At first glance, the area around Tompkins Square Park seems like the quintessential New York City neighborhood, with its lively restaurant scene and trendy shops. But it’s likely that anyone who has lived in the city during the 1980s and 1990s remembers a much grittier Alphabet City. Sitting at the heart of East Village, Tompkins Square Park was once home to those on the margins of society—outcasts, immigrants, and homeless alike gathered at this center (and before that, a haunt for artists like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe). In fact, before the great Giuliani sweep of the city, it was common to see the park lined with tents pitched up by the homeless. Photographer Q. Sakamaki has captured life in Tompkins Square Park in an photo collection on his website entitled the”Tompkins Square Park Legacy.”
Tension between the police and residents of Tompkins Square Park escalated as plans for gentrifying the neighborhood were finalized, and it eventually cumulated into the infamous police riot of 1988. Subsequent protests erupted out of a growing concern for the development of the East Village, thus earning the park its reputation as a stronghold of New York’s anti-gentrification movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
The grassroots efforts to preserve Tompkins Park died down as Giuliani took over the mayoral office, and the city forcefully closed the park in order to “clean” the neighborhood. Though the park has now lost its gritty character, it still remains a symbol of the radical protest era.