Feature: Voices From Tompkins Sq. Park

Gentrification Through the Eyes of Tompkins Square Park Old-Timers.

“Eric Paulin, born and raised in the Big Apple, has been playing his Jazz compositions in Tompkins and throughout the city since 1968.” – Photo by Bruno Zero

On a serene, fall afternoon, long time locals of Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s Lower East Side witness gentrification in full effect. 

Walking in the park, visitors tend to notice the abundance of junkies and homeless people, a stark contrast to the army of wealthy youth that have colonized the area in the last decade. Rich and poor, old and young all coexisting within the same square park located in the East Village’s Alphabet City. However, the growing upper class presence in the area is beginning to pose a threat to the community. 

Tompkins Square Park has gone through many phases and changes, dating back to 1834 when it officially opened. The most recent renovation took place in June 2017, replacing many of the playground equipment, safety surfacing, spray showers, seating and fencing. These new amenities, along with the luxury apartments developing in the surrounding area, have made Tompkins a more popular spot for younger and more wealthy people. Some may even say these changes have made the park more accessible.

“When I first got here [in 1978] there were whole blocks on the Lower East side that were Empty, buildings were knocked down,” stated Dennis Uhrinek, a 65 year old local visitor to the park, who has lived in his East Village apartment on Avenue B for 41 years.

“It’s good for me, I don’t mind the changes. I had a stroke a few years ago so I can’t get around as good as I used to.  It’s a whole lot safer for me now, I see the new people and the younger generations and it’s great,” he added.

His opinion, however, was unpopular among the majority of the old-timers hanging out in the park.

Toward the center, an old man sits with his jazz band. Eric Paulin, born and raised in the Big Apple, has been playing his Jazz compositions in Tompkins and throughout the city since 1968.

“I live in the neighborhood and I’m white, but I come from a working class background,” he stated. Paulin strongly believes that these new changes have increasingly driven away the locals because of skyrocketing prices, diminishing opportunities from those who have lived in the neighborhood for years.

“There were some aspects of it that were rough, but it wasn’t too unlike what you see now. You just didn’t have the privileged white people who live in the neighborhood who honestly don’t belong here at all. I detest people who are privileged and snooty,” he said.

In the very center of the park sat a woman with a puppet, giving free advice in a booth. She shared the same opinion as Eric Paulin, passionately expressing her dissent towards gentrifiers in her beloved neighborhood.

“In the very center of the park sat a woman with a puppet, giving free advice in a booth.” – Photo by Bruno Zero

“Almost all the independent businesses are gone, the rent is exponentially increasing on both commercial tenants and residential tenants, so, many of the people who were my neighbors have been forced to move to other parts of the city or to leave the city,” she said. 

She added that there’s an increase in the saturation of bars because it’s very difficult to make money for a business that doesn’t have something like alcohol that has such a high profit margin.

“You lose your woodcraft store, your ceramics place, your five dollar clothing boutique, and your tea shop, yet it pulls transient folks to the neighborhood on the weekends,” she added.

Despite this surge of yuppies in the Lower East Side, Tompkins Square Park has not always been a place of recreation for wealthy newcomers.

In the 1970s and ’80s, poor immigrants, punks, and addicts lived in Tent City, an array of tents set up in and around the park.

“It started around 1981 or ’82. The problem with Tent City was you had the unfortunate people who had no place to live and you had some homeless people who were working with the heroin dealers. Tent City was just getting bigger and bigger until 1988 or ’90 when they shut down the park,” Eric Paulin stated.

These low-income locals occupied the park day and night, causing controversy among the city and police department. Being that the park was a makeshift homeless shelter operating 24 hours a day, authorities wanted to instill a curfew for the park. However, this idea didn’t sit well with the residents of Tent City. The unrest in the park and police corruption at the time led to large scale conflict in the park, leading to a police riot in 1988. Despite the riots leading to the destruction of Tent City and the temporary closing of the park, the punk and drug presence remains in the park to this day.

At the far end of the Tompkinsp by Avenue B, two men in a drunken haze share a beer, smoking slightly crushed Parliament cigarettes. Being immigrants who arrived in the East Village in 1989, they commented on the changes in the East Village caused by the riot.

“What really happens with gentrification is the artists and punks like me move in, they make it safer to use drugs recreationally, hang-out and not get raped or killed. Rich people label it like an appealing Bohemian lifestyle, then the rent starts going up and the cops start showing up on time, progressively moving the drug trade up some streets,” one of the men said.

“At the far end of Tompkins Square park by Avenue B, two men in a drunken haze share a beer, smoking slightly crushed Parliament cigarettes.” – Photo by Bruno Zero

While this phenomenon has not displaced all the homeless people from their homes in Tompkins, their numbers have diminished substantially since the era of Tent City.

Whether the Tompkins Square Park changes are for the better or the worse, one thing is for sure: The incredibly palpable spirit and history of the park continues to resonate within every upturned cobblestone, every empty beer can left behind, every piece of advice shared, and every distant baritone jazz solo on a serene, fall afternoon. 

-by Bruno Zero ’20, Iliana Lara ’20