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Sunday, August 06, 2006

On This Day 1988

August 6 was the day in history that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The plane that flew it was the Enola Gay - which was memorialized in song during the pots-punk era by the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. 1988 was my first summer as a resident of NYC. It goes down in history as not only one of the hottest summers of the 20th Century (duly noted in the newspaper headlines used in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" which was set in 1988) but is also the summer of infamous Tompkins Square Park Police Riots.

Tompkins Square Park had become synonymous with the city's increased social problems. It was a high-crime area with encampments of homeless people, and it was a center for illegal drug dealing and heroin use.

In August 1988, a police riot erupted in the park when police attempted to clear the park of homeless people; 44 people were injured. Bystanders as well as homeless people and political activists got caught up in the police action that took place on the night of August 6 and the early morning of August 7, after a large number of police surrounded the park and charged at the crowd while other police ordered all pedestrians not to walk on streets neighboring the park. Much of the violence was videotaped and clips were shown on local TV news reports (notably including one by a man who sat on his stoop across the street from the park and continued to film while a police officer beat him up), but ultimately, although at least one case went to trial, no police officers were punished. Notable in the riots were that the police officers covered their badge numbers so that the abusers could not be tracked down, a practice that continued for many years to come.

These are San Francisco cops...When I took this photo, they were preparing for a potential riot at the beginning of Gulf War 2 in 2003... but the riots never materialized in San Francisco. Maybe that's why they're joking around.

Increasing gentrification in the East Village during the 1990s and 2000s, as well as enforcement of a park curfew and the eviction of homeless people, have changed the character of Tompkins Square Park. The park was closed and refurbished in the early 1990s and today, with its playgrounds and basketball courts, handball courts and outdoor chess boards, the park attracts young families, students and seniors as well as tourists from all over the globe.

The outdoor drag festival Wigstock, which was held in the park until the mid 90s before it moved to the West Side piers, is now part of the Howl Festival. Howl Festival also features one day of the two days of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, a musical tribute to a famous former resident of Avenue B. There is also an annual "Riot Reunion" concert every summer that features the neighborhood punk-rock bands.

I was in the park with a friend not 15 minutes before the riots started. We were completely surprised when we came home and turned on the news and saw footage of the riot! It reminded me in a way of the Elks Lodge riot in LA Punk (1979) and of the homeless tent cities in LA in the late 80s.

In LA Punk days, the police seemed to also take great glee in beating people up for just hanging out. At that Elks Lodge concert, only the Go-Go's were able to play before the festivities were shut down. They were the first band.

Belinda, Pleasant and Wyline

Tompkins Square Park was always a haven for the disposessed, but the gentrification was not without its strange anomalies. The Christadora House an apartment building on the corner of Avenue B and 10th Street had at least one resident who was respected by the punks: Iggy Pop. Also, television's "Bewitched" star, Elizabeth Montgomery owned an apartment there...

Tompkins Square Park is unrecognizable to me compared to its 1988 self. No longer an affordable place to live, it is still a favorite haunt for young people, hipsters and hiptards, punks and yuppies alike.


That's postmodernism for ya.

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