Park Closing Stirs Neighborhood
Some New Yorkers reconsider community values after the city shuts a haven for the homeless
NEW YORK — POLICE state occupation - that's how the anarchists who hang around Tompkins Square Park describe the situation."Why can't you go in there?" demands Chris Flash, the editor of an occasionally published anarchist newspaper, as he straddles his bike outside the park one day this past summer. A poorly attended speakout is in progress, complete with denunciations of the police standing around. They are here to keep Mr. Flash, and just about everybody else, out of a public park. Tompkins Square is a leafy 10 acres at the center of New York's Lower East Side that was once home to perhaps 200 homeless people. The city's prohibition against sleeping overnight in parks went unheeded here, and attempts to enforce the curfew have prompted protests and riots since 1988. "It had gotten completely out of control," says Betsy Gotbaum, the city's parks commissioner. Tompkins Square "had become a place where a lot of legitimate homeless people were, but [also where] a lot of people just sort of came to because they knew they could be there, and they could put up a tent," she says. "And at that point it was so bad and we kept taking down the tents and they kept putting them up ... that some action had to be taken." That's when 200 police officers came in to close the park. The city proceeded with a planned, but speeded-up, renovation program. Keeping intruders out and stemming protests has required copious police presence, chain-link fencing, and barricades reading, "Police Line Do Not Cross." Such is the paraphernalia of oppression, claim the anarchists. But others in this community are struggling to understand what is going on in Tompkins Square. Some say the closure serves the interests of real-estate investors who want Tompkins Square to be a verdant enclave for dog-walking and reading the Sunday New York Times. Others argue that a renovated, homeless-free park will return much-needed recreation space to low-income residents. Still others feel the city's action ignored a community's unorthodox - but compassionate and generally harmonious - way of living with the homeless. What is going on in Tompkins Square Park is inextricably connected to the the long-running discussion of what to do about housing in New York. More than ever, time spent in the city is marked by unnerving encounters with public poverty. Consider a walk through a shantytown a block and a half away from Tompkins Square, where some of the park's former denizens relocated.
It's hot, and close to midday, so a half-dozen shanty dwellers sit in chairs in the shade of one of the buildings that abut the rubble-strewn lot. Inexpensive blue tarpaulins are a popular roof-covering. A fire hydrant has been uncorked. A man shaves next to it. There is a grill in the shady area and a table loaded with condiments and a box of King Vitamin cereal. A few kittens crawl around. Nearby is a monument made of found objects, ringed with stones, to a Free South Africa. One of the people sitting in the shade, a man named Isaac Huitt, walks a reporter into the middle of the street to catch the view of the World Trade Center off in the hazy distance. Mr. Huitt wants his visitor to appreciate the irony of this situation - the shantytown in the shadow of the skyscraper. He says the park was closed for the benefit of real-estate investors who want a cleaner, more tranquil Tompkins Square. "Sure they're responsible," he says. "They have ... power; they're yuppies." A bearded, fit man named only Star, who's also homeless, says he rode his bike all the way down here from midtown early this morning. ve never seen so many homeless people," he says. New York isn't a city that ignores the homeless, however. One night this month, 6,958 single men and women and 4,699 families - almost 22,000 people - slept in New York's 85 shelters and temporary-stay apartment buildings, says Earl Weber, a spokesman for the Human Resources Administration. How many avoid the notoriously unpopular shelters? "Nobody knows," he says. Advocates say the total number of homeless in the city may be as high as 100,000. "We don't dispute any figures," says Mr. Weber. It's now almost a cliche to say New York has become a third-world city. There are shanties under bridges, in vacant lots, and until recently in a public park. In one day you can easily see a dozen people matter-of-factly sorting through garbage in search of food.
CREATED in 1830 out of part of Peter Stuyvesant's estate, in the early and mid-1980s the neighborhood around Tompkins Square "was widely perceived around the planet as the hippest place to be," says Roland Legiardi-Laura, a documentary filmmaker, poet, and contractor who has lived in an apartment overlooking the park since 1978. The area's most recent heyday came about when artists and musicians moved in, willing to work around crime, drug-dealing, and burned-out buildings in exchange for cheap rent. The Lower East Side around Tompkins Square developed a "complex ecology," Mr. Legiardi-Laura says, consisting of this low-budget artistic community; working-class Eastern Europeans, Latinos, and African-Americans; homeless people; and the first young professionals attracted to the vibrancy of the neighborhood. The mix included punk- rockers with purple hair and chess-playing Ukrainian men. Then the real-estate market quickened as investors prepared for more yuppies. At the same time homeless people, many of them released from institutions, began arriving in larger numbers. Legiardi-Laura understands the frustrations caused by the homeless in Tompkins Square. "You wouldn't want to go into the park because it was depressing," he says. "You just had to confront all those sad, lost souls." But he also believes that his community "is one of the few communities that is tolerant of the homeless," and that the ecology allowed everyone to use the park, even if Tompkins Square wasn't always calm and inviting. As long as the park stays closed, and as long as "the community" can't determine how the park is used, the Lower East Side's identity - artistic, diverse, humane - is lost, he says. Legiardi-Laura's tone is measured during most of his discussion of the area's past, but at the end he gets exasperated. "You build community," he says a little angrily, and as though this is exactly what the city isn't doing, "by being a human being." Just a few blocks away, Gus Kavis looks as if he has nothing to complain about. He is the manager of Tompkins Square's Odessa Restaurant, which used to lure East Europeans with blintzes and pirogis and now just as successfully lures a black-clad crowd of young people whose jobs don't seem to have dress codes. He says bad publicity about the park - such as after a riot this May or after the larger, more violent riot of 1988, which was prompted by a police sweep of the park dwellers - always hurts business. But now the steady stream of hungry police officers easily makes up for a dip in civilian clientele. And the city's closure and renovation of Tompkins Square Park won't hurt. "What it was," says Mr. Kavis, "was an open sewer." One of his customers, halfway through eating a single pancake with strawberry topping, agrees. "It's a big improvement," this woman says, sitting at the coffee shop's counter. "Especially with the cops [around], because it deters drugs." She won't give her name but says she's been in the neighborhood for 40 years. In the Odessa, the city's explanation for closing the park As parks commissioner I can't tolerate a park becoming a camping ground or a place where other people can't go," says Ms. Gotbaum - makes sense. In fact Kavis and his customer note that the children's playgrounds, the dog walk, and the park's basketball courts are still open, even though their use is controlled by police. Asked if the only thing a person can't do in the park is pitch a tent, Kavis says with a smile, "That's it." "You're missing the point," says Antonio Pagan, a local politician who has just won the primary for a seat on New York's redesigned City Council. He has had just about enough questions about Tompkins Square, and he's just been asked one he thinks is absurd - whether the park controversy is really a debate about what constitutes "public use" in tough economic times. "Poor and working people have not had access to that park," he argues, and asserts that any suggestion that Lower East Siders have some sort of special "tolerance" for the homeless is "racist, classist" hypocrisy. The city successfully keeps the homeless from living in other public parks, he says, so why should "a poor, working-class neighborhood ... serve as the burning torch of homelessness for the city of New York?" AND what of the children of the Lower East Side? Mr. Pagan asks. Why should they be subjected to scenes of violence and despair and, under their feet, "needles, vials, bottles, and newspapers with feces?" "I don't want these people to be living out there in the park and I don't think anyone does," says the Rev. Robert Wollenburg, pastor of Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Church, just off Tompkins Square. His parish gives out more than 300 meals a day five days a week and runs a pantry for elderly people in the area. But, he says in a tone that conveys that he's said this before, the "issue is the lack of housing and adequate shelter." The city should leave the homeless of Tompkins Square alone, "unless you can offer them a better alternative." Parks commissioner Gotbaum says city officials put on an intensive outreach effort during the park closure operation to bring the homeless into shelters and counseling. But Wollenburg has heard too many "horror stories" about city shelters to find the outreach satisfactory. Many homeless people simply migrated to other neighborhoods or into the two vacant-lot shantytowns near the park, he says. George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit service agency that provides homeless people with housing and job training, says 75 percent of the people who lived in Tompkins Square need single-room occupancy housing and jobs. Outreach or no, "that's not easy to provide," he says. Mr. McDonald supported the closure of the park because it was no solution to homelessness, he says. In any case, he says, there's nothing new in an action like the park closure - it is simply part of the constant "displacement" of the homeless. It's past eight o'clock at night, but McDonald is still on the phone in his office. "Every year," he says, "more and more people are living everywhere." Wollenburg says the closure and "renovation" of Tompkins Square Park result from the city's desire to gentrify the area. The idea is to create a park that's "nice and clean and tidy," he says with an edge in his voice, so that young professionals "can choose from any one of a million benches." Will it work, when the park reopens next year? "If the city thinks its going to create a nice pretty, prissy, little park, I think they're nuts," says the pastor.