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WORLDS COLLIDE IN TOMPKINS SQUARE
By JOHN KIFNER
|in: New York Times, July 31, 1989|
"It's an interesting, intricate social situation," Nathaniel Hunter Jr. observed early yesterday morning from the bench in Tompkins Square Park, where he has lived for the last six years. "The internal contradictions are constantly slamming into each other."
In the after-midnight darkness, nearly 300 homeless people were stretched out in the park-sleeping, trying to sleep, talking and drinking. Their number has steadily grown from some 137 who were evicted when the police tore down their tent city two weeks ago after a series of clashes. A cooking fire smoldered near some bushes, a tepee and other shelters had been set up from sheets of plastic and cardboard refrigerator boxes.
More and more homeless people have been trickling into the park, attracted both by the latest burst of public attention and the number of soup kitchens operated nearby by religious groups, turning the park into a kind of a sanctuary and rallying point for the homeless.
The clothing of the homeless, drying on the fence posts, and the people washing themselves in the drinking fountains, have brought a sense of crisis. But the homeless are only the latest addition to the city's most hard-used park, where elderly Poles and Ukrainians hold down their benches on the west side, while younger Puerto Ricans, blacks, Cubans and Jamaicans come in from the blocks to the east.
Reflecting the neighborhood, the mix in the park is yet more complex. Skateboarders, basketball players, mothers with small children, radicals looking like 1960's retreads, spikey-haired punk rockers in torn black, skinheads in heavy work boots looking to beat up the radicals and punks, Rastafarians with dreadlocks, heavy-metal bands, chess players, dog walkers all occupy their spaces in the park, along with the professionals carrying their dry-cleaned suits to the renovated "gentrified" buildings that are changing the character of neighborhood.
Tompkins Square Park, 10 1/2 tree-shaded acres of worn pavement and scuffed grass, is the center of a singular part of Manhattan known variously as the Lower East Side, the East Village, Loisaida, Alphabet City, Community Board 3 or the Ninth Precinct, an uneasy community that is the meeting ground of the two most powerful forces in the city today: drugs and real estate.
The story told by Mr. Hunter - a gentle, shrewd-spoken, gray-bearded black man known as "Junior," who keeps a small rake and shovel by his bench to tend the nearby cherry and black-oak trees - is that of many of the city's homeless: a single, massive blow pushed them over the margin. In his case, he said, it was the purchase of the nearby high-rise where he lived by speculators who turned it into co-ops, leading to a long, unsuccessful struggle against eviction.
"I was doing everything right, paying my rent on time, paying my cable TV on time," said Mr. Hunter, who was then a self-employed contractor. "But they wear you out after a year and a half or two. I was physically, financially, psychologically pooped out. I just wanted to be left alone, to find a spot in space to cool my head out. So I came here. I found a sanctuary, really, trees, open space, solitude.
"Of course at that time, it wasn't so pulsating with events. But now we have cook fires burning, political activists yelling, police around, all the things I had been running away from," he went on, suddenly bursting into a whoop of laughter at the irony. "Now I'm worried about my actual eviction from the park."
Late at night, the neighborhood seems bizarre. The Newcomers Motorcycle Club is having its annual block party at its clubhouse at 12th Street and Avenue B, and the street is lined with chromed Harley Davidsons with raised "ape-hanger" handlebars and hefty men and women in black leather.
A block north, a rock concert has spilled out of a "squat" an abandoned city-owned building taken over by outlaw renovators, mostly young artists—and the street is filled with young people whose purple hair stands straight up in spikes. At the World Club, just off Houston Street near Avenue C, black youths pull up in the Jeep-type vehicles favored by cash-heavy teen-age crack moguls, high-powered speakers blaring.
At the corner of Avenue B and Third, considered one of the worst heroin blocks in the city, another concert was going on at an artists' space called the Garage, set in a former gas station walled off by plastic bottles and other found objects. The wall formed an enclosed garden looking up at burned-out, abandoned buildings producing an eerie resemblance to Beirut. The crowd was white and fashionably dressed, and a police sergeant sent to check on the noise shook his head bemusedly, saying, "It's all yuppies." Gentrification Brings New Problems
By day, the contrasts are still sharp. On a late weekend morning, a shirtless man with matted hair reels angrily out of the park toward the couples eating eggs Benedict at sidewalk tables of the Life Cafe at the northeast corner of the park, shouting as best as could be determined through a thick Jamaican accent, "Kiss my granny's grits." A store on the east side of the park offers vegetarian dog food, while another, called Le Snakepit, features bracelets studded with steel spikes and T-shirts decorated with skulls. There is little problem matching the clothes in this store; they are all black.
Two grocery stores and a car service have been closed down by Federal agents in the past few weeks as fronts for drug sales. "I always keep a little tofu in the refrigerator," said one of three slim young women striding down St. Marks Place past a man sleeping on a piece of cardboard.
Many of the contrasts—and the tensions—have to do with gentrification, marked by the implacable march eastward of outlets of the Gap sportswear chain, which has now reached Second Avenue and St. Marks, a hub of the 60's counterculture. This was a neighborhood largely of the working poor, whose cheap, if shabby, housing also attracted artists, radicals and the young. Now, with one-bedroom apartments renting for $1,200 a month, Avenue A is widely seen as the cutting edge of gentrification; another talisman, a Mexican restaurant with salmon-colored walls is just opening across the street from the Con Ed building where sidewalk peddlers lay out goods they have rummaged from garbage cans or, in some cases, snatched from parked cars.
"The last five years have brought a lot of changes," said Scott Riley, a carpenter and Vietman veteran, who is working with fellow tenants to renovate and take over a building at 620 East Ninth Street under a city-sponsored "sweat equity" program. "The main thing is that the kind of safety net that used to be here in terms of affordable rents is gone."
"The neighborhood is getting better," said Victor Alvarez at the Gladiator Gym. "But as the neighborhood gets better, the people suffer."
The housing crisis has spawned a growing movement of squatters who say they have taken over about 20 abandoned buildings—at least two of which now boast their own art galleries - and are working to bring them up to housing code.
"It was a catastrophe, man," a squatter who gave his name only as "Hawk," said of the building he shares with 20 others. "There weren't even landings on the stairs, no electricity, no water. Now we have bathrooms and washing machines."
There is also resentment - fanned, many residents say, by a group of about 20 radicals usually known in the community as "anarchists" -which has focused on the Christadora, a 16-story, long-empty settlement house last used as a city welfare office, that has been turned into condominiums. Earlier this spring, demonstrators hurled cinder blocks through its Art Deco entrance shouting, "Die, yuppie scum."
"In the end, the city's policy has to be called genocide, it's killing people," said Clayton Patterson, who described himself as a "hat and video artist" and who, along with his video camera, is a fixture at housing demonstrations in the neighborhood. 'A Lot of Sympathy For the Homeless'
In a neighborhood whose standard of politics is probably the furthest to the left in the city, the clashes in the park have brought considerable anguished soul searching, not least among residents of the Christadora.
"We're the designated symbol of gentrification," Leslie Hazleton, a writer who is on the building's board, said glumly in her crowded studio apartment. "Frankly, I resent that. There is a lot of sympathy for homeless."
"Last year, these kids came up from Scarsdale," said James Wraggs, who runs the soup kitchen for the Lutheran ministry off Avenue B said of the radicals, looking from a long-running checkers game. "That's where the trouble started, people from Scarsdale."
For the Parks Department, the clashes over the tent city is only one of a series of difficulties in balancing what Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern called "a unique park, with so many different constituencies occupying different sections, sliced geographically and by time sharing."
Indeed, Mr. Stern and other parks officials say, a multimillion-dollar renovation plan for the park is being blocked by a dog-walking faction—mostly gentrifiers—in the neighborhood in revenge for the Parks Department's refusal to include a dog run. Demonstrations 'Turn Up the Heat'
Saturday afternoon, a Puerto Rican band at the bandshell played Jibaro music from the rural mountain regions—an equivalent of hillbilly laments of the woes of the city and the longing for home—while Diane Dunne, from a Long Island ministry called Hope for the Future, firmly formed several hundred people into an orderly soup line.
In the section of the park where the homeless had set up as their headquarters, Darleen Bryant, one of the leaders of the group, who said she was also known as "Momma," talked of "turning up the heat on the street" with more demonstrations to force the city to give over buildings for the homeless.
Several people began setting up shelters, and the Rev. Frank Morales, an Episcopal priest who is one of the organizers of the squatters' movement on the Lower East Side, spoke quietly with a group planning strategy
"I'm agitating toward the occupation of empty buildings, breaking in with a sledgehammer if necessary, with or withouty city approval," Mr. Morales said. "We believe in the human right to a house. The situation in the park is that homeless people will come in greater and greater numbers because they feel they have a community of support."
Julio Morales, a 39-year-old city sanitation worker who was born and grew up in the neighborhood, walked by the park with his family, trailing silvery heart-shaped helium baloons, on their way to the Ukrainian social club on Second Avenue, which he had rented for his daughter, Belinda's sweet-16 party.
"This is my neighborhood," Mr. Morales said, although he added with some regret that he now lived in Brooklyn. In 1982, he said, he had agreed to take a job in upstate New York but swiftly found that his family missed the city and then returned and tried to find a home in the Tompkins Square area.
"We came back, but we couldn't find anything because of the cost of the housing," he said. "The buildings are vacant, the apartments are vacant, but the landlords don't want anyone moving in to rent. They want them all to be condos."
How long, he was asked, had he been away from the city.
"Nine months," he said.