From swamp land, to public square, to military parade ground, to city park, the lot that is now Tompkins Square Park has a long and varied history. The park is bounded on the north by East 10th Street, on the east by Avenue B, on the south by East 7th Street, and on the west by Avenue A. St. Marks Place abuts the park to the west.
Originally located on land belonging to Peter Stuyvesant, this site was eventually acquired by Daniel D. Tompkins, who served as Governor of New York from 1807 to 1817 and as Vice President of the United States under James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. The park is named for Tompkins. The land was bought by the City in 1834, at which point it was drained, planted, and turned into a public square. The park served as a parade ground for several decades, and in 1878 The New York State Legislature designated the square as a public park. It was redesigned the following year by Julius Munckwitz…
Historically, Tompkins Square Park has been a place of political dissent. Several demonstrations, including the 1857 “bread riot,” took place in the pre-Civil War era. Much later, in the late 1980s, the park erupted in a series of local riots as the city attempted to enforce a curfew to control the park’s use by the homeless, squatters, drug dealers, and drug users. The community was heavily divided over the riots, and in 1991, the park was closed for a renovation that evicted a large homeless population.
On January 13, 1874 an estimated 10,000 workers gathered in Tompkins Square Park, including 1,200 members of the German Workingmen’s Association, to peacefully demonstrate for the creation of a public works program to create jobs. Without the organizers’ knowledge, their permit to assemble in the park had been revoked, and they faced 1,600 policemen who brutally dispersed the crowd. After the police attacked the demonstrators, one man defiantly marched through the park waving a red flag while singing La Marsellaise and was quickly arrested.
The Slocum Memorial Fountain on the north side of the park commemorates the General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904. This disaster was the greatest single loss of life in New York City prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Over a thousand people, mainly German immigrant mothers and children, drowned in the East River that day. The area near the park, formerly known as Kleindeutschland, effectively dissolved in grief as shattered German families moved away.
On July 26th 1969, the Young Lords announced the founding of the their New York chapter in the park. The Young Lords were a Puerto Rican political and social action organization that was active in many United States cities, most notably New York City and Chicago. Though they began as a turf gang in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1960, they had reorganized into a civil and human rights movement by the mid-1960’s, led by Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez. Puerto Rican self-determination and the displacement of Puerto Ricans and poor residents from prime real estate areas for profit became the primary focus of the original movement. In New York, they worked to clean up the streets and called for neighborhood empowerment and community control while linking their struggle to international movements and one of their primary missions to liberate Puerto Rico from the United States.
Tompkins Square Park was the original location of the annual Wigstock Festival. Created in 1984 by Lady Bunny, Wigstock was an outdoor drag festival held each year on Labor Day to act as the unofficial end of summer for the gay community in New York City. It began when a group of drag queens from the nearby Pyramid Club performed a spontaneous drag show in the park. Crowds grew each year, and the festival moved, first to Union Square Park, then to the piers on the Hudson River. Though Lady Bunny said that the 2001 festival would be the last, it returned in 2003 under the auspices of the Howl Festival.
The park has been redesigned many times and has included many elements, such as a bandshell, handball courts, and horseshoe fields. The park is currently designed with wide lanes, planting beds, several playgrounds, and a large dog run. The park features monuments which speak to the history of the surrounding neighborhood, including the Temperance Memorial Fountain (1888), the Samuel S. Cox monument (1891), the Slocum Memorial Fountain (1906), and the Ukrainian-American Flagstaff (1942).
Block : 403 / Lot : 000 / Building Date : 1834 / Original Owner : New York City / Original Use : Institutional / Original Architect : Julius Munckwitz