History of Tompkins Square

Early Beginnings

          In it's natural state, Tompkins Square Park was a swamp that extended from the present boundaries of Avenue A to the shores of the East River at Avenue C. When the Dutch purchased the island the swampy area was included in a large tract of land belonging to Governor Peter Stuyvesant. The inland portion of this plot became the governor's personal bourie, or farm, but the swamp was essentially useless.

As New Amsterdam flourished into a teeming mercantile center, wealthy business leaders bought tracts of land from the Stuyvesants and built large country homes away from the lively antics of drunken sailors roaming the downtown docks. Throughout the seventeen hundreds the swamp was a popular destination for well to do sport hunters. 

          The swamp would remain practically untouched until the war of 1812 when portions would be drained to accommodate battlements against British warships. The city lacked funds to complete the project, so Mayor Daniel Tompkins personally financed the construction. Tompkins went on to become Governor of New York. His career was distinguished by an inspired, yet unsuccessful attempt to abolish slavery in the state. Tompkins later served as Vice President under James Monroe, but like many of the regulars in the park that bears his name, his final years were spent as a disgruntled alcoholic. He died in 1825 and is buried at St. Mark's Church.

Little Germany and the Birth of Tompkins Square

          Stuyvesant Swamp's battlements were never tested and fell into disrepair after the war. By the early 1830's a surge of Germans immigrants fleeing political persecution in their homeland began to build squatter shacks on the southern edge of the swamp. Threatened by this intrusion, wealthy landowners relocated to affluent areas further north. Landlords hastily bought up their estates and constructed dilapidated rooming houses to accommodate workers at shipyards and docks on the East River. Soon, other industries began moving into the area to take advantage of the cheap labor and proximity to shipping ports. Throughout the 1800's the neighborhood was known as Kliendeutchland or Little Germany.

          Industrialists and landlords' desires to turn a quick profit left little consideration for the visual ascetic of the neighborhood. The area to the east of Second Avenue was rapidly becoming a slum, and Mayor Gideon Lee needed a plan to attract a more affluent element into the area. In 1833 the city acquired ten and a half acres of the swamp as a gift from Mr. Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, under the condition that the land must be forever used as a public space. The city spent $2,000 bringing in landfill, planting trees, and erecting a fence. Tompkins Square Park was christened in 1834.

          The plan for establishing an affluent community around the park was destroyed when the housing market collapsed in the economic panic of 1837. Landlords sought to maintain profits by squeezing the greatest number of tenants into the smallest amount of space. By the last half of the century monstrous six and seven story tenements began to dot the skyline. These structures generally lacked adequate plumbing, heating, and ventilation. Despite these poor conditions the area continued to attract swarms of immigrants.

          By the 1840's Irish families fleeing the potato famine soon began moving into the northern section of the neighborhood. The influx of available workers caused a drop in wages throughout the city, and many of the more established immigrants harbored hostility toward the Irish. Signs on store windows often read, "Help wanted. Irish need not apply." Immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy would later face the same obstacles. Many resorted to using German last names when looking for work.

The First Age of Riots

          Tompkins Square Park quickly became a social center for these expanding communities. Immigrants who were too poor to purchase a newspaper got their news from mingling on the benches. This working class character made the park a popular staging point for demonstrations of political unrest. During the economic panic of 1857 thousands of unemployed workers set up camp in the park and demanded that the city provide public works projects. After a march down to Wall Street on November 11th they returned to the park and began burning the fence. The ensuing riot accomplished no political goals.

          Chaos would return to the streets of the Lower East Side in 1863 when the federal government instituted a draft to fill the dwindling ranks of the Union Army. The draft included a clause that exempted any man who paid a $300 fee. Angered by this injustice, poor immigrants flooded the streets throughout the city in the bloodiest urban uprising in the history of the United States.

          Much of the violence was directed against African Americans. Rioters blamed blacks for the war and feared that freed slaves would soon flood the job market. On July 13th the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned down, and many blacks were lynched. Eventually Union Army troops returning from the battle of Gettysburg were deployed in the city, and the rioters were defeated. 

          The Draft Riots provided the city with incentive to tighten its grip on dissonant political forces. In 1866, amid the protest of neighborhood residents, all trees were removed from Tompkins Square, and it was transformed into a military parade ground for the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard. Despite it's forlorn appearance, neighborhood residents continued to frequent the grounds when not in use, and after dark the park remained a gathering place for labor organizations who were frustrated with corrupt contracts handed out by the Havemeyer administration. 

          On January 13th, 1874 10,000 unemployed workers, many of them homeless, assembled in the park for a march on City Hall. The night before, the city secretly voided the permit for the march, and that morning there was much confusion between the organizers of the protest. Amid the chaos, hundreds of police officers stormed into the park and began to wreak havoc on the demonstrators with their nightsticks. The Commissioner of Police commented, "It was the most glorious sight I ever saw."  Click for picture

          Neighborhood residents united against the city's brutality, and six months later thousands demonstrated to assert their right to use the park as a public gathering place. Demonstrations would continue for the next two years. Finally in 1878 the state legislature bowed to community pressure and agreed to restore Tompkins Square Park to the people. The park was renovated with trees and benches, and a year later 10,000 neighbors celebrated the victory as German music flooded the park and speakers eloquently proclaimed the importance of the site as community resource.

Progressive reform and the end of Little Germany

          In the late 1890's Tompkins Square became a testing ground for the benevolent ideals of Progressive reformers. Under the leadership of Lillian Wald and Charles Stover playgrounds were constructed. Tomas Edison used one of the first movie cameras to record images of the thousands of children that made use of these facilities each day. Many social organizations also set up headquarters in the area, including the Boys Club on Tenth Street, a rooming house for shoe shine boys, and a women's settlement house that would later turn into the towering Christadora community center on Ninth Street.

          Tragedy struck Little Germany on June 15th 1904 when a steamboat carrying 1,331 Lutheran parishioners of St. Mark's Church to a picnic on Long Island Sound caught ablaze in the East River. A memorial to the victims was constructed on the north end of the park. Withered and secluded, the memorial is known to few of even the oldest neighborhood residents.

The tragic events of the year accelerated the exodus of Germans who had already begun relocating to more affluent areas. Eastern European Jews seeking religious freedom and economic opportunities surged in to replace them. By 1910 the official population in the two square miles of the Lower East Side had surged to 542,061, making it the most densely populated area in the nation. Many of the new residents found work in garment production. Some labored in their homes while others were packed into sweatshops. Most garment workers were female.

          Mediocre pay and horrible working conditions led to the growth of labor-based organizations, and the park became a fertile planting ground for the socialist ideologies of political exiles from Eastern Europe. Famous anarchist Emma Goldman lived near the park and the American Communist Party was headquartered a few blocks away. Members of The International Ladies Garment Worker's Union and advocates for women's suffrage frequently gathered in the park.

By the early 1920's automation of the manufacturing process began to reduce job opportunities for immigrants. In 1921t he federal government enacted the Immigrant Restriction Law to cut down of new arrivals from Italy and Eastern Europe. By the time New York entered the Great Depression the population of the Lower East Side had been reduced to 249,755, but the area still remained one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city.

          In 1936 New Deal funding was used to create jobs renovating Tompkins Square. Under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses the park was divided into a section on the north for active sports and a southern area for passive relaxation. The renovations were cut short by the onset of World War II.

          During the war droves of southern blacks and Puerto Ricans migrated to the Lower East Side to work in war factories. These newcomers thrived upon the ample economic opportunities, and many encouraged their relatives to join them. Unfortunately the prosperity of the war years was short lived. The returning soldiers added competition to a dwindling job market, and improvements in the highway system encouraged manufacturing companies to move their operations to areas outside the city where rents and taxes were cheaper.

Many of the old time residents remained in the neighborhood, but most of their children moved out to the suburbs. When The Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald housing projects were first opened in 1950, the vast majority of the tenants were white. Over the next ten years, they would begin to be replaced by Puerto Ricans. Today the population is almost completely Hispanic and black.

          Despite meager economic opportunities, the neighborhood continued to attract those who sought to escape the impoverished Caribbean and the segregated south. Most newcomers who succeeded in securing their finances immediately vacated the area. Those that remained were forced into menial employment as day laborers or domestics. As with any economically challenged community, the crime rate steadily increased.

Drugs and Decline

          The Lower East Side has historically been a center of the heroin culture in New York City. Throughout the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds the sale of heroin was largely conducted inside private residences and removed from the public eye. In 1957 Federal legislation stiffening the penalties for selling narcotics discouraged large-scale distributors from selling covertly inside private residences. Instead they solicited less financially established middlemen to undertake this risk. Lacking the elaborate connections of their predecessors, these smaller scale dealers competed publicly for their share of the market, often soliciting customers in Tompkins Square.

          Competing interests in the drug trade and the lack of financial opportunities led to the increase in theft and violence. Droves of middle class residents fled the area. By the early sixties the area had gained a reputation as the roughest area in downtown Manhattan. Property values plummeted, and some landlords burned their buildings to collect insurance. Taxi drivers refused to go East of Second Avenue.

          In addition to the continued migration of blacks and Puerto Ricans, the mid sixties saw an influx of young middle class whites who began moving into the western sections of the neighborhood, seeking a "more authentic bohemian experience," as Greenwich Village became more commercialized. Unlike their neighbors to the East, this group of newcomers brought with them a substantial reserve of disposable income. Eager to harness this much needed boost for the neighborhood economy, real estate agents coined the term East Village to disassociate the area from the negative connotations attached to the Lower East Side. On most present day city maps the boundary between the two neighborhoods is Avenue A, but many old time residents living as far west as Broadway still make use of the old title.

          Older community residents had been petitioning the city for years to improve the visual ascetic of the neighborhood. These pressures were accelerated by the support of newly emerging businesses, and Tompkins Square Park received its first major renovations since the New Deal, and in 1966 a band shell was constructed to house free concerts. Younger residents flocked to the park, and although illicit activities were still present, the high pedestrian traffic reduced the incidence of violent thefts.

          By the mid sixties the Lower East Side was 45% Puerto Rican, 35% whites of Slavic, Italian and Jewish background and 20% black. Hippies composed a small, but highly visible portion of the population. The police department admitted that the changing demographics created problems patrolling the area. Out of the 200 patrolmen in the 9th Precinct only 8 spoke Spanish. One patrolman commented: "There is a tremendous conflict between the white middle class guy like my self and the Negro, the Puerto Rican, and the now the hippie a tremendous clash."

           Police tended to be at odds with the Puerto Rican custom of using the streets as place for music and socialization, and the sixties saw many clashes with the Hispanic residents of Loisaida (Spanglish for Lower East Side.) At the end of the decade droves of tactical police patrolled the neighborhood wearing plastic riot helmets.

          Police were also ill at ease with the lively outdoor antics of hippies. These tensions came to a head on Memorial Day, 1967 when 200 young people gathered in Tompkins Square Park to play bongo drums and recite Buddhist love chants. As evening fell, the noise drew complaints from the older neighborhood residents, and the 9th Precinct was called to clear the park. When the hippies responded with linked arms and defiant chants, police stormed in with their nightsticks. Nine people were injured and 38 hippies were arrested. The community received the action poorly, and the next day Mayor Lindsay issued an apology. A month later a judge who stated, "This court will not deny equal protection to the unwashed, unshod, unkempt, and uninhibited," dropped all charges against the hippies.  

          Extensive media coverage of the riot reestablished the neighborhood's age-old reputation as home turf of the policitical underdog. The park became a focal point of antiwar protest throughout the Vietnam conflict, attracting protestors from throughout the country.

Whoa hold on a second. Somebody stole my computer last January, and I only saved this far. I'm a bit worn out from writing this books o if you want to know more about the history of Tompkins Square Park I recommend the following options:

1. Talk to Ray at the Candy Store on Ave A and Seventh.

2. Read From Urban Village to East Village by Janet L. Abu-Lughod

3. Visit Selling the Lower East Side's Website

4. Check out the community history resources at the Tompkins Square Library on 10th Street.

I lost the footnotes for this. Please don't send me to jail.

 

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