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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tompkins Square Park

I remember when Tompkins Square Park was a park you walked around, not through. After dark especially, it was one hell of a creepy place. As a focal point for squatters and anarchist demonstrations, it was symbolically scary too—anarchy meant anything could happen, and it probably wouldn't be good.

A nearby wall mural suggests the neighborhood isn't completely yunnified

Eventually, through a painful process of confrontation and gentrification, the city and the economy combined to "clean up" the park and the surrounding Alphabet City neighborhood, scouring out the squatters and squashing the anarchists. There was violence, and the park was closed for a time in the early 90's. Fortunately, the neighborhood still has a fair amount of personality, and the park, somewhat spiffed up and much more friendly than it was, still accepts all comers, rich or poor, like a good city park should.

The park is named for Daniel D. Tompkins, a wealthy lawyer who became New York's governor and then Vice President under James Monroe. Many a 19th century Governor of New York served only a single two-year term, so there were a lot of them; my impression in my travels has been that it's hard to visit a cemetery anywhere in New York State that doesn't have a Governor somewhere underground.

Tompkins, however, served for a whole decade in Albany before being elected VP, and during that time he also became a hero (financially) of the War of 1812. You can find him right nearby, in the West yard of St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery.

The history's interesting, but, like anywhere in lower Manhattan, the people are often more so. Here, a sax player serenades the passersby.

And of course there's the vegetation. Tompkins Square Park has some elms, including one sacred to the Hare Krishna sect, plus gardens and grass in its ten-plus acres.

This stump must have been one hell of a tree in its day.

The Temperance fountain is the most compelling of the park's several monuments because of the sculpted figure of the cupbearer goddess Hebe at the top, modeled, according to the Parks Department, after a sculpture by the great Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen. (This one? If anyone knows which one, pray tell.)

Temperance fountains were meant to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol. Judging from the number of bars in the neighborhood, I'd say that particular dream was a lost cause.


  1. What a great project! Do you have a dog that keeps you company in your travels? I did not see one in my brief glimpse thru the archives, I will have to come back for a closer look. I highly recommend a dog for park-visiting.

    I'm from Detroit...other than a few bright spots (Belle Isle, the new Riverfront park system, Campus Martius), our city parks are pretty forlorn. I'll be looking for ideas and inspiration in your blog. Thanks!

  2. Thank you Belle! No, no dog. Wouldn't really be practical to keep one in our small apartment with our busy schedules. But you're right, a dog would be the perfect companion. I hope to come and see the parks of Detroit one day, even they aren't the most fabulous in the world.