History of Tompkins Square Park Featured at Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) Film Festival Sunday, August 4th; Festival Runs August 3-10


Tompkins Square Park

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space(MoRUS) on the Lower East Side will be presenting a week-long film festival, with films screened at their Avenue C space and at nearby community gardens, evenings beginning tomorrow, Saturday, August 3rd.

On Sunday, August 4th, the 1992 Paper Tiger TV film, Tompkins Square Park: Operation Class War on the Lower East Side will be shown. They say it is “not to be missed by any New York City history buff, affordable housing advocate or social justice-minded citizen.”

About the film:

This dynamic and captivating documentary-style production pieces together the unofficial story behind the Riot of ’88 and reveals the ugly side of forced gentrification in New York City. The production traces the transformation of Tompkins Square Park from being a tent city for homeless people and bastion of free expression for artists, bohemians, rebels and crazies, to becoming a central battleground in the fiercely contested class war over the Lower East Side; to a riot scene complete with burning trash cans and unwarranted police violence; to an empty, fenced-in wasteland; and finally, to the safe and sterile environment it is today. The production features passionate interviews with people who made their home in Tompkins Square Park in the 80’s and those that defended their right to do so, as well as guerilla footage from the riots, rallies and protests that occurred in and around the park. It also includes analysis of the political and press environments that allowed the city government’s seizure of the park.

About the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space:

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) preserves the rich history of grassroots movements in New York City’s East Village and showcases the unique public spaces for which the neighborhood is renowned. It is located in the storefront of a historic building in the East Village, C-Squat. Over the last forty years, East Village community members and local organizations have come together to transform abandoned buildings and vacant lots into vibrant living spaces and thriving community gardens.

It seems like Washington Square Park is now going through a milder, more nuanced version of what Tompkins Square Park went through. The Lower East Side became less affordable more recently. The area surrounding Washington Square Park has been expensive on the whole for awhile now. The fact that Tompkins Square Park has had ‘radicals’ surrounding its immediate environs benefitted that park and the neighborhood. The park has played an important role in how the neighborhood developed and people banded together to try to preserve something there they felt was important. Whether that ultimately ‘worked’ (go see the film!) becomes less important because other things came out of that bonded experience.

Previously, on the Lower East Side, people could live reasonably well (tho’ not extravagantly) or scrape by well enough and were able to put forth ideals — and live those ideals. These people didn’t have to work corporate jobs in finance or banking or hold five gigs at a time or have twenty roommates just to survive in the area. Being surrounded by people with unique and collective ideas benefited Tompkins Square Park – and the neighborhood – for a long, long time. And still does, the people keep it going because somehow not everyone has been forced out due to landlords raising rents exorbitantly, and via the existence of places like the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, the community gardens, etc. I hope they can hold on to that long enough, survive the Bloomberg era, and not let it get gobbled up and homogenized like so much else. This is an important part of NYC and people’s history.

In the central Village, radical may have a different meaning today; it is perhaps more ‘liberal’? There is certainly creativity and grittiness (somewhere?), but, this, like in most of the city, is increasingly at risk. And people still put up a good fight. But there aren’t squats (to my knowledge) and the radical history tours are going back to the ’60s, not the ’80s and ’90s. Anyway, Washington Square Park hasn’t had riots — other than the Folk Riot in 1951 (I think that was the only one?) — yet the park is having its own “city government seizure of the park” via a forced redesign and a forced private conservancy (which says it isn’t one).

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Tompkins Square Park: Operation Class War on the Lower East Side will be shown Sunday, August 4th at the MoRUS space, 155 Avenue C between E. 9th and E. 10th Streets.

The MoRUS film festival runs from Saturday, August 3rd through Saturday, August 10th. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and films screen at dusk. $5 suggested admission. 

They have some amazing walking tours! Seem worth checking out.

Film festival full schedule can be viewed here.

Previously at WSP Blog: Book on Tompkins Square Park; Corresponding NY Times’ story: “East Village, Before the Gentry” August 5, 2008

Photo: Q. Sakamaki

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