Tompkins Square Park is an inexplicably quiet place – save for the squeals of children on one of the playgrounds, or the bark of a dog. Surrounded by brick buildings of no more then ten or so stories, sits this open urban green space – an idyllic three-square-block getaway from the rush of the city which surrounds it.
Located between Aves. A and B and 7th and 10th Sts., Tompkins Square Park serves as the heart of Alphabet City – the aptly named blocks of lettered avenues (as opposed to numbered avenues) east of 1st Ave. in the heart of the East Village – Greenwich Village’s trendier neighbor to the east.
The East Village has changed a lot in recent decades. A quick google search of “Tompkins Square Park riot” on your computer will produce search suggestions of three separate incidents of unrest in the park, in 1874, 1988, and 1991.
The late 1980’s were a particularly tumultuous time in the neighborhood’s history, when it was plagued by homelessness and drug abuse.
In the bitter cold before Christmas in 1989, in the dying days of the Ed Koch administration, the NYPD, FDNY, and Parks Department expelled dozens of homeless people residing in Tompkins Square Park in a makeshift tent city, according to a 1989 New York Times article. The raid was met with resistance by the tent city residents, who burned their tents in defiance. The article described an “acrid smoke” hanging over the park after the raid, which was sparked by community residents who grew weary of the tent city – which had become a hotbed of drug use and prostitution.
Tompkins Square Park is much tamer today. Fresh produce is now being sold where hard drugs once were (there’s a weekend farmer’s market in the southwest corner). The homeless population is diminished, children frolic and play on several playgrounds in the park, and well-groomed, leashed dogs abound.
Across Avenue B from Tompkins Square is St. Brigid’s Church, a grand, imposing structure with two thick steeples piercing the sky.
9th St., just west of the park, is lined on either side with artisan boutiques, coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants.
The East Village has, in recent years, become a mecca of community gardening. La Plaza Cultural, which is located at the corner of Ave. C and 9th St., is one of several gardens in the area. Fenced in by a tall, rusted chain-link fence adorned by beer and soda cans cut into flower shapes, La Plaza Cultural has a homey yet urban charm. The snow remains unshoveled, the patio furniture is flimsy and cheap, and the decorations are homemade and full of heart.
Le Petit Versailles, another garden located in the south end of the neighborhood at 2nd St. and Ave. C, is especially cramped, sandwiched in a narrow alley between two brick buildings.
Along the East Village’s boundary with the Lower East Side on Houston St., the traffic is loud and the calm of the heart of the East Village is no more. The new World Trade Center, Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges bounce in and out of the line of sight between the buildings.
There are several New York classics along Houston St., including Katz’s Delicatessen, and Russ & Daughters Appetizers.
The western side of the East Village is far more commercial. Near Cooper Union, the prestigious art and engineering college, is a huge K-mart, several bodegas and chain stores.
The western side of the East Village is also home to some outposts of New York University’s far-flung campus, and the area has a commercial, yet academic feel.
Just east of Cooper Square, on 7th St., is McSorley’s Old Ale House, a time capsule tavern dating back to 1854. McSorley’s claims for itself (though not without dispute) the title of oldest bar in the five boroughs, according to a New York Post article.
McSorley’s has certainly had its fair share of notable patrons. Legend has it that after delivering a rousing anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union in 1860 (which is just a stone’s throw from the pub), soon-to-be-elected President Abraham Lincoln unwound with an ale at McSorley’s, according to Examiner.com.
South on the Bowery from Cooper, NYU, and McSorley’s, between 1st and 2nd Sts., is John Varvatos, a high-end clothing store located at 315 Bowery – the space vacated in 2006 by CBGB.
CBGB was a famed rock and roll club that operated from 1973 to 2006 and was influential in the punk rock movement, according to a Daily News article.
In 1974, CBGB hosted the eminent punk-rock group the Ramones, in their first of 2,263 performances worldwide during their 22 year touring period, according to the article.
The evolution of the space at 315 Bowery mirrors the transition of the neighborhood at large. Once a rough-and-tumble area popularly characterized by sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, the East Village now stands as a neighborhood populated by artisans and families.
Vestiges of the East Village of yesterday still remain still remain in the East Village of today however, even if only in tribute.
Across from CBGB, next to an upscale café down Bleecker St., is a giant mural commemorating legendary rock-and-roller Joey Ramone of the Ramones, which was painted just last fall, according to the Daily News article.
Perhaps a more fitting tribute – a street sign – hangs a half-block north on the Bowery, at the corner of 2nd St. Twisted, bent, slightly rusted, and hanging on a poster-covered lamppost above a high-end Italian restaurant, it reads “JOEY RAMONE PLACE.”