This past Friday was the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riot – The day that attendees of a concert in the park and the police clashed in what turned out to be a violent melee that would consume headlines, courtrooms and investigators for years and, according to the New York Times, marked the beginning of the end for “Alphabet City” and the birth of what is today called the East Village. The NY Times City Room Blog “commemorating ” the anniversary, A Turning Point for the East Village, 20 Years Later tells the story of a neighborhood on a slow boil finally erupting and paints the police as being caught up in something they lost control of. Unfortunately, the NY Times has it wrong. It was not the beginning of the end of Alphabet City, It was really the end of the beginning of the East Village.
Put aside that the NY Times (then, but apparently no longer) reached the conclusion that the escalation in violence was the fault of the police. The reality is still that the neighborhood did not explode one day. It was systematically and intentionally dismantled over the course of several years.
I lived at 9th St between 1st and A for nearly 2 years starting in the late fall of 1987 , and can say for certain that the Times is quick to dismiss what the neighborhood was then. It was much more than crack dealers and trust fund hippies, and the conditions were more the fault of the city and Reaganomics than anything else. Many who lived around the Park were artists pushed out of the West Village they had made livable by the increasing rents, just as they had been pushed out of Soho before that. Others were legitimate protesters squatting in buildings to bring attention to the city falsely condemning buildings and demolishing them so that developers could get cut-rate deals at a time of a massive low-cost housing shortage. Finally, the police of the 9th district back then were brutal.
In 1988 a filmmaker friend was staying in a squat on 6th Street between Avenues B & C shooting a documentary about the squatter movement. He would come by my place in order to shower. I learned from him that the squatters were an organized movement trying to get the city to require low-income set-asides from developers. They were NOT drug addicts and dysfunctional people. In fact, such behavior was not tolerated. One did not just “choose” to move into a squat. For all intents and purposes the process of getting a place in a squat was not unlike applying for a co-op. The city had condemned the building but the squatters got a court stay pending an independent assessment of the building’s condition.
A few months later, on a Friday, that assessment was released. It concluded that there was no reason to condemn the building; it just needed repairs. The next step was for the court to review the assessment and then hopefully negotiate with, or failing to do so order, the city to resolve the differences.
That Sunday the police, in full riot gear, sealed off 5th -10th Streets from Avenues B to D and brought in demolition equipment. I was unaware of this as I cut through the park to visit a friend who lived (legally) on 9th Street between Avenues B & C. At the eastern exit of the park I hit upon a line of riot police. I told one where I was going and why and was told in turn that unless I actually could show that I lived there I could not “enter the quarantined zone”. I asked under what authority had the neighborhood been “quarantined”. Obviously there was not a health or disaster issue as legal residents were being allowed into their homes and no one was in hazmat gear. The police officer just turned his back to me, along which the entire line five men up and down. I headed to the Southeast corner, where there was a command truck, to ask the same question.
A crowd of onlookers had grown, with a few people chanting slogans about taking back the neighborhood, but no one acting in a threatening manner. As I started to speak but was cut off before I could get past “Excuse me, could you tell..” with “Please step back sir”. It is worth noting that while a year earlier I would have instantly been branded a “hippie”, by this time I looked more like a recent NYU grad. I had short hair, was casually but well dressed and in my mid 20s. I was not close enough to the cop to touch him. I started again with ” I just want to know…” when he shoved his night stick in my ribs, knocking me back into the crowd behind me. The entire line then turned inward and a megaphone barked “The park is now closed, you must leave immediately” and before anyone had a chance to respond the cops crossed batons and systematically marched across the park shoving everyone back to Avenue A and reestablishing the line. This put the squat out of view.
The next day I would learn that immediately after this the police went into the squat, forcefully removed the squatters, gathered all of the squatters’ belongings, and threw them off the roof of the six story building. Later that night I listened from my bedroom window as the building was knocked down. Similar events would play themselves out with an increasing regularity over the next 3 years under both Dinkins and Giuliani.
The press treatment of the “riot” of 1991 made what had been going on for so long seem like a sudden development. The story, as told then and recounted this Friday in the Times, is that of a neighborhood destroyed by those who resided within it. The reality, of a neighborhood under siege by the 9th precinct and the Mayor for years, with most residents much more frightened of the cops than the addicts and mental patients forced into the park by the closing of shelters and treatment programs, has been lost to history. The Times has apparently even forgotten its own coverage of the police behavior,now treating what they once called a “police riot” as a mistaken reading of the situation. But those of us who lived it remember a neighborhood striving to turn itself from a drug den into an arts community only to be forced backwards by a combination of Reaganomics and developer greed. A neighborhood that was not slowly gentrified but rather destroyed by a “push them into the sea” policy for the homeless and mentally ill, and then forcefully seized by the same people who had made a fortune off of the results and didn’t want to have to wait as long for round two.
Today my old neighborhood is largely condos or apartments so expensive I could not imagine renting one.
Just this week I read yet another article about the complete failure of the plan to rescue the millions of hard working Americans who were not only encouraged but practically plead with by the Bush Administration to buy a home only to find themselves left underwater by the deregulation that started with Reagan and never really stopped. As I look back on 1991 I do not see the birth of an improved neighborhood that the NY Times sees. Rather I see a bellwether for what this nation would become, a land where people are first pushed into a living situation and later forced out of it not because of their behavior, but because of the endless greed of those who already want for nothing.