Having a Riot at Tompkins Square


In 1986, when the photographer Q. Sakamaki moved to the East Village from Japan, his street could get very noisy—guys acting as lookouts for drug dealers would yell when the cops were approaching, not to mention the occasional barrage of gunfire to interrupt a sound sleep. Two decades later, it’s still noisy, “but now it’s people hanging out at bars,” Sakamaki tells me. “My street now, East 4th Street, is a super-hot place—there are even traffic jams.”

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riots, and I’m sitting at the Pick Me Up Café on East 9th and Avenue A with Sakamaki, who has just published Tompkins Square Park, a book of his stunning photographs of the neighborhood from those days of revolutionary mayhem. It’s a beautiful afternoon, and the café, though artfully time-worn and downmarket, is full of fresh faces, a far cry from the louche denizens of these streets in the years when Sakamaki first lived here.

Was he at the notorious police riot of August 6, 1988, when the city moved to close the park at 1 a.m., and a group of anarchists, squatters, homeless people, and other East Villagers fought back? “No, I came home late that night. I was hanging out with fashion people, clients from Japan. I heard the helicopters, but I thought it was just some criminal activity, or maybe a homicide. Back then, every weekend there were shootings. I saw bodies in the street.”

Sounds delightful, Q.! So, why did you want to live here, anyway? “In the middle ’80s, it was so hip! The underground subculture—that’s why I came! More art, more music—it attracted lots of people. So many things in the ’80s were so free. Freedom—we were in control of our dreams! Now it looks like a materialistic area, very similar to Japan. We lost something. For me, it’s very sad.”

When he wasn’t shooting his disarming portraits of the community, Sakamaki was hanging out in nightclubs. “The Pyramid on Avenue A, underground clubs in the meat market—black, fashion, gay scenes. But the clubs weren’t mixed—it was total segregation, not a melting pot. But as a Japanese, I could go anywhere! “

While Sakamaki, like any other sane person, is happy that there isn’t blood running in the streets anymore, he admits a bit wistfully that “I prefer the old days—maybe I’ve lived too long here. I used to love to wake up, and be so happy to bring my camera out with me and think, ‘I want to shoot more landscapes of the Lower East Side,’ even though it was easy to be mugged—even killed. Now it’s no problem, but it’s a different feeling. On the other hand, people who have been here longer than me say, ‘Oh, the ’60s! It was much better then!’ “

Does he think the neighborhood still holds any power over the imaginations of young people? “Oh yes, they still want to have adventures! It still represents a cool place. In their minds, it’s a romantic place, like Paris in the ’20s and ’30s.” As someone who wanders the Boul’ Mich looking for Anaïs Nin and Gerald Murphy, I know just what he’s talking about.

We finish our coffee and walk out onto Avenue A, where Sakamaki points out the site of the Pakistani deli that was torched by demonstrators during the Memorial Day riot of 1991, a hideous act that coincided with the closing of the park for over a year. “The police would shut the street between 6th Street and 9th Street, and everyone would hang out, drinking beer—almost like a party,” Sakamaki remembers. “They would arrest people even for just drumming on a garbage can.”

We go our separate ways, and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the park to see if any traces of the old days exist—or whether there’s anything new that’s even a little captivating. I pass Blue, which despite its shabby appearance I happen to know sells expensive wedding dresses, because a friend made me go with her once when she tried these things on—a harrowing experience. (What’s with all these bridal shops popping up in the East Village anyway? By what weird calculus have these formerly bohemian byways become Wedding Gown Central?) I’m happy to see that at 113 Avenue A, the strikingly fetid candy store is still open for business. And here is Vazac’s on the corner of East 7th and Avenue B (a/k/a Horseshoe Bar and 7B), which the producers of the Rent movie pretended was the Life Café because the real Life Café, a few blocks north, was deemed insufficiently squalid.

Across the street, a fancy store named Amaran has a stone statue of the Buddha marked down from $889 to $689 (though, to be fair, silk pillows are only $39). At East 8th Street, the former home of the 1926 Talmud Torah Darche Noam (it’s carved over the door) now houses, among other tenants, Ashtanga Yoga Shala—a testament to the varieties of religious experience. On the corner of East 9th—also called Armando Perez Place for the late Puerto Rican community activist who was murdered in 1999—the infamous co-op Christadora House, a detested symbol of gentrification, stands its ground. (I went to a party in an apartment here once, and I must say it had a lovely view.) Up the street, not one but two plaques honor the home of 1950s bebop icon Charlie Parker, a hipster who no doubt would have been appalled by the neighborhood in the 1960s.

I round the corner and pass the Life Café, where the gratingly cheerful awning reads: “More than good food, enjoy life every day,” and a sign invites Rentheads to explain why they love Rent to a video camera. East 10th is mostly residential, and the locals certainly have strong views: In one window, a tenant has placed a picture of the president with the word “Thug” (like 90 percent of Americans—who live far from the East Village—don’t agree with this by now?). Further down the block, a sign says: “Farm animals have feelings too!” (Maybe they do, but so what?)

At 147 Avenue A, the former headquarters of the East Village Other—a salty underground newspaper of the hippie era—is now occupied by a store where you can purchase “Respect Your Mother” tote bags (Earth, get it?), 100 percent unbleached coffee filters from a company called If You Care, and even an indoor-composting worm bin for $65. (I mean, I’ll buy anything, but really. . . .)

I’m happy to report that—carbon footprint be damned—on this steamy day, the shop has the A/C going full-blast.

I decide to take a peek in the park itself before heading home. Lucky for me, it’s early, since a sign on the gates lists a raft of forbidden activities, including rummaging through trash bins—like anyone does this by choice?—along with the news that the park closes at midnight, or a whole hour sooner than the 1 a.m. curfew the community so bitterly resisted 20 years ago this week.