Category Archives: Politics

New York/Tompkins Square Park

East Village protest, 1989, Q. Sakamaki

I have to admit being astonished to see the New York Times run no fewer than eight photographs from Q. Sakamaki’s new book “Tompkins Square Park.” This is a book about the tumultuous period during the late ’80s and early ’90s in the East Village. The black and white pictures of the showdown between squatters and activists on one side and the police on the other strike me as classic examples of what so often goes wrong with photo journalism. We as viewers are thrust into the action–whether protests, violent confrontations, or rock concerts–but are given little breathing room for a more considered view of things. History becomes rendered as a series of spasmodic incidents, character types, and visual clichés.

It’s not that the things seen in Sakamaki’s photos didn’t happen, it’s that they happened to different people in different ways. The photographs and accompanying polemic do not offer the possibility of differing experiences of the same time and place.


Tompkins Square basketball courts, cold winter day, 1980
© Rose/Fausty (4×5 film)

I was a frequent user of the park in those days, playing basketball on the courts at the corner of Avenue B and 10th Street. We were a ragtag bunch of ex-high school stars, ex-college players, and even a few guys who played pro overseas. The basketball could be amazingly good at times, but ultimately nobody was tall enough, fast enough, or strong enough to escape life on the courts of Avenue B.

The players were black and latino, many from the projects nearby, with a few white guys like me thrown in. And there was the incomparable Joe Ski, his last name shortened, I think, from an unpronounceable Polish appellation. Joe had the best jump shot I’ve ever seen. Not so much because his form was mechanically perfect, but because when any game was on the line, Joe would bury the winning shot. I guarded him a lot–we were both about 6’4″–and I gave him everything I had defensively. Joe’s favorite ploy was to draw me right into his jump shot–I’d go up in the air hanging all over him 20 feet from the bucket–he barely able to glimpse the rim–and somehow, miraculously, he would bang the damn thing in and walk off the court like it was the most routine thing in the world.

There was another guy who hung out in the park in those days–his name has vanished from my brain–and he loved to watch us play basketball. I had no idea where he lived, what he did, how he survived, but I knew he wrote poetry, and he also loved to talk politics. One day we heard that our poet fan had died–of natural causes I believe–and a memorial was held on the following Saturday on the basketball court. So, we all stood there, a motley crew if there ever was one ranging from school dropouts from the projects to college grads like me. A friend read one of his poems, a starkly honest portrait of Joe Ski–a white man in a black man’s sport, too slow, not tall enough–but as magnificent a player as you’d ever see.

The basketball players were mostly disdainful of the white anarchist types who inhabited Tompkins Square Park during the late ’80s. These were guys who grew up poor, worked hard, and in some cases, had just escaped becoming another Lower East Side statistic. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s the park was often desolate, like much of the neighborhood around it. The squatters came later, after a lot of political activism had already secured buildings and gardens for the community–despite losing many battles–and acted like their cause was the only cause that mattered.


E1st Street with the Cube Building in rear, 1980
© Rose/Fausty (4×5 film)

1988, the same year as the Tompkins Square riots, I was involved in a hard fought battle to save an abandoned building on the corner of Second Avenue and E1st Street. The city had proposed selling the Cube Building, as it was known, for a dollar to a private developer. As a member of the Cooper Square Committee, a housing advocacy group, I led the effort to get city approval and state funding to rehabilitate the building for 22 formerly homeless families. It was just one project on the Lower East Side–a drop in the bucket, perhaps–but for me a concrete triumph against the forces that others ranted, often impotently, about.

We essentially suckered New York state into the deal claiming that it would cost about a million dollars to renovate the building, even though we knew it would likely take more. It ended up over 2 million dollars. But the state was eager, if not desperate, to give out funds earmarked for alleviating the mounting homeless problem, and we had a project ready to go.

I remember well the critical moment when we met with state officials in the World Trade Center for final approval of our plans, such as they were. I was both terrified and sick with stomach flu at the meeting, which ended with state commitment to fund the project. Afterwards, I rushed home in a cab, feeling elated but increasingly ill, ordered the driver to stop, jumped out and collapsed on the street, throwing up on the Bowery at Houston Street, looking like just another of the hundreds of derelicts who inhabited the area at that time.


Tompkins Square Park, jazz festival, 2007
© Brian Rose (4×5 film)

So, I cringe when I read this in the Times:

“This book focuses on Tompkins Square Park as the symbol and stronghold of the anti-gentrification movement, the scene of one of the most important political and avant-garde movements in New York history,” Mr. Sakamaki writes in an introduction.

There was no single overarching political and avant-garde movement in New York at that time. There were a great many different conflicting initiatives and struggles–there were wins and losses–and in the end, the wave of gentrification that swept over the East Village and the Lower East Side, especially after 9/11, was the result of far reaching forces extending beyond the microcosm of Tompkins Square Park that have transformed the whole city.

New York/Public Theater

Chinese take-out on Christopher Street

Last night we went to the Public Theater to see Voices in Conflict, a play created and performed by the drama class of Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut. Voices is a dramatic compilation of the words of American soldiers in Iraq and Iraqi civilians. See earlier post here.

The students’ production was banned from the school by principal Timothy Canty because, presumably, it was biased and controversial. But that was only the beginning of a story that eventually led to a triumphant performance of the play at the Public Theater, the pre-eminent Off Broadway showcase in New York. That triumph is muted, however, by several things. Bonnie Dickinson’s job as the drama teacher at Wilton remains in danger, and–the larger issue–freedom of expression in America’s schools is increasingly under threat.

Voices in Conflict began as a drama class production, but over the months as interest in the press gathered steam, the play evolved into a much more serious and well crafted project. By the time it reached the Public–after several performances in Connecticut and New York– it transcended its high school origins and became a lightening rod for those seeking a dialogue concerning the war. A number of Iraqi veterans were in the audience last night, and participated in the discussion that took place after the play ended. They, at least those present, were supportive of the students’ efforts. Also participating were Chris Durang, the playwright/actor, and Martin Garbus, the prominent First Amendment lawyer.

Unfortunately, the discussion that took place last night in New York has not been allowed to occur in Wilton High. The great dichotomy of the present is that while polls show a clear majority of Americans oppose further involvement in Iraq, those who question the war often find their patriotism impugned. What we saw last night was a demonstration of what patriotism is all about.

Update: Bonnie Dickinson, the drama teacher at Wilton High, has been cleared of all complaint charges. (June 21, 2007)

New York/Voices in Conflict

On Sunday I fetched the paper as usual, turned to the Metro section as usual, and was surprised to see a photograph of James Presson, the 16 year-old son of good friends of mine, along with two other students from Wilton High School who have created a play about Iraq told primarily through the voices and writings of soldiers and their families. The principal of the school, Timothy Canty, has blocked the production of the play, Voices in Conflict, because of the complaint of one parent, who believes the play is biased. I don’t know how the story was picked up by the Times, but given that Wilton is a well-heeled community with lots of movers and shakers in the New York area, it makes sense that something like this would filter out. The story was quickly picked up by several blogs, most notable Firedoglake, which recently dominated the coverage of the Scooter Libby perjury/obstruction of justice trial.

Jimmy, as you might well imagine, is an outstanding person, the kind of student that schools should be encouraging not quashing. He’s destined to do great things, despite weak-kneed people like Canty. I’ve been there myself–back in the early 70s–at the end of the Vietnam War when I ran for student council vice president of Walsingham Academy, a Catholic school in Williamsburg, Virginia. My views about things didn’t sit well with the principal, a nun who did not understand what was going on in the school, or the outside world for that matter, and felt threatened by outspoken students like me. Never mind the fact that I was a good student, and a starter on the basketball team. I had to be taught a lesson.

One morning the entire upper school was called into the auditorium for an unscheduled assembly. The principal and vice principal then proceeded to denounce my campaign literature as well as things I had written in the school newspaper without actually mentioning my name. This shocking vilification, which to this day wounds me deeply, went on for at least a half an hour before we were sent back to our homerooms to begin the school day. I went home that evening unable to explain or discuss things with my parents who were largely clueless about what went on at the school. However, one of my teachers, Mrs. Johnson, called and told them what at happened, and said that they should feel proud of me. Mrs. Johnson, as U.S. government and social studies teacher, instilled in me a profound respect for the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the very things that are endangered today by the criminal cabal that led us into Iraq.

It’s obvious that Jimmy Presson has lots of support, and it’s coming in from far and wide. But he still has to walk into a school where, as I understand it from him, enthusiasm is tepid. For example, the student body president said in a post on the Voices in Conflict website: In fact, there is a very large portion of the students who support the principal, since for the most part he has only helped us out with our endeavors in the past. I do not know if any of you are school administrators (I certainly am not), but you should probably respect the fact that you get a lot of critisism (sic) for your actions. If this had gone the other way, Mr. Canty probably would have been the target of the voiced opposition (the family with the son in iraq). When it comes down to it, I do not know if his call was the right one, but it was his call to make. Please don’t think that I as a president don’t care how my students feel, but I cannot simply go in favor of a militant minority as opposed to an apathetic majority.

Please support the minority.

NY Times article
(registration required/fee after two weeks)
Voices in Conflict website
Other media links listed there
Firedoglake blog discussion