Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side

The Tompkins Square Riots

"WHAT IS THE CONCEPT?" a woman's voice cut in.

"He just explained it to you," another yelled.

"Do it again!" a woman said. And people are talking about it all over. Did Gandhi really say you could fight back? Should we have gone on the offensive outside the precinct building? The conflict carried outside the church, and it won't fade away.

These have been rock and roll riots, even before Stephan Prophet, the singer from False Prophets, got dragged away by the cops last Saturday. It's just that rawness and the whiff of explosiveness among some of the participants, that worries older activists. Valerio Orselli is a housing activist on the Lower East Side, and director of the Cooper Square Committee. He talks about many of the younger activists with undisguised bitterness. "I think it's right issue, wrong people. The park has traditionally been kept open, and it makes no sense to close the park in the hottest summer in 20, 30 years. But these people belong much more to the lunatic fringe than to any organization fighting gentrification. They are largely all white and young. They look like retreads of the hippies from the '60s, but they don't have the politics."

Tactics like breaking up Community Board 3 meetings with fistfights and police whistles have made them their share of enemies. But their politics aren't those of the hippies. What may be happening around Tompkins Square Park right now is a merging of '60s concerns—the fight for "adventure, play, fulfillment," with the fight for '80s concerns—food, shelter, and clothing. Many of the people who came to the Lower East Side were drawn to the idea of living some kind alternative, as Tom Ward says, only to end up, thanks to gentrification, learning they could easily wind up flopping in the park. The question comes back: who are the outsiders in the neighborhood? The illustrator in a 6th Street squat, any more than the rock star in the Christodora? That Avenue B building focuses people's anger. "If I lived in the Christodora, I'd be looking to sell my apartment long about now," said Josh Whalen. "It's not safe to own a co-op on the Lower East Side anymore."

And it's never been safe to sleep on a park bench. Squat by squat, homeless person by homeless person, the city's picking people off in the neighborhood. Suddenly, after the riot, that becomes a little harder.

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