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.
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.
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.
Germany and the Birth of Tompkins Square
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.
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.
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.
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
First Age of Riots
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
reform and the end of Little Germany
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Talk to Ray at the Candy Store on Ave A and Seventh.
Read From Urban Village to East Village by Janet L. Abu-Lughod
the Lower East Side's Website
Check out the community history resources at the Tompkins Square Library
on 10th Street.
lost the footnotes for this. Please don't send me to jail.