A New Spell for Alphabet City; Gentrification Led to the Unrest at Tompkins Square 10 Years Ago. Did the Protesters Win That Battle but Lose the War?
August 9, 1998
By ANDREW JACOBS
At first glance, Freddie Weber looks like the kind of young man who might know a thing or two about the bloody clash between the police and protesters that wracked Tompkins Square Park a decade ago last week. Hair meticulously unkempt, a nail piercing his nose, Mr. Weber, 19, a self-described radical, punk-music aficionado and sophomore at the University of Connecticut, held a can of Colt 45 as he leaned against a building on Avenue A near St. Marks Place last Saturday morning.
”You mean the one against the Vietnam War?”
Well, not exactly.
For those old enough to remember, the uprising — which left some 40 civilians and 13 officers injured, led to 121 official complaints of police brutality and consumed much of the East Village — was provoked by a different kind of conflict, one that continues today, though with far less fury. Opposition to a 1 A.M. curfew in Tompkins Square Park was the spark that ignited the disturbance. But the tinder had been laid by long-simmering frustration over gentrification: the process of neighborhood change and escalating rents since glamorized by the Broadway musical ”Rent.”
What began as a demonstration against the curfew turned into a night of bloodshed after bottles were tossed at riot police, who responded with ”appalling behavior,” according to a Police Department report that attributed the misconduct to inexperienced officers and poor supervision. The six hours of violence on the night of Aug. 6-7, much of it recorded by amateur video makers and repeatedly broadcast on television, showed the officers, some of whom had removed their badges, beating and kicking demonstrators and bystanders.
In the end, a handful of high-ranking commanders on duty that night were reprimanded, transferred or forced into early retirement, but not one of the 14 officers tried on brutality charges was convicted. Though the Police Department has never called the disturbance a riot, it is rarely called anything else by many East Villagers, who see it as a definining moment in contemporary local history.
If the squatters, skinheads and anarchists who helped encourage the 1988 uprising and other episodes of unrest had hoped to halt gentrification, they have, by most accounts, been sorely disappointed. The disturbances seemed to cool development in the neighborhood for a time, but the stock market crash and recession in the late 1980’s and early 90’s probably had more to do with it.
These days, however, gentrification is alive and well in the East Village, thanks to plummeting crime, the waning crack epidemic and the city’s robust economy. Avenue B, once a no-man’s-land of drug dealers and shuttered storefronts, is lined with a smattering of new restaurants, bars and boutiques. Luxury rentals are moving briskly on Avenue B and Second Street, and even once-anarchic and drug-addled Avenue C feels tame.
A renovated Tompkins Square Park, which used to teem with encampments of homeless people, is now closed — and calm — after midnight, and Alphabet City squatters say they feel increasingly threatened by City Hall. ”Gentrification has definitely returned to the East Village,” said Edward I. Koch, who was Mayor at the time of the disturbance. ”And like Martha Stewart says, ‘It’s a good thing.’ ”
But if gentrification is back, the street activism it inspired seems to have dissipated. Veterans of the ”Battle of Tompkins Square,” as locals call it, say they no longer know how to stop the changes, and some acknowledge that their movement has simply run out of steam. ”In many ways, it feels like we’ve lost the war,” said Jerry Wade, 49, a squatter and housing advocate known as Jerry the Peddler, who organizes a commemorative concert in the park each August. ”Sometimes people just get tired of fighting.”
‘The Most Creative Years Are Behind Us’
The neighborhood’s feisty spirit, which was established by 19th-century female suffragists and 20th-century socialists, isn’t the only thing that has faded over the last decade. Local activists, artists and even business owners agree that the East Village’s essence as a bastion of American counterculture and an incubator of unconventional politics has been inexorably chipped away.
”It might sound funny coming from someone like me, but the East Village has been cleaned up to the point that it’s losing its rough and colorful edge,” said Bob Perl, a real estate broker whose 10th Street offices face Tompkins Square Park. ”The most creative years are behind us, and that’s a real pity.”
Ever since the 1850’s, when German and Irish immigrants fleeing upheaval arrived, the sprawl of tenements east of Third Avenue has housed successive waves of immigrants. Jews escaping anti-Semitism, Ukrainians fleeing Communism and Puerto Ricans seeking economic opportunity replaced the Germans and the Irish. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was beatniks and hippies who came in search of cheap housing and free love. In the 70’s, many children of the immigrants left for the suburbs and arson claimed buildings that were abandoned by their landlords. Into the breach came the real estate investors, attracted in the early 80’s by the area’s deflated prices, who began renovating dilapidated buildings.
Since then, escalating rents have gradually forced the next generation of struggling poets, artists and assorted malcontents to settle elsewhere. The result, many say, is that the neighborhood’s unique vitality and its tradition of artistic iconoclasm is steadily being sapped.
For Mark Russell, executive director of Performance Space 122, that means many performers no longer live within walking distance of the red-brick schoolhouse that was converted in the late 70’s and is now one of the neighborhood’s better-known cultural institutions. ”People used to roll out of bed to come to rehearsals,” he said. ”Now we can’t do as many late shows because folks have to get back to Brooklyn.”
For Chris Flash, the editor of The Shadow, an anarchist newspaper, it means a shrinking pool of neighborhood bile and thinner crowds at rallies protesting things like the eviction of squatters and the destruction of community gardens. ”The East Village has always been a school for activists,” he said. ”But gentrification is scattering people all over the city, keeping them from coalescing spontaneously.”
Harsh View of Newcomers: Party Animals With Money
Longtime residents complain that more often than not, the newcomers who can afford $1,000-a-month studios are young, work-obsessed and uninterested in civic affairs or political activism. Even those who championed more development in the neighborhood have been disappointed at the results. ”We didn’t expect to get so many transients and so few families,” said Krystyna Piorkowska, 48, a member of Community Board 3 and one of the first who called for a curfew in Tompkins Square Park. ”The problem is that these people move here because they see the neighborhood as a place to party, and when they grow up, they’ll move elsewhere.”
But in the meantime they have also contributed to a dramatic change in the neighborhood’s retail landscape. At least half of all businesses in the East Village have opened since Tompkins Square Park erupted, according to local brokers, and commercial rents on streets like St. Marks Place and Avenue A, once the most combustible parts of the neighborhood, are getting closer to those in nearby Greenwich Village, although there is still a disparity. Mr. Perl, the head of Tower Brokerage, said that average rents on Avenue A range from $35 to $60 a square foot, compared with $50 to $100 a square foot on Seventh Avenue South.
The East Village vacancy rate is a tight 3 percent, down from 20 percent a decade ago, said Christine Dyke, project director of Businesses in the East Village Association, a merchants group.
”For many years we just couldn’t get anyone to open shop down here,” she said. ”Now our biggest problem is the high rate of turnover. Some spaces have had four businesses in two years, and that’s not a good thing.” She and other business owners attribute the problem to steep rents, small storefronts and the fact that the area is still not a destination spot for many shoppers.
The most frequent complaint heard from merchants and residents is that a disproportionate number of new businesses are bars and restaurants aimed at outsiders. Of the 45 establishments that serve alcohol along Avenue A, which runs from 14th Street to Houston Street, 37 have opened in the last few years, Ms. Piorkowska said. On weekend nights, the avenue is mobbed with carousing bar hoppers from uptown Manhattan and the other boroughs.
”Unfortunately we’ve become an alcoholic Disneyland, a sort of East Village theme park,” said Ms. Piorkowska, whose organization, Save Avenue A Society, has been trying to stem the proliferation of bars.
If half the area’s merchants are recent arrivals, Linda Heidinger qualifies as an old-timer. In 1981 her restaurant, Pharmacy, became one of the first new businesses to open across from the park. Four years later she opened a boutique, Alphabets, a few storefronts away. ”Back then, people were afraid of the East Village and you couldn’t even get a cab on Avenue A,” Ms. Heidinger, 50, said. An atmosphere of chaos pervaded the neighborhood, heightened, she said, by the haze of smoke that drifted over Avenue A from cooking fires in the park. ”I can’t tell you how many times I had to yank junkies out of my store or throw out people who were shooting up in my bathroom,” she said.
Things got worse in the mid-1980’s, she said, as skirmishes over gentrification intensified and the park grew dense with cardboard shanties and plastic tents. One day, a group of youths smashed the window at Alphabets and ran off with a pile of T-shirts. ”I knew who did it,” Ms. Heidinger said, ”because I saw a bunch of skinheads wearing my shirts in the park. They had only stolen one kind of shirt — the ones with 666 printed on them.”
‘Still Young and Creative, But Now They Have Jobs’
But Ms. Heidinger persisted and prospered as the social strife ebbed after the homeless were evicted from the park in 1991. In 1996, she opened a housewares store, Lancelotti, on Avenue A and Fifth Street, followed by two more branches of Alphabets in other parts of Manhattan. Business, she says, has never been better. Like many merchants, Ms. Heidinger, who has lived in the East Village for 20 years, does not think gentrification has been bad for the neighborhood. ”I’m just glad I no longer have to pull drunken guys out of my vestibule every night,” she said.
Another pioneer who welcomes the transformation is Kathy Kirkpatrick, who opened Life, a cafe, on Avenue B and 10th Street in 1982. In those days, she said, Avenue B was an open-air drug bazaar, lined with burned-out buildings and garbage-strewn lots. Having barely survived the decade, she says she is relieved that the renaissance, as she calls it, has finally arrived. Besides local patrons, many of whom plop down with laptops and cell phones, a growing number of tourists show up, as well as people who have seen ”Rent,” which mentions Life three times.
Ms. Kirkpatrick recently renovated her restaurant and upgraded her menu to appeal to a changing clientele. These days she is as likely to serve martinis and frozen margaritas as veggie burgers and chamomile tea. ”Our customers are still young and creative,” she said, ”but now they have jobs.”
Few neighborhoods have as rich a concentration of cultural venues as the East Village. Some of those places have become household names, like the music club CBGB, the experimental theater company La Mama E.T.C., and the rough-and-tumble performance space ABC No Rio. None of them, however, are money-makers and all of them depend on cheap rents to survive. ABC No Rio, which has helped get the careers of many artists — including the painter Kiki Smith and the singer Michele Shocked — off the ground, nearly lost its Rivington Street building last year when the city tried to turn it into housing. ”We really shouldn’t be here,” said Steven Englander, ABC No Rio’s administrative coordinator. ”We just fought hard and got lucky.”
Another neighborhood institution, Charas/El Bohio, a Hispanic cultural center, hasn’t fared as well. Late last month, the city auctioned its home, a turn-of-the-century public school on Ninth Street and Avenue B, to an undisclosed bidder for $3.15 million. Armando Perez, the group’s chairman, says the city’s decision to sell its building was an act of vengeance by the Mayor and his ally, Antonio Pagan, the Commissioner of Employment, who used to represent the area in the City Council. Mr. Perez, who is active in local politics, was a frequent critic of Mr. Pagan, who long maintained that Charas did not serve the community. ”The truth is,” Mr. Pagan said on Friday, ”Charas is simply a cash cow for Armando Perez and his cohorts. To call it a community center is a farce. Nothing ever happens there.”
Neighborhood residents, however, view the sale as further proof of the East Village’s cultural decline. Dozens of theater and dance companies rely on the organization’s inexpensive space, as does a bike repair workshop for troubled youths and a group that offers English classes to newly arrived immigrants. After it was abandoned by the city in the 1970’s, Charas began renovating the five-story building with the help of donated labor and money from local fund-raising events. Mr. Perez estimates that over the last 19 years, his group has invested the equivalent of $2 million to bring the building back to life. ”When we got here, the place had been so badly vandalized that even the doors were gone,” he said. ”Now it’s a centerpiece of the community.”
On a recent Friday afternoon the building was humming with activity as a half-dozen artists quietly worked across the hall from theater troupes that were loudly rehearsing in former classrooms. In the ground-floor auditorium, the Synesthetic Theater Company was gearing up for a performance. ”We simply couldn’t exist without this kind of space,” said Mark Greenfield, 35, who was directing a scene from ”Henry IV” for the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse. He said that the room he was using, which rents for $10 an hour, is often booked weeks in advance and that the only comparable space, a studio on West 48th Street, offers smaller rooms at $15 an hour. ”Losing this place wouldn’t just hurt the Lower East Side, but the entire city,” he said.
In a studio across the hall, Tracy Zungola, 35, wearing a pair of paint-splattered shorts, was furious at the prospect of searching for new space. Over the last few years, she said, rising rents had driven her out of two nearby studios. ”It just doesn’t stop,” said Ms. Zungola, who pays $257 a month for her space, which is lined with canvases featuring cartoonish images of meat or furniture covered by lacerated flesh. ”I can’t bear getting kicked out of another space.”
‘That’s the Nature Of Growing Up’
Chris Flash of the Shadow has fond memories of the days when protesters and the police clashed frequently in and around Tompkins Square Park. ”Back then I think we were able to keep gentrification at bay by maintaining a perceived climate of instability,” said Mr. Flash, sitting in the basement offices of his quarterly publication. To keep developers apprehensive, he said, he and his friends would build trash fires in the street, break what he described as ”yuppie storefronts,” and paint the slogan ”Mug a Yuppie” alongside automatic teller machines.
But such brazen tactics have lost favor in recent years, he said, as a sense of futility has set in among activists who have mellowed with age. ”It’s hard to keep that intensity and that level of anger going forever,” said Mr. Flash, who is 40.
A decade ago the civil liberties lawyer Ron Kuby helped to represent some of those who were beaten by the police during the Tompkins Square disturbance. He also filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of homeless park residents who wanted to burn refuse in garbage cans. Now Mr. Kuby, 42, is the father of a toddler who plays in Tompkins Square Park, and he says he would not tolerate smoke wafting into the playground these days. ”Things that were once viewed as the energetic flourishing of experimental multiculturalism now just appear to be potentially criminal and possibly dangerous,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm. ”I guess that’s the nature of growing up.”
If Mr. Kuby mourns the disappearance of the neighborhood’s radical ferment, he also enjoys the newfound civility and safety in the streets. He also occasionally indulges, somewhat guiltily, he said, in some of the area’s new stores, like the Moondog ice cream parlor on Avenue A. ”I don’t mind that some of the bodegas whose windows were filled with old bottles of Lysol and Spic and Span but sold drugs under the counter are gone,” he said. ”That’s O.K., I guess, as long as a few of them are left.”
Still, the neighborhood’s pugnacious spirit is far from moribund. During last month’s auction of Charas and a half-dozen community gardens, East Village residents staged an unusual protest by releasing thousands of live crickets inside One Police Plaza. Pandemonium ensued and four people were arrested on misdemeanor charges, but in the end, the auction went ahead. ”We didn’t win that one, but I think we proved that the final curtain has yet to come down,” said Fran Luck, a housing advocate whose retrospective exhibition on the uprising, ”Ten Years of Protest on the Lower East Side,” is on view at ABC No Rio.
If squatters and anarchists see yuppies as a threat to the East Village’s survival, then Thomas Miller, on the face of it, would appear to be the enemy.
Two weeks ago Mr. Miller, 25, moved into a $1,400-a-month apartment on Avenue C and Ninth Street, just opposite the squat that is home to Jerry the Peddler and a few doors east of Charas. Every morning when he leaves, dressed in a suit and tie, for his job as a mutual fund analyst, Mr. Miller said, he endures a gantlet of disapproving stares. ”I feel an animosity on the street that I don’t think I deserve,” he said last week, sitting on the floor of his unfurnished apartment surrounded by boxes he has yet to unpack.
His entry-level job at Oppenheimer & Company, he says, pays him just enough to cover his rent and living expenses. He is still desperately looking for a roommate to share his two-bedroom apartment. ”I work in a corporate environment, but I don’t make a corporate salary,” said Mr. Miller, a soft-spoken Minnesota native who graduated from the University of Notre Dame two years ago.
During his first year in New York, Mr. Miller worked as a volunteer teacher at a school in the neighborhood as part of a program that also provided him with housing. When his stint ended, he spent three anxious months looking for an apartment in the city. Nothing he saw, he said, fit his budget. Finally he paid $2,200 to a broker, who found his current apartment, which is above a bar whose patrons occasionally keep him awake at night.
A theater buff who wants to study acting one day, Mr. Miller says he was drawn to the East Village by its culture, its color and its abundant night life. ”I hate the stuffiness of the Upper East Side,” he said. But as much as he likes his new neighborhood, he is disappointed by the hostility he feels on the street. ”Maybe I’m part of the problem, or at least some people think that way,” he said, ”but I have a right to live here, too.”