A History of Tompkins Square Park


By Laurel Van Horn

It is now 15 years since the following article on Tompkins Square was first published in a collection entitled, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side, edited by Janet L. Abu-Lughod (Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1994). The themes that authors Marci Reaven and Jeanne Houck explore remain as relevant as ever as the community surrounding Tompkins Square continues to change. New condos and high rises are replacing tenements, empty lots, and gardens, and population density is again on the rise. 

A simple stroll through Tompkins Square illustrates the competing demands that various groups make on this now verdant and attractive public park. At present the neighborhood dog owners are in the ascendant, with a large, newly rebuilt dog run occupying the center of the park south of the 9th Street corridor. The gentrification and redevelopment of the neighborhood, in full swing since the early 1990’s, have also brought young, more affluent families with small children to the neighborhood. A new, modern playground with state-of-the-art equipment is set to open in 2009 on the Avenue A side of Tompkins Square. Meanwhile the ball courts on the northern side of the square continue to draw the active younger crowd and the benches along the curving walkways the community’s older residents, as in Robert Moses’ design. And evoking the ’60s and 70s, the throb of congas can still be heard on hot summer nights.

Authors Reaven and Houck begin their narrative in 1991, when the city dramatically reasserted its authority over Tompkins Square by evicting the squatters and closing the park altogether. The subsequent redesign of the Tompkins Square helped to ensure that the city would retain much firmer control by widening the pathways to allow police cars to easily drive through and monitor activities within the park. Another notable change in the park design, deplored by both neighborhood musicians and advocates of free speech, was the removal of the park bandshell, the scene of so many concerts and political rallies in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. From now on, staging an event would require rental of an expensive mobile stage and permission from the Parks Department. This again ensured that control would remain in the city’s hands. Evidently, lessons had been learned from the often volatile history of this unique 10-acre site.

A History of Tompkins Square Park

By Marci Reaven and Jeanne Houck 

1991—Eviction and Closure 

About 5:30 the morning of Monday, June 3, 1991, some >300 members of the New York City Police Department, backed by command trucks stationed at all four corners of the site, surrounded Tompkins Square Park and summarily evicted the 150 residents who were still encamped there. They then closed the park for the foreseeable future. The official announcement by the Parks Department—that the closing was motivated by their desire to completely renovate and improve the facility for the good of the neighborhood’s residents—was greeted with disbelief and in many cases by feelings of outraged betrayal, not only by ordinary citizens but by such elected officials as Ruth Messinger, Borough President of Manhattan, and Miriam Friedlander, then still the City Council representative of the district. Both officials claimed that the decision to close had been taken unilaterally by the Mayor’s Office, that they had been neither consulted nor informed, and both issued public letters of protest to Mayor Dinkins. Opposition to the closing was not unanimous. Other citizens applauded the city’s decision to reinstitute its authority over the park, clamping down on the homeless encampment, but also on the all-night music and hanging-out.

Tompkins Square—Contested Public Space

The mayor’s claim to determine the design and use of Tompkins Square is part >of a long history of such contests enacted within the park’s borders. Who can use the park and for what purposes, and who controls access to and design of the park are questions that have often fueled conflict on the Lower East Side. This article shows how the physical and human landscape of this important public space has been continually shaped and reshaped in the context of demographic and economic changes in the surrounding neighborhood. A study of the park’s origins and transformation may help explain why, throughout its 150-year history, Tompkins Square Park has been a sensitive barometer of the city’s tensions. 

The history of this 10-acre green and forested oasis set in the midst of acres of tenement buildings begins with its construction in the 1830s when it was intended to spur the urban development of the surrounding area. During the subsequent hundred years, Tompkins Square remained the largest—and practically the only—open public space on the Lower >East Side. It was not until the 1930s that, under the direction of Robert Moses, other parks were finally constructed on the Lower East Side. But even after these additions, Tompkins Square continued to attract crowds and remained the prime focus of controversy.

While the reputation of Tompkins Square has been fed by conflict, the park itself has served essential functions for its multiple users. From the start, it offered a welcomed respite from the noise and heat of city streets, a place to breathe fresh air after long hours spent in factories and tenement kitchens. It was also a place to enjoy festivals and music and to socialize with neighbors, and for children to run and play. And almost from its inception it was also a place to gather in public debate and protest. Open to all comers, it was a crucial centerpiece of neighborhood life. 

Throughout its history, the park was recognized by locals, social reformers, and city planners as an important neighborhood resource. Many considered it so important that they played an active role in shaping it. The style of landscape design, the kinds of recreational facilities to be provided, and the range of social organizations encouraged or permitted within its space, have all been seen as critical influences on the character and beliefs of generations of users. Perhaps for these reasons, Tompkins Square has achieved a fairly high degree of visibility within the city despite its small size and its working-class character. Throughout periods of contention and during times when physical deterioration threatened to overwhelm the park, neighborhood users have shown resolve and resourcefulness in continuing to make Tompkins Square work. 

Origins in the 1830s

The idea for a public space on the site was first set forth in the 1811 city plan for New York. The Commissioners’ Plan organized a street system for Manhattan which established the island’s rectangular grid. Land was quickly subdivided into standard rectangular parcels which could be easily sold without requiring complex surveys. And for the first time in the city’s history, some open spaces for parades, markets, small squares and the like were planned in advance. As Manhattan expanded northward in the 1820s and 1830s and new streets were constructed, six open squares were developed: Union, Madison, Gramercy (the only one in non-public ownership), Washington, Stuyvesant, and Tompkins. The squares were intended to stimulate construction in residential neighborhoods and to enhance land values in their vicinities.

Tompkins Square was developed in 1834, when the city spent $93,000 to purchase the swampy land from its owners, to drain, fill and grade it, and to plant trees and other vegetation. Higher taxes imposed on properties abutting the park were expected to reimburse the public treasury for its investment. The priority given development was well expressed in a report to the Board of Aldermen which warned that if work should ‘be delayed for an indefinite period, then indeed will this already most unfortunate part of the Island be doomed to utter despair.’ The city and local land owners anticipated that the rather elegant districts that have been developing a few blocks to the west—along Second Avenue and Lafayette and Bond Streets—would expand eastward, drawn by the new amenity.

Instead, the housing market collapsed as the economic panic of 1837 swept the city and the nation. No grand homes would grace Tompkins Square until the late 1840s, and then only along its northern border, Tenth Street. But by mid-century, demographic changes in antebellum New York City were altering the square’s prospects. Between 1820 and 1860 Manhattan’s population grew from 120,000 to over 800,000, primarily from immigration. In the latter year, half of New York’s residents had been born abroad. Located in what became the immigrant East Side, Tompkins Square never achieved the elegance planned for it. The surrounding area soon housed the laboring classes.

The Pre-Civil War Era

The area around the square, know as the Dry-Dock neighborhood, was a center for New York’s shipbuilding industry before the Civil War. The Irish immigrant workers lived crowded into cellars and subdivided units in converted buildings. As the neighborhood grew, however, they also moved into the newly constructed tenements. Although lacking light, air, plumbing, sewerage, and clean water from the Croton Reservoir, these tenements were such an improvement over the older housing that they attracted the families of skilled workers; a tenement directly on Tompkins Square could command a relatively high rent of $115 per year. The park, of course, offered an enhanced amenity. In 1847, the New York Daily Tribuneadvertised the opening of ‘new and desirable tenements’ along the square’s southern border. The ad stipulated that ‘none but families of respectability and quiet habits would be admitted.’

Although the importance of the park as a neighborhood landmark was underscored by the construction along its eastern border of a Methodist church in 1843 (which later became Trinity Lutheran) and St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in 1849, few amenities were added to the site until the 1850s, after local property owners petitioned for improvements. By 1860 the park had taken on a more attractive appearance. Trees had been planted around the edges and flagstone paths provided pleasant walkways that directed circulation around the square. The city planted shrubbery and flowers and built a central fountain. Iron fences were installed to protect the planting from horses, pigs, goats, and small children. The Board of Aldermen reported that ‘seats have been placed in good positions; large numbers of good, healthy, young, thriving trees been planted; handsome designs [have been] made in the centre grass-plots, ornamented with evergreens.’

Beauty vs. Public Assembly

This landscaping corresponded to the then-prevalent ideal of park design. In a city whose aesthetic was largely constrained by the gridiron plan and closely spaced surrounding streets, parks were seen as offering an oasis of grass and flowers. During the 1850s, the parks movement of New York City gained widespread support as cultural leaders began to rethink the possibilities for restructuring an urban environment that was undergoing dramatic growth. Central and Prospect Parks were crowning examples of this in New York. But while park designers had rest and the contemplation of beauty as goals for their landscaping, nearby poor residentshad other pressing needs. They used parks as places of public assembly.

Tompkins Square’s importance for this purpose was convincingly demonstrated during the business depression and ensuing economic panic of the winter of 1857. Thousands of working men and women found themselves jobless, homeless, and unable to afford even basic foodstuffs. The city promised relief in the form of public works projects. At the start of November the unemployed were gathering regularly in Tompkins Square to demand that this promise be kept; they formed a ‘workingmen’s committee’ to meet with the mayor and, on 6 November, marched to the stock exchange. With still no relief in sight, the crowds at Tompkins Square grew. Benches and fences were carried off for firewood. The largest reported meeting was held on 10 November; the next day witnessed a ‘bread riot.’

The use of Tompkins Square as a forum for debates that occasionally erupted into passions was not unusual for the era. The class and ethnic divisions of the pre-Civil War era often extended into the public spaces of New York. Along with electoral politics and labor struggles, the streets were important arenas for social action. Sometimes these activities were semi-official, as when thousands wound through the streets in parade in which different social groups ceremoniously displayed themselves. At times the public spaces of the city exploded with collective violence, revealing a complex web of animosities and cross-currents of cultural perceptions. One such instance occurred in May 1849 in nearby Astor Place, triggered by the seemingly insignificant issue of an English actor’s performance in Macbeth but actually reflecting class and ethnic tensions. Perhaps the most well-known and violent disturbance in the nation’s history were three days of anti-draft rioting in New York City in July 1863, in which predominantly Irish participants caused mayhem throughout the city, attacking civic institutions and officials, wealthy homes, and murdering African-Americans. Incidents such as these convinced both state and city officials that the public thoroughfares of New York needed more policing.

Military Parade Ground

The history of public confrontations in the parks and streets of the city helped to create the context determining the future of Tompkins Square in the immediate post-Civil War era. The military’s needs for the park often conflicted with those of local residents. Although Tompkins Square had >been nicely renovated in the late 1850s, much of the park’s landscaping had inevitably been destroyed by Civil War troops briefly encamped on the site in 1863. Soon after the war, unhappily just after renovations had been completed in 1866, the state legislature ordered the city of New York to ‘remove all trees and other obstructions’ so that a military parade ground could be built for the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard!’ That summer the trees were removed and the ground regraded, and by fall the square was put to military use. 

Military parade grounds were a well established tradition in nineteenth-century urban America. Indeed, Central Park and Washington Square had also been sites for military drills. But by the post-Civil War era, the well-to-do residents in their vicinities had objected to the often rowdy military presence in their neighborhoods and had succeeded in banning them. Poorer people had less influence. The motivation for turning Tompkins Square into a drill ground was practical enough. As the city’s largest public square, the 10-acre site seemed an ideal spot for regimental and drill parades. And even if the neighbors objected, they wielded too little power to defend their park.

From ‘Dry Dock’ to ‘Little Germany’

During these years, the Dry-Dock neighborhood around the square gave way to a steadily growing ‘Little Germany.’ The shipyards left, together with many of their Irish workers, and small manufacturing shops run by Germans moved in. Factories, slaughter houses, cavernous beer gardens, and deteriorating tenements were packed in, side by side, in this densely populated neighborhood of the city. Perhaps ever more than before, residents needed breathing space, so that even military drills did not deter them from using the square to fulfill their recreational needs. 

Despite Tompkins Square’s new identity as a parade ground, it was never abandoned by the neighborhood. Children watched as the Seventh Regiment drilled and the Fire Department tested its engines. Barren though the park was, men and women flocked there after work and on week-ends for fresh air and companionship. In contrast to the city’s growing variety of expensive leisure activities, the square offered free recreation. When not in military use, the square hosted musicals, gymnastic, and literary events. Fraternal and political organizations continued to meet there. In 1873 the recently established Department of Public Parks responded to this heavy use by replanting trees around the square’s borders to ‘relieve in some degree its forlorn appearance, and to make it of some little use for the recreation of the adjoining dense population.’ The Department of Parks also sponsored ‘promenade concerts’ in the evening.

In 1873 an illustrated article in Harpers Weekly described a seemingly typical night in Tompkins Square, voyeuristically capturing its excitement for readers who presumably would not have ventured to this ‘grand plebeian plaza of New York city.’ 

Through the long summer day its bare stretching distance of sand is a glaring Sahara: but when the sun has gone behind the high houses of Avenue A, the great square is the attractive centre of the whole neighborhood—a reservoir of cool air, calling laborers out of their tenement homes as soon as they have eaten supper…Tompkins Square this evening presents everyday life; not church or picnic, with better coat and brighter ribbon, but home turned out on exhibition, bareheaded and barefooted. Stout arms that have become sinewy through the toil of the machine-shop and the wash-tub are brawny, bare to the elbow. Human life is uncovered here, and takes its last draught of air before it retires to hired chambers, and throwing itself on welcome beds, too often in stifling inside bedrooms, tired nature closed the eyelids until another day.

It was precisely this plebeian character that both fascinated and alarmed more well-to-do New Yorkers.

Tompkins Square Riot of 1874

But hard times were descending on neighborhood, city, and nation. By the winter of 1873-4, a severe economic depression left many people unemployed and suffering. On 13 January, some 10,000 workers from all over the city assembled in Tompkins Square for a planned march on City Hall where they were to demand relief. Unbeknownst to the demonstrators, city officials late the night before had rescinded their permit to assemble at City Hall and changed the end point of their line of march to Union Square. Thus, among the various workingmen’s groups that had gathered in the morning’s bitter cold, there was confusion about what direction they should take. But before they were able to organize themselves, legions of police on horseback plowed into the crowd, swinging their nightsticks in indiscriminate fashion and pursuing shocked protesters through the streets. This officially instigated violence was directed against political action outside the traditional boss and party framework. The city government wanted to curb ‘freedom of the streets’ which could undermine its efforts to maintain order in the face of a rapidly changing popular culture and an increasingly fragmented political geography.

Popular Culture, Politics and Public Access

During the last half of the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, New York City came to contain a wide range of cultural activities. As definitions of high culture became more codified and less spontaneous, the ethnic immigrant and working-class groups in the city forged a more diversified and vibrant popular culture. Access to music, books, newspapers, art, and staged performances increased, and places of spectacle, such as Coney Island and music halls, served the masses. New modes of establishing order were required to cope with this diversity. A centralized police force, the partnership between government and commerce in mounting festivals and spectacles, the development of commercialized culture, and the physical remaking of the city—all contributed to curbing the freedom of the streets. Public squares such as Tompkins, therefore, took on a renewed significance as meeting places for the organized expression of non-mainstream politics at a time when the streets were becoming less accessible.

It was perhaps in this spirit that in August 1874, six months after the ‘riot,’ some 2-3,000 people gathered in Tompkins Square to affirm their right of free assembly; the crowd resolved that Tompkins Square should always remain ‘open to the people for their free assembly.’ It would not be long before local residents would also seek to reclaim the square, demanding that a park be designed to replace the badly deteriorating parade ground. A turnover of leadership at the Department of Parks, and the philosophy of the parks movement, well established by the 1870s, created a climate more receptive to residents’ demands.

Reclaiming the Park—the 1870s and Olmstead

Park designer Frederick L. Olmstead described a rising chorus of voices between 1872 and 1875 urging sweeping improvement of the square. One voice took the form of a petition from mothers in the vicinity, pleading for their little children. In 1875, a bill to restore Tompkins Square as a public park was introduced in the state legislature. The Department of Parks, arguing that Tompkins Square was ideally situation near the ‘centre of Population’ and that it was the only adequate space for military and fire drills, proposed a compromise. Half the square would be turned into a park, leaving the other half as a parade ground.

In 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned landscape architect of Central and Prospect Parks, designed the two tiny corner sites to be detached from the parade grounds. He planned a simple array of benches and flowers for the southwest corner, situated to view the parade ground. A more elaborate visually isolated northwest corner was to include a fountain, hanging vines, and a goldfish pond, but this northwest arbor was n3ever executed. There was a disagreement between the Board of Aldermen and the Department of Parks over how laborers would be hired. In addition, Olmsted in an angry letter to the mayor accused the city of being reluctant to spend so much money landscaping a park in a working-class neighborhood. 

Several years of haphazard renovations ensued which left the park in a sorry state. Reports of the municipal squabbling over day versus contract labor regularly appeared in the newspapers, and neighborhood protests mounted. Taxpayers petitioned for relief from the ‘disgraceful condition of Tompkins square. On 3 June 1876, almost 5,000 citizens attended a mass meeting in the square. The New York Times described the night-time scene, as speaker after speaker addressed the crowd in English and German from a platform lit by Chinese lanterns. They demanded that the park be repaired. Infuriated not only by the condition of the park, which they called a ‘chaotic wilderness,’ but also by what they viewed as an abuse of power by public servants, those present at the meeting formally resolved to hold accountable all responsible officials and established an investigative committee for this purpose.

Bowing to the community’s unity and growing political strength, the Department of Public Parks issued a remarkable promise. They stated that the city would adopt no plans for the improvement of the square until residents had been given an opportunity to express their views concerning them. And in 1878 the state legislature reinstated all 10 acres of Tompkins Square as a park. Soon after, local citizens formed the ‘Tompkins Square Union’ to track the improvements and ‘see that the park is kept in good order [t]o render it an ornamental pleasure ground of the first order.’ Representatives of the community and the city presumably approved the new design by Julius Munckwitz, and the Seventh Regiment left the square for good. 

When the renovation was completed in the summer of 1879, the New York Daily Tribune commented favorably on the improvement, contrasting its new fresh grass and shade trees with the ‘barren, dusty and forsaken waste which it was less than a year ago.’ In September some 10,000 celebrants assembled in the reopened park. German singing societies and bands performed and dignitaries gave speeches. The New York Times had nothing but praise:

Four hundred and fifty trees have been planted: two large and handsome spray fountains have been built; there are the grass plots, and in the center of the park is a pavilion for musicians in course of construction. At night the park is lighted by 160 gas lamps and two large candelabras having five lights each. At each corner of the park are drinking fountains.

New Immigrants, New Challenges

This event may have marked the high point for the park. The achievement was not unrelated to the fact that the surrounding neighborhood contained a large and stable enclave of German-Americans who had the resources and organization to force City Hall to do something about their park. The subsequent set of neighborhood residents reaped the benefits. Beginning in the 1880s, thousands of immigrants (Italians, Slavs, Hungarians, Poles, and Jews from eastern Europe) poured into the rapidly proliferating tenement houses of the district, taking the places of the somewhat more prosperous residents of ‘Little Germany’ who were now moving farther uptown. Unable to speak English, often transient, and forced to concentrate on sheer subsistence, these newer immigrants did not take command of the park as the Germans had done.

Progressive Era Reforms

By the 1890s, stewardship of the park shifted to social workers, upper- and middle-class Progressive Era reformers, many of whom sought direct engagement with underprivileged industrial workers. They moved into the Tompkins Square neighborhood to improve the environment and uplift the ‘deserving poor.’ As never before, the municipality, spurred on by the reformers, paid attention to the design and use of Tompkins Square. Previously, concern about the square had centered on two questions. Was the city committed to providing a park for the Lower East Side? And if a park was to be created, what public behavior was appropriate in it? These questions continued to be relevant, but now a new one was also being asked. How could the square serve as a vehicle to ‘uplift’ neighborhood residents, morally and culturally?

Those who asked this question were new kinds of neighbors, and their new agenda concentrated on the children of immigrants. For half a century Tompkins Square had been the only major New York park serving a working-class district; then, in 1894, it became one of the very first city parks to host a children’s playground. Private citizens Lillian Wald and Charles Stover established the Outdoor Recreation League that built nine play- grounds in the city, staffing them with professional play leaders. The League argued that organized play would get the children off the dangerous streets, would protect them from crime and the ill effects of poverty, improve their health, and teach them to become good citizens. Tompkins Square was credited with influencing the character of the local population. One city report appreciated ‘the change wrought by the beneficent agency of the park,’ as contrasted with the days when Tompkins Square was ‘where half the turbulent elements of the East side had their meeting place.

Tompkins Square Park was thus changed from a passive garden paradise to an active recreational mecca. The additions were clearly popular with neighborhood children. Movie footage shot in 1904 by Thomas Edison shows masses of children using the jungle gyms, race tracks, and enclosed gym pavilions. During one summer month in 1912, the Parks Department counted 45,713 visits to the park by children. One young neighbor also appreciated the park’s natural beauty:

When spring came to Tompkins Square, the large but rather barren park opposite which our house was situated, when the grass plots turned green and the small only recently planted trees put forth their buds, when the sparrows chirped merrily in those trees and the sun was warm on the walks and benches, I began to feel like any young animal at that season of the year…I wanted to play in Tompkins Square.

The concern for children revealed itself not only in park play but in the other institutions being set up to advance the physical, moral and intellectual development of young people. In 1876 philanthropists founded the first Boys’ Club on Tompkins Square, and by 1901 their permanent (still existing) facilities were constructed at the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue A. In 1886 the Children’s Aid Society established a home for boys on Avenue B at the square. A public library was constructed in 1905 on the northern perimeter of the park, and its stacks were trod almost as heavily as the park’s grounds. A unique institution, the Young Women’s Settlement House, was opened in 1897; it was renamed Christodora House in 1905 when young men were admitted. In 1927 Christodora’s wealthy sponsors erected a large art deco building at the corner of Avenue B and Ninth. Its top floors provided subsidized apartments in exchange for time devoted to community service, and on the lower floors the settlement house offered a wide range of cultural and health services to neighborhood residents. Other educational and political organizations were centered nearby.

The park was heavily used in the 1920s and 1930s. For radical activists and labor organizers, Tompkins Square provided a forum for public discussion and a rallying point for feeder marches to Union Square. For children, Tompkins Square continued to be a magnet. A 1927 Russell Sage Foundation study documented nearly 1.200 different visits to the park by children during an 11-hour period one summer day. City maintenance efforts could not keep pace with the park’s heavy usage. One contemporary observed: ‘Tompkins Square…is a life saver for this part of the city. It is so violently used by the kids that every spear of grass has been scoured off. The dilapidated conditions (and huge constituency) of the park made it a good candidate for reconstruction under the public works programs initiated during the Depression. 

Park Reconstruction—Robert Moses and the New Deal

In 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Robert Moses sole commissioner of a unified Department of Parks for the City of New York. Using labor provided through New Deal relief funding, Moses embarked on a massive program of park reconstruction. Under his auspices, the total renovation of Tompkins Square Park began in 1936. Moses drastically changed the physical appearance of Tompkins Square, employing the standardized designs and construction techniques for which he became famous. In a drive for efficiency, similar design elements were replicated in a number of New York parks. 

This was a new era. Previous preoccupations with pastoral landscapes or structured play no longer seemed relevant. Play had become recreation, to serve an urban population with leisure time newly at its disposal. Rather than seeking to influence the inner lives of park users, Moses’ designers were more interested in accommodating citizens’ diverse recreational desires. One solution was to spatially segregate competing kinds of park uses. In 1936, a wide east-west road was built through the park at Ninth Street, sectioning off zones to be used actively from those for more passive uses. The northern part provided a wide strip of land for handball, basketball, shuffleboard, horseshoe pitching, and other active sports. The southern portion was reserved for quieter contemplation and offered abundant greenery, benches, and shaded paths. Work on the southern section was never fully implemented because of funding shortages, but minimal restoration was completed and the section reopened in January 1942, six years after work had begun and only one month after Pearl Harbor. War needs took precedence over parks, and when peace came, new needs were evident. 

Post-World War II Tensions

Not only had the park suffered from official neglect, but now, demographic changes added new tensions. The postwar period witnessed major shifts in the occupancy of the neighborhood around Tompkins Square Park. The division between active and passive activities did not solve the problem of absorbing the new diverse groups of the postwar era. The square still served a crowded neighborhood, but with an influx of Hispanic and African-American residents, the area surrounding it became one of the most ethnically diversified districts of the city. Not only did these groups need to accommodate and respect each other’s needs, but the old and young now found themselves competing for space within the park. In the Tompkins Square Park rebuilt by Robert Moses, chain linked fences separated the running, exercising, and ball-playing on the north from the families and elderly who congregated in the park’s less active areas. But by the mid-1950s, neighborhood boys were defying the fences and playing hardball all over the park.

By 1957, angry residents were complaining to the Parks Department about the dangers to bystanders from flying balls. Residents also complained that teenagers reacted with hostility when asked to stop; older users no longer felt able to enforce discipline nor could they rely on Parks Department personnel to enforce the rules. In a now minimally supervised park, frustrated adult users looked to the police. The Parks Department responded to these complaints by proposing to install a Little League baseball diamond in the middle part of the park, a plan that would have entailed cutting down trees. Despite a warning from one savvy department employee that ‘there will be objections…when we attempt to further remove greenery,’ the Parks Department went forward with reconstruction plans and requests for funds. Mounting complaints from the public confirmed the prescient employee’s remarks.

Everyone agreed that the park badly needed improvements but residents wanted a-larger role in determining any redesign. However, they could not agree on neighborhood priorities. Should constructive activities to discourage ‘juvenile delinquency’ be emphasized? Or would designs for more recreational space compromise park aesthetics? When the baseball diamond was voted down in a community meeting, the Village Voice reported:

Artists, housewives, the elderly and exiles from Greenwich Village won a victory over the forces supporting the institution of a Little League and its appurtenances…in Tompkins Square Park. The…square…has long been a favored sitting area for the neighborhood’s Polish, Russian, and Jewish old people. The heated debate over…the Parks Department plan…took place at a meeting…last Thursday night…Proponents of the ballpark included most of the social agencies in the area and the Lower East Side Neighborhoods Association…The anti-ball-field contingent, which calls itself the Committee for the Preservation of Tompkins Square Park…[claimed] that taking away trees…to create an admittedly needed facility for teenagers was ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

Although the plan for a ball field was eventually dropped, the controversy among neighborhood groups continued and even extended beyond the neighborhood’s borders when some sought outside alliances with prominent architects and urban planners. Participants in the debate raised basic issues. Could the many communities now represented in the area be equally served? Did the park have a historic tradition worth preserving?

Juvenile Crime, Drugs and Gangs

These difficult issues were raised against the backdrop of a radically changing social situation. Juvenile crime was referred to most frequently. The Lower East Side was hit hard by gangs and an explosion of heroin use in the late 1950s. In a survey of New York City park users made in 1962, the predecessor of today’s Parks Council found that crime, not design, was the number one concern. One respondent in Tompkins Square explained that the park had been where everybody went on summer evenings—no one stayed home. Now it was mostly deserted at night because people were afraid. Controlling juvenile crime prompted the establishment of a ‘teen canteen’ in the park where supervised programs of dancing, table games, and other activities were offered once a week. Concern over crime also prompted some to support the ball field proposal because it might by removing greenery increase ‘visibility’ and therefore safety.

It is likely that underlying the open discussions about park plans were hidden anxieties on the part of some long-term residents about ethnic, racial, and cultural changes in neighborhood composition. The relatively homogeneous ‘Little Germany’ of the 1870s had been supplanted by ethnic divisions among the new southern and eastern European immigrants, which were translated into neighborhood enclaves. For youngsters, at least, these enclaves divided into areas of friendly and hostile turf. By the 1950s, massive urban renewal projects and high-rise public housing projects, along with the flight of middle-class whites and migrations from the American south and the Caribbean, had added new groups to this neighborhood ecology—African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Tensions existed. As one current Hispanic resident recalled, ‘When you went into Tompkins Square you were always cautious. Whatever you did—handball, softball, whatever—you’d be cautious because you weren’t in an area where a majority of people around welcomed you. Not just whites, but it could be other gangs, other Hispanics, or blacks.’ The debate over park redesign was partially over these unspoken concerns. 

A Community-Based Plan

Finally, after a year of debate within the community over the renovations, Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris announced acceptance of a plan that emerged from discussions with a committee representing community groups. The new plan provided for improved and enlarged active recreation areas, and for additional benches, game tables, and greenery. Significantly, the plan did not eliminate trees nor did it include the controversial Little League ball field. Instead, it proposed an elevated stage and bandshell, in front of which a paved plaza for dancing or seating was to be built.

It took four more years to execute this plan which, in response to community pressures, was to be done in phases so that at least one section of the park would always be open. Although the compromise plan for the reconstruction of Tompkins Square Park did not please everyone, it did demonstrate that local groups could discuss and eventually reach consensus on a unified statement of community intent and it did set a precedent for active community involvement over park planning. The debate over the ball field had triggered this involvement. In 1961, after the community voted to reject the Little League field, one resident commented: ‘Finally, an issue came up that made people so mad they had to become a community.’

The 1960’s and ‘The East Village’

Tompkins Square Park, featuring a new bandshell completed in 1966, was reconstructed just in time for an era of sweeping changes. The surrounding neighborhood became the east coast version of ‘Haight-Ashbury.’ Rock musicians, poets, hippies, and political activists transformed downtown Manhattan into a center for counter-cultural activities and political protest. It was during the mid- to late-1960s that the area surrounding Tompkins Square Park came to be called ‘The East Village.’ The East Village Other described it this way:

Today the new “East Village” (a term we have to accept because it draws the distinction between the old world immigrants and the more recent west side immigrants) is the expanding real estate market of sometimes squalid, often quaint and authentic old New York streets that made famous the west village of 25 or more years ago. 

In Tompkins Square, love-ins and smoke-ins, interracial relationships, and stepped-up community organizing began to counteract some of the fears and suspicions that troubled the neighborhood. Although not always successful, the members of the counter-culture tried to create a more tolerant atmosphere, even as they agitated for political change. 

Tompkins Square had once before been the site of powerful expressions of joy and rebellion. A century earlier, German-Americans had transformed the square with their volkefestes and mass demonstrations. Their spirit and command of the space were being revived— only now in 1960s terms. Young people demonstrated at the bandshell against American involvement in Vietnam and in favor of women’s and third world liberation movements. They gathered to hear bandshell concerts put on by the Fugs, the Grateful Dead and Charles Mingus. They were certainly ignoring signs that cautioned ‘keep off the grass.’ Yet, beneath this swirl of activity, relations among the square’s diverse racial, class and cultural groups— young and old, black, Puerto Rican and white, hip and straight –began to fray. The groups clashed, sometimes physically, over cheap apartments, music volume, lifestyles and turf, foreshadowing conflicts that would resurface in the 1980s. 

On Memorial Day, 1967, a resident’s complaint about loud congas in the park brought the city’s Tactical Police Squad to the square to confront a small group of people sitting on the grass. Furious at being greeted by defiant chants and linked arms, the police grabbed the guitars and shoved and clubbed the protesters. They arrested 38, charging them with disorderly conduct. A month later, on 30 >June 1967, the judge dismissed all charges, saying: ‘This court will not deny equal protection to the unwashed, unshod, unkempt, and uninhibited.’ Several days after the hippies had been arrested, other tensions surfaced in the square. There was a confrontation between hippies attending a concert at the bandshell and Latinos who demanded Latin instead of psychedelic music. The subsequent melee involved violence and property damage. The police, this time sensibly leaving their nightsticks behind, broke up the fight. To defuse the situation, Puerto Ricans and hippies, among them Linda Cusamano and Abbie Hoffman, proposed a concert of Latin music for the next night. The delegates from the two communities met with representatives of the Parks Department to plan the concert, which went off peacefully.

Tompkins Square—Still in Contention

A truce was thus established, but the underlying tensions remained and indeed became even more complicated in the ensuing years, as other groups and interests joined the contest for Tompkins Square Park. Significantly, the most recent controversy culminated some 24 years after the events noted here. They were triggered by another ‘Memorial Day Riot’ which took place in 1991 and which involved a similar altercation between police and concert goers. While the various players and the specific causes of the dissension have changed over the years, the striking fact is that many of the themes that characterized the earlier struggles for control over the park’s design and usage have surfaced over and over again. To someone familiar with the history of Tompkins Square Park, current events evoke déjà vu.