Tompkins Square Park

by Barry Drogin

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To The Editor:

The current debates over the fate of Tompkins Square Park are blaringly ignorant about the history of the region. I lived on First Avenue and sixth, and then Avenue C and twelfth, during my student days at The Cooper Union from 1979 to 1983. I'm sure that there are others more qualified than I who can write a more inclusive history of the region going even further back, but this purposeful ignorance of even the last ten years of the region's history is amazingly blindered.

At the time, the area was most commonly called "Alphabet Town" (a publication, the "Good Ole' Lower East Side," seemed to include the area, also, in its coverage, but I could never convince myself that the Lower East Side was not supposed to mean below Houston). There was an enormous drug trade going on around Avenue C and sixth, with many cars headed down Avenue C from out-of-town. At the top of Avenue C was a supermarket and a large housing complex, which appeared to my eyes to mainly house working women --- at least that's what I primarily encountered on early mornings.

Avenue B, including the area by Tompkins Square Park, was getting completely burned out. Portions of Avenue A and Avenue C - -- including the apartment building right next to mine --- were also subject to arson. Perhaps the only reason I was not also burned out of my home was because the super happened to live in the building.

Living conditions were not pleasant --- I had rats, roaches, a window overlooking a lot being used as an improvised garbage dump with howling stray cats and dogs. Students generally did not live in the area, and aside from some gang hangouts, there was little in the way of local restaurants, bars or clubs. Plenty of people lived there because, financially, they had no choice. As the arsons mounted, there were no marches or parades, no active protests, no infusion of media or intellectual support of the region.

The rats, the garbage, the drugs, were nothing compared to the fires. I definitely preferred all of the former to the utter terror of running from my home when, at 3 in the morning, the building next door was torched and I feared losing my home, too, if not my life. I was lucky --- many others were not.

After I graduated, two trends appeared. One was the squatters movement, where people tried to reclaim burnt out or condemned or abandoned buildings. The other was the "East Village" art scene and the housing boom, which attracted artists and students to rebuilt apartment houses. Certainly it took a while --- not everyone wants to live in a new-looking building located next to a burnt-out building --- but eventually there were no more burnt-out buildings and the new residents were happy as clams to replace the old. Of course, it wasn't their fault that the landlord had torched his building to drive out the former, poorer, residents, but there isn't much virtue in willful ignorance, either.

The final gentrification (there, I've used the word) of the neighborhood would necessitate driving all squatters and "homeless" (I prefer "apartment-less") people from the region, which is what the police were doing on that infamous night. But the "East Village" art scene created a wealth of late-night clubs surrounding the park, and for some dumb reason (probably generational) the cops started beating on the club kids as well as the poor people. Well! Suddenly, all of these college kids were very concerned about the "homeless" and police brutality. I would, quite cynically, suggest that what they are really concerned about is the right to party and question authority. And simultaneous to this are a whole set of new apartment dwellers in the region who want to improve "their" neighborhood.

Listen, kids, the time to protest and do something was ten years ago, when apartments were burning. I don't know what I could have done, but maybe there was something. Now it's too late, the neighborhood is completely changed, and preserving the "East Village" scene is a laughable, self-serving cause that doesn't help the "homeless" at all. I am not condoning police brutality, and I wish to see justice done, but I really want justice done to the arsonists, and housing available for the poor.

Allowing the "apartment-less" to sleep in Tompkins Square Park will do nothing to solve the housing problem, let alone keep more serious problems from developing. I'll tell you what is going on today that will be a major increased cause of homelessness for the poor tomorrow --- cooperatives. Every evict and non-evict co-op formed today has permanently placed all of its units out of reach of the poor. Even those still renting in non-evict buildings, such as myself, will have done nothing to stop this greed from hurting the city --- as soon as I move out (if I move out), my apartment will be sold, not rented.

Yes, brutal policemen should be prosecuted. Yes, Tompkins Square Park will become another Union Square Park. But no, these are the wrong issues. The right to sleep outside?! The "homeless problem" isn't yuppies --- but it is 24-hour doormen, and co-ops, and NIMBY politics. We all have a right to live in safe surroundings - but can't cheap apartments exist alongside expensive ones?

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007