Significant Landmarks

When Alphabet City comes to mind, many people instantly think of noteworthy landmarks such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or Tompkins Square Park. However, landmarks that are more obscure such as the Christadora and the Hamilton Fish Park serve of equal importance.  These particular landmarks signify the vibrant history of Alphabet City and how it has evolved to become one of the most interesting and unforgettable neighborhoods of New York. Although there are significant areas in Alphabet City that further define the area’s edgy artsiness and community-oriented feel such as the countless community gardens (The Avenue B and 6th Street Community Garden) and churches (St. Brigids Rectory), these four sites greatly capture the essence of Alphabet City and its uniqueness.

Jacobs believed that landmarks can be used as areas for clarifying the order of an area, in this case Alphabet City. They emphasize the diversity of this neighborhood by calling attention to how they are different from their neighbors. Alphabet city is also able to highlight their diversity amongst other areas through their popular and interesting locations that allow people to understand where they are if they are lost. A great example of this is the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe
Founded in 1973, this nonprofit organization has emerged as one of the country’s most highly respected arts organizations. It is a mecca for innovative music, poetry, visual arts, comedy, theater and even hip hop. It began as a living room salon in the East Village apartment of writer and poet, Miguel Algarin. Artists originally performed in a living room but due to its small size, Algarin rented an Irish bar (Sunshine Cafe on East 6th Street) and expanded to a building on 236 East 3rd Street. This use of space is related to Franck & Steven’s belief of how expressive activities come to be in loose space. “These spaces are areas where the public gathers and provides opportunities for people to communicate with others” (Franck & Stevens 12)

Algarin along with other starving artists strongly believed that poetry was the vital sign of a new culture and needed to be heard live in front of an audience. The Poets cafe served as a place to accept anyone and any topic or form of art without any limitations. It also greatly demonstrates Alphabet City’s artistic vibe and its ability to attract hundreds of artists.

Mission: To create a multi-cultural venue that both nurtures artists and exhibits a variety of artistic works.

Purpose: provide a stage for the artists traditionally under-represented in the mainstream media and culture

Some of their incredibly successful events include:

  • Weekly Poetry Slams
  • Theater Program
  • Latin Jazz Jam Session
  • Fifth Night Series
  • Hip Hop events

Tompkins Square Park
The usage of areas such as the Tompkins Square Park as a space where the public gathers for political activities is frequent. Some of these activities include “protests, rallies and speeches…public streets and squares host cultural and religious rituals, festivals and parties..etc” (Franck & Stevens, 14). From its rich history to the lively place that it is today, these plentiful activities still exist and continue to thrive.
The park is in honor of Daniel D. Tompkins who served as Governor of New York from 1807 to 1817 and as Vice President of the United States under James Monroe. It is bounded by East 10th Street and East 7th Street from Avenue A to Avenue B.

Tompkins Square Park is similar to Union Square in the sense that it is a meeting place for social issues and dissent. Sharon Zukin discusses in Naked City, the numerous ways in which Union Square was a meeting place for people to voice their political voice and demonstrate their rights. In many ways, this defines Union Square and Tompkins Square as well.

The park once included a large parade ground for drilling the New York National Guard during the middle of the 19th century and was a place to meet for demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In addition to this, in the 1980s the famous Tompkins Square Riot (1988) occurred which included a riot to clear the park of homeless people.

Some events that occur today include:

  • outdoor drag festival Wigstock which is a part of the Howl Festival
  • Charlie Parker Jazz Festival
  • 1988 Police Riot commemoration (annual)
  • Food Not Bombs Relief Program (every Sunday)
  • Tompkins Square Dog Run
The Tompkins Square Dog Run was the first dog run in NYC and opened as a part of a large-scale renovation to bring life to the decaying park. One of its fundraisers includes a Halloween party to raise money to maintain the run and is the biggest dog Halloween party in the US with an annual attendance of more than 400 dogs in costume and 2,000 spectators.

Tompkins Square Park has a unique collection of American Elm trees and one in particular is important to adherents of the Hare Krishna religion. On October 9, 1966, beneath this tree A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness held the first recorded outdoor chanting session of the Hare Krishna mantra outside of India. This event is known as the founding of the Hare Krishna religion in the US and is seen as a significant religious site.

Also, there is a monument on the north side of the park that is dedicated to the General Slocum boating disaster on June 15, 1904 which consisted of the great single loss of life in NYC prior to the 9/11 attacks.  Over a thousand people, mainly German immigrant mothers and children, drowned in the East River that day.

Hamilton Fish Park
This enormous public Beaux-Arts style building sits on 4.30 acres of land and was designed in 1898 by  Carrère & Hastings (they created the New York Public Library on 5th Ave.). It was originally built as a gymnasium with an outdoor playground and in 1936 an Olympic-sized pool was added and used by the U.S. Olympic Team for practice sessions prior to the 1952 Helsinki Games.

Over the years it has been revitalized and renovated and in 1982 it was officially named a historic landmark. The Philistines were upset by this because they wanted it to be demolished just like the original Penn Station. Constructed by the Works Progress Administration, the pool was one of the eleven that opened throughout NYC in a single summer during the Great Depression. The influence of the pools affected entire communities and attracted a variety of people, changing the way millions of New Yorkers spent their pastime.

Today, the pool is open from late June to Labor Day and is constantly crowded with mainly children and teenagers and is open to the public at noon every day. In 1990, the building added a community center in addition to the pool that contained classroom and meeting rooms for neighborhood groups. Basketball courts, handball courts, and playgrounds were refurbished to include an even more diverse arrangement of activities to appeal to many.

Christadora House
This 16-story historic building is located on 9th Street across Avenue B and was constructed in 1928 as a settlement house for low-income and immigrant residents which provided food, shelter, education, and health services.

It included a gym, swimming pool, music school, and a theater and was financed by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James, costing over $1 million. This was the most impressive building of its kind and was at the height of the American Settlement House Movement. It was also the shining gem in Alphabet City at the time, bringing in a tremendous amount of publicity and community into the area.

One floor housed the settlement workers, and the top nine floors were rented out as residences to provide income for the work of the settlement. Its opening was a widely covered event during those days. The building’s height and modern style, were were viewed as an inspiration and symbolic of representing the best in the character of Alphabet City.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of maintaining a settlement community were not realized and complications erupted. The building was sold to the City of New York in 1948 for $1.6 million to house delinquent boys by the Department of Welfare but remained empty and underutilized through 1956.

In the mid-1960s, various unsanctioned community activity took place in the lower floors of the buildings which led to a police raid and closure in 1969. However, these activities persisted and was even housed by the national headquarters of the Black Panthers, a black revolutionary socialist organization. The city sold the property for a shocking $62,500 in 1975 to a private developer and was sold to its current owner Harry Skydell for $1.3 million in 1983. He then resold it for $3 million the next year. The swimming pool and other facilities that were once used to serve poor artists and activists in the 1920s is now serving the high-income class today.

When interviewing Father Pat Maloney and Father Jomar of St. Brigids Church, they both discussed the importance of the Christadora building and how it was there even when they first moved into the Alphabet City area. It is interesting to note the stark difference between the ages in the buildings that Alphabet City has. For example, this building in particular and the adjacent buildings nearby that consist of newly built apartment complexes for the higher-income class residents serves as a key indicator of the presence of gentrification. Conversely, these mixed-ages in buildings contributes to the neighborhood’s overall diversity and is a concept that Jane Jacobs stresses in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.




Works Cited

  1. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 50th Anniversary ed. [New York]: Random House, 1961. Print.
  2. “Upcoming@theNuyorican.” Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Volunteer Lawyers for Arts, 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
  3. Brozan, Nadine. “The New A B C D’s of Alphabet City.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Dec. 2000. Web. 17 Sept. 2013.
  4. Zukin, Sharon. “Union Square and the Paradox of Public Space.” Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 125-58. Print.
  5. Jacobs, Jane. “The Curse of Border Vacuums,” Visual Order: Its Limitations and Possibilities.” The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 50th Anniversary ed. [New York]: Random House, 1961. Print.
  6. “Tompkins Square Park.” : NYC Parks. NYC Parks, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
  7. “Hamilton Fish Park.” : NYC Parks. City of New York Parks and Recreation, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
  8. “Nuyorican Poets Cafe.” New York Media, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.