Alphabet City is without a doubt, a neighborhood that is known for its rebellion and the numerous protests that occur and have taken place throughout the years. Whether it is rooted from the police brutality or the gentrification that still exists today, this neighborhood is a strong character that continues to hold onto its powerful voice that resonates deeply with countless others. A prime area in Alphabet City known as a historical mecca for violence and crime is Tompkins Square Park.
Tompkins Square Park was originally meant to be a place for the wealthy. However, due to the financial depression known as the Panic of 1837, the expansion of the affluence within the district was halted. Irish and German immigrants moved into the area around Tompkins Square which later became known as Dry Dock (workers employed by the shipbuilding industry along the East River were living here). Unfortunately the economy continued to crash and for the first time, Tompkins Square Park was used as a forum for public debate and protest. As I mentioned earlier, this mirrors the description of Union Square in Sharon Zukin’s Naked City in the sense that “Union Square has such a deep historical connection with political protest that many people think its name refers to labor unions or some other form of organized solidarity” (Zukin 131).
During the Civil War Draft Riots, tension exploded. The outrage that ensued centered on anti-abolitionists and racists in 1863 around the Tompkins Square area. Three years later, the state legislature wanted to completely eradicate all the trees and objects of the park as a part of a militarization of the entire area as a drill ground for the 7th Regiment of the New York militia.This friction was only heightened during the Vietnam era when more draft resistance took place.
Tompkins Square Riot (1874)
Using the Tompkins Square drill grounds as a starting point for a massive march to City Hall, 10,000 unemployed and starving workers and their families went to appeal for public relief in Jan. 13, 1874 during one of the worst winters. Unfortunately, the city government revoked the permit to assemble in the square and hold the demonstration the very night before the event due to the fact that it “threatened public peace”. Without warning, police surrounded the square and charged into the crowd violently swinging their nightsticks while men, women, and children were being chased down and beaten. This was the largest demonstration that NYC had ever seen. In one headline, it read:
“THE RED FLAG IN NEW YORK–RIOTOUS COMMUNIST WORKINGMEN DRIVEN FROM TOMPKINS SQUARE BY THE MOUNTED POLICE, JANUARY 13”
A positive side of the Depression era in this neighborhood was the founding of the Catholic Worker movement by Dorothy Day. This movement ran soup kitchens in the neighborhood and advocated non-violent resistance to social injustice, thus further demonstrating the community-oriented feel Alphabet City continues to have even today with their soup kitchens and volunteer organizations.
On Memorial Day of 1967, a group of hippies and Puerto Ricans were in the park strumming guitars and beating on their congas. This led to complaints that entailed police involvement. However, these hippies linked arms and grabbed their guitars while the police provoked a melee by swinging their nightsticks. Despite this, 38 hippies were arrested for disorderly conduct. Many say that this was precisely the point when what was left of the flower children faded away.
After this, change ensued and revolutionary groups like the Provos, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, and the Black Panthers frequently made violent confrontations with the police. Marijuana and LSD usage gave way to harder drugs like heroin and speed. By the 1980s, Alphabet City became an open marketplace for heroin and coke and violent crimes rose alarmingly.
In this newspaper clipping, Sinclair writes:
“People still feel the crack down on drugs is a joke! Two weeks ago a grandmother was sent to jail for panhandling her grandchild on the streets for crack. Three weeks ago, two women were sent to jail for allowing their six and eight year old children to be raped repeatedly over a period of several months in order to pay for crack.”
demonstrating the effects and the huge issues of drug-related problems in the area.
As the AIDS virus spread, crack usage grew, and numerous people were displaced because of the rise in rents due to gentrification. Squatters took over the abandoned City-owned tenements and Tompkins Square Park.
These observations are extremely similar to Zukin’s Naked City due to the overpowering presence of drugs and the police involvement that occurred in Union Square which is echoed in Tompkins Square Park.
Tompkins Square Riot (1988) or Tompkins Square Police Riot
On August 6th and 7th, 1988 the Tompkins Square Riot took place. In an attempt to bring the riot under control, the local governing body adopted a 1 a.m. curfew for the previously 24-hour park. On July 31, a protest rally against the curfew saw several clashes between protesters and police.
Another rally was held on August 6. Around 11:30 p.m., 150 or 200 (police estimates were 700) protesters came through the St. Marks Place entrance to the park, holding banners that were entitled Gentrification is Class War. By the next morning, at least 70 people (including reporters and police officers) had suffered injuries.There, the police charged a crowd of protesters that were causing a riot. They came prepared with clubs and arms while the anarchists had rocks, bottles, firecrackers and war drums from garbage cans. Although bottles reportedly flew, it was the police who charged the crowd. Bystanders, activists, neighborhood residents and journalists were caught up in the violence and some weren’t doing anything when they were struck by police officers. Many consider the Tompkins Square Riot to be the Tompkins Square Police Riot.
Jane Jacobs believed that the negative effects that parks such as the Tompkins Square Park had spill over into the areas surrounding it, causing the streets along the park to also become known as dangerous places and areas to be avoided. During this time, many people were scared to simply walk along the area because of how underused the parks were other than a place for drugs and homeless people. Also, Jacobs belief that underused parks suffer from vandalism is something that supports Tompkins Square pinnacle of decay. She states that “parks can further depress neighborhoods that people find unattractive..for they exaggerate the dullness, the danger, the emptiness” (Jacobs 145).
In 2008, the 20th anniversary celebration of this riot was held in the park and a new group called the “Slacktivists” emerged to protest gentrification and police brutality. They had a “donut social” outside of the 9th Precinct and a conflict ensued due to the noise, which resulted in donuts being thrown at police officers. Later that night when the crowd retreated to the Park, police invaded the park and used tasers on the activists, arresting five on felony assault charges. This demonstrates the common thread of police brutality that has run throughout the area’s violent history. Due to this relentless presence of police brutality, Alphabet City residents continue to voice their opinions and rebel despite the consequences. For example, the veterans of the 1988 riots reunited for a protest at City Hall against NYPD plans to place surveillance cameras in parks around the city, including Tompkins Square Park.
Although protests and rebellion still occurs, the intensity level is definitely not as high as it once was. Here is an example of how violence and crime has dwindled tremendously:
During one of our visits to the neighborhood, we even came across a wide and everpresent precinct on Avenue C. The fact that it made such a statement and was so noticeable also adds to the security that we felt when walking around the area. A reason for these low crime rates are due to the fact that the area is being exposed to gentrification. There are still homeless people in the area but definitely not as many as there once was. Families have moved into the area as well as NYU students, adding to the diversity and the progressive wave of higher income class residents.
- 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.
- “DNAinfo.com.” East Village and Alphabet City. Digital Network Associates, 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Horn, Laurel Van. “Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.” A History of Tompkins Square Park. LESPI: Lower East Side Preservation Initiative – Neighborhood Preservation Center, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Franck, Karen A., and Quentin Stevens. “Tying Down Loose Space.” Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
- “The Tompkins Square Riot Of 1874.” Lordstown Syndrome. N.p., 4 Nov. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.