The Village Green: A Big City’s Small-Town Vibe

By Marjorie Ingall

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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A couple of years ago, I got stuck on the M14 crosstown bus at rush hour. This is because I am an idiot. But it gave me ample time to chat with my seatmate, an elderly Jewish woman who, as it turns out, had lived on my street as a child. She laughed out loud when I told her where I lived. “My family worked so hard to get out of that neighborhood!” she said, referring to the days when the East Village and Lower East Side were populated by poor Jewish immigrants.. “And young Jewish people like you want to go back?”

Well, yes.

New Yorkers, as well as regular Americans, often ask why on earth we choose to live where we do, especially with a kid. Sometimes they say confidently, “Oh, you’ll move when you have another child,” or “Well, you’ll move when she starts school.” Thank you, Helpy Helperton, but I hope not. I can’t predict where we’ll be financially or emotionally in five years, but I’ll do everything possible to stay right here. I love my nabe, and I think it’s a great place to raise a child. Because it really is a village.

You want proof? Here’s what we did this past Sunday. I pushed Josie’s stroller over to the farmers’ market near Tompkins Square Park, and the tomato guy who always appears out of nowhere appeared out of nowhere to give Josie a whole sliced tomato and several pieces of apple. Over by the table of fresh-baked breads, we ran into Josie’s little friend Maxwell, schluffing in his stroller. We chatted with his parents and cooed over his brand-new baby brother, Ethan, who was snuggled in his black organic cotton New Native baby sling on his mom’s hip. Munching on our apple slices, Jojo and I continued along Avenue A, waved to our wee friend Samara, who was heading home for her nap, then entered the cool, leafy Tompkins Square Park. We said hello to some canine New Yorkers, then I lifted the big iron latch to the playground. I released Josie from her stroller prison, and she began running in circles, bellowing, “Run around! Run around!” Her best friend, Raphael, was in San Francisco for a gay wedding, but luckily, Bijoux was there. She had a lot of chalk. Josie soon settled down with her, and the two of them worked hard and semi-successfully on sharing. I chatted with Bijoux’s mom while Josie periodically interrupted me with illustration-related commands (“Draw grouchy ladybug! Draw big circle! Little one! ’Nother little one! Draw camel! Draw Sophie!”). Bijoux’s mom told me her daughter had gotten into the Neighborhood School, an excellent public school a block from our house.

Suddenly, Eric and Olivia ran over. Olivia (age 4) yelled, “We went to the Adirondacks, and I peed in the sand!” We all walked deeper into the park, past the basketball courts, past the pink marble General Slocum monument and into the vast, misty sprinkler park, where the other kids splashed around and Josie screamed in mortal terror. Then it was naptime, so we headed home. We stopped to get organic milk at the corner deli, where Josie yelled, “Hello, Prakash!” to the owner. He sometimes gives her a chocolate-covered cherry, but alas, not this time. (“No present!”) We picked up the dry-cleaning from the shop where they made me a crib bumper as a baby gift and wouldn’t accept any money, then strolled past the psychic. Josie looked at her and said, “Lady needs a time out!” (Translation: The psychic accidentally sprayed Josie and her babysitter with her hose when she was cleaning the sidewalk last week.) We rolled on. Josie admired the line of Hells Angels’ motorcycles, then looked toward a neighboring stoop for her little pal Remington (“No Remy today!”). But the Arab thrift-store guy and the Rastas hanging out in front of Jammyland all waved hi, and we went bump-bump-bump up the stoop and in for naptime.

I love my home because of this quotidian stuff. Mostly I love the people, but I also love the place. And if the East Village is a living organism — and it is — then Tompkins Square Park is its heart. The park is where we meet other parents, where our kids get their ya-yas out, where dogs and babies and homeless people and gutter punks and old Ukrainian ladies and Puerto Rican guys riding bicycles with boom boxes on them all agree to coexist.

Our park was born in the 1830s, named for Daniel D. Tompkins, New York’s slavery-abolishing governor from 1807 to 1817. Since the East Village has always been a community of new immigrants, workers and rabble-rousers, it’s not surprising that its park hosted protests against hunger and against the draft back in the 1850s and 1860s. In part because of all the unrest, the park was leveled in 1866 and turned into a military parade ground. Neighborhood activists got the park returned to the people by 1879, and playgrounds and gym buildings were soon added. As ever, different ethnic groups moved into the area, then moved on; in the 1960s, the newcomers were the counterculturists. In 1966, a new bandshell hosted concerts by Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, and an old elm tree became the site of the Hare Krishnas’ first outdoor chanting ceremony outside India. (The event was attended by Allen Ginsberg, among others.) The tree’s still there and is now sacred to the Hare Krishnas. In 1985, the bandshell was the launching point for Wigstock, a drag celebration that became an annual event, with as many as 25,000 revelers. And as homelessness became rampant in the 1980s, the park was the site of a famous police riot; cops with pieces of tape hiding their badge numbers evicted hundreds and injured dozens.

Today, the park is clean and safe. There’s little evidence of the drug trade that once thrived there. The shantytowns are all gone. Of course, gentrification is always a double-edged sword; I feel badly for the people who lost their haven, but I’m so glad we have ours. And by “we,” I don’t mean yuppie Jewish columnists; I mean all the different people who love Tompkins Square Park and treat it as their backyard, their urban oasis, their village green. I think the lady from the M14 bus would love it too. If only she’d come back.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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