah, there were people living in handmade tents, and crashing on benches, and it wasn't all pretty, but there was an amazing sense of community in the neighborhood back then, and the community policed ourselves to a degree. In other words, don't rip off the neighborhood businesses and they'll look out for you when you're broke.19

The park meant very different things to different people. After the riot, the park became a visible symbol of the anti-gentrification movement, with as many as 300 activists, homeless people and squatters sleeping in the park at once.

Numerous conflicts with the police reoccurred between August 6, 1988 and June 1991, when the last squatters were ejected from the park. The park was closed for “renovations”, which included installing an iron fence on the perimeter, razing the famous bandshell—a relic of the East Village’s music scene and popular spot for homeless people to shelter from the rain—and placing an armed guard at the entrances.20

Despite this, Tompkin's Square Park still remains a symbol of resistance. In fact, the New York Times has cited protests against gentrification on the Lower East Side as a tradition. In 2008, residents of the Lower East Side protested the opening of the Bowery Wine Co., a wine bar that also hosted a Republican Club. Protesters held signs that read "Die Hard Yuppie Scum," as they walked towards the park. They eventually convened across from the park at the Christodora House, an immigrant settlement, which was later torn down to build condos. The sentiments of the Tompkins Square riots seemed to echo throughout.21

For Images see:

Photographs by John McBride of the riots in 1988 and 1989, under "Squatters"

Book of photographs by Q. Sakamaki

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