At Tompkins Square Park in the heart of the East Village, protests and disputes are nothing new. In August of 1988, police implemented a curfew as an effort to combat the homeless, squatters, pushers, punks, and youth who had taken over the park, resulting in two days of violent confrontation between the two groups, and was one of the earlier efforts at gentrifying the neighborhood home to artists, hippies, and anarchists. These two days later became known as the Tompkins Square Riots, and inspired movements in years to come including those of squatters in 90s Berlin and Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
30 years later in 2019, skateboarders in the northwest corner of the park on a plot of asphalt face a problem of their own after the Parks and Recreation department announced the decision to replace this hallowed skate grounds with astroturf to serve baseball and softball players. Immediately faced with backlash and protest by local skaters and those in the community supportive of keeping the skate park, the city discontinued the plans, many thanks to a petition amassing over 30,000 signatures led by skater and Tompkins regular, Adam Zhu.
T: Introduce yourself. What does Tompkins mean to you?
A: My name’s Adam Zhu. I grew up in the East Village on 12th street just a few blocks from Tompkins. Tompkins has always been kinda like a home base for me. When I was around 10 or so, I started skateboarding and Tompkins was where I was introduced to my community and created lasting friendships and connections that stuck with me till now, and it’s like a stronghold, the real identity of the neighborhood, like the East Village that I grew up in which is changing rapidly so it's kind of like the last bastion of authenticity in the neighborhood and represents the values that the community was founded on. It's basically a place where people can come and be themselves and express themselves and meet like-minded people.
T: Describe the community at Tompkins
A: I would say that the fabric of the identity of the neighborhood is represented in Tompkins and East Village has historically been a neighborhood of artists and misfits and punks and poets. Tompkins is definitely a gathering place for outcasts and you know definitely like a place as far as like the younger crowd like the teenagers that hang out there are generally more outcasts or people at risk. There's always been a counter-culture tied to the park in the punk community or the skating community or you know the gay-trans community and there's always been a history of protests and kind of counter-culture there. I would say it’s basically a place where freaks and weirdos can be themselves and it’s always been a place for people who don’t belong in more traditional settings.
More of this interview available in print Jai Street Vol. 1 Magazine