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TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK REOPENS AMID TENSIONS
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
The New York Times on August 26, 1992
In a test of the Dinkins administration's determination to keep homeless people from overwhelming public spaces, New York City reopened Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side yesterday, hoping that a new curfew and a $2.1 million renovation will return the park to the neighborhood.
But even as city officials tried to celebrate a new era for the 158-year-old park, the tensions that have long plagued it burst to the surface.
Despite a heavy police presence, about 150 people remained in the park past a midnight curfew, including three men who had climbed into trees and were arrested, the police said. The rest of those who remained were horded out by officers by 12:30 A.M., but at least 11 others were arrested on misdemeanor charges, parks officials said. Confrontations between the officers and protesters, many of whom were shouting obscenities, spilled into the surrounding neighborhood.
Angered by the midnight curfew, some neighborhood residents shouted down Mayor David N. Dinkins earlier in the day, preventing him from delivering his prepared remarks at the opening ceremony.
"It is unfortunate that the children can't enjoy this park as they should because of a few people who think this is the way to behave," Mr. Dinkins said as he was taunted.
And some homeless people said they would try to sleep in the newly landscaped park, as they did until June 3, 1991, when the police demolished a sprawling shantytown and closed most of it.
"I am very angry," said Peter Levasseur, a 38-year-old photographer's assistant who tried to drown out the Mayor's speech with shouts of "Dinkins Go Home!" Mr. Levasseur added: "This is a poor neighborhood where people don't have front yards, backyards or a place in the Hamptons. They've taken away an important place where people can go late at night."
But Mayor Dinkins and the Parks Commissioner, Betsy Gotbaum, indicated that they would do whatever necessary to insure that the curfew held and that the park did not return to its former state. Before it was closed, many residents avoided the park because it was strewn with litter and cluttered with drug dealers and homeless people. The police and the Parks Department say they will step up their presence at the park in the coming weeks, particularly before closing time.
"This park is not going to be a campground again," Ms. Gotbaum said. "This is not going to become a place to live." Point of Contention
Asked what would happen to homeless people who are evicted, she replied: "The park has been closed for a year. Where have these homeless people been living? Where they go between midnight and 6 -- I don't mean to be cold-hearted, but I don't have social workers. We don't want to be providing social services in a park."
Tompkins Square Park has long been a point of contention for a neighborhood shaped by an odd mingling of artists, working-class families, professionals, self-styled anarchists and others who often squat in abandoned tenements. Over the last few years, the police have clashed repeatedly with many radicals and homeless people in a struggle over the park.
The worst disturbance flared in the summer of 1988 when hundreds of demonstrators battled police officers who were trying to halt late-night noise and rowdy behavior in the park. Dozens were injured and many filed complaints of police brutality.
Last year, the police evicted about 200 homeless people to make way for the renovation, which had been planned since the early 1980's. The Parks Department fenced off 6.5 acres of land, leaving the playgrounds and basketball courts open.
Ms. Gotbaum said the Parks Department adhered to the park's original design as it replaced the drainage system, repaved the sidewalks, sculpted the lawns and trees and installed new water fountains, benches and tables etched with chess boards. The most significant change is the removal of the band shell, which city officials say had long been a haven for the homeless and drug dealers.
After the homeless people were evicted from the park, some moved to abandoned tenements on East Fifth and East Sixth Streets. It was unclear yesterday how many would return, since the park, which is bounded by Avenue A, Avenue B, Seventh Street and 10th Street, was reopened with little publicity.
Most neighborhood residents who strolled through the park yesterday praised the renovation. Even those enraged by the curfew and the city's policy toward the homeless said they were relieved that the Lower East Side once again had a patch of greenery. But many people also said they thought the battle would begin anew.
"The homeless people have been betrayed," said Robert Lee Marion, 51, as he entered the park for the first time since he was evicted last year. Mr. Marion said he would soon try to spend the night in the park.
Clayton Patterson, 44 years old, a documentary film maker, criticized the Parks Department for removing the band shell.
"The band shell was a soapbox for the neighborhood," he said. "People could come down and express themselves. To tear it down -- that tells you what they think of unity."
"The curfew is unfortunate, but it seems like that's the only way to prevent people from setting up the tents," said Anita Csorgo, 34, who was watching her nephew, Daniel.