Tent City

signSince it’s foundation in 1850, Tompkins Square Park, (located between 7th and 10th street, borded by avenues A and B) has always been a gathering place for artists, poets, immigrants and activists. Now, despite it’s well-groomed gardens, inviting lawns and recently renovated playgrounds, Tompkins has managed to retain its edgy atmosphere to natives and newcomers alike.

The park was utilized as a gathering place for violent riots and protests throughout the 1800’s and in 1936 Robert Moses designed the modern layout of the park in order to divide and manage crowds.

Anti-gentrification riots continue today: Protestors gathered outside of Tompkins in the “Die Yuppy Scum Rally” which took place in 2008 (photo by Michael Clancy)

By the 1980’s the park became synonymous with the city’s decay and social issues. It was, in many ways, the epicenter of homeless life, drug abuse, violence and various forms of high-crime.

Changes came in the summer of 1988, when The Tompkins Square Park Police Riot erupted in response to the mayors attempt to clear the park of homeless people. In the early 90’s, Tomkins closed for a two year period of renovation.

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East Village neighbors confronted police officers in Tompkins Square Park on Aug. 6, 1988, to protest a 1 a.m. curfew. (Photo by Ángel Franco)

With its reopening came new curfew hours and increased police activity, as well as “family friendly” additions such as basketball and handball courts, a public pool, a dog run and chess tables.

Many feel the remodeled park has had a positive impact on the neighborhood.

“It’s beautiful now” smiles Stephanie Sweet (some names have been changed upon request), 46, “But oh god, when I was a teenager? It was druggy, dirty, there was a lot of glass, bottles, needles. It was dangerous and daring to walk through it at night. We used to go in there when the bars closed and hang out. Even after they put the fence up, we climbed over them. It was just a cool place to hang out, it still is. But I was glad they changed it by time I had my daughter, I was glad that they cleaned up the park, made the children’s area safer…”

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These days, sunbathing and relaxing on the lawns is a popular activity

As a woman you couldn’t even sit there and read a book without someone harassing you. Now, look at it—girls lying there practically naked, sunbathing!”

Still others, like Rom Romburger, 40, feel the change has introduced a sense of injustice and displacement. Revealing a gap-tooth grin, he says “Alphabet City? No. This was Needle City, man, this was Tent City.”

As a teenager, Rom would hang in the park with a group of older artists and musicians. “I was a total tag along,” he admits, “but we used to just jam and drink all night. No one gave a shit about anything then” he laughs, “We all thought we were gonna be famous, y’know?”

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A Tompkins Crust Punk: In 2008, the NYPD Crust Punks were banned from their honerary bench in Tompkins

East Village poet Albert “The Sponge” Prichart, 50, has been homeless for most of his life, and recalls a time when the park was both a “sanctuary and a stage”. Sitting on “his” bench in the shaded southern corner of the park, Albee sips a beer out of a brown paper bag and chuckles, “In my time, this was a place of music—danger, too. First they took the band-shell down, then the riots—then one day I woke up and I didn’t know where I was anymore!”

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