Tompkins Square Park has been a symbol of social unrest and alternative lifestyles since it opened in 1850 – it was reportedly remodeled in 1936 better to divide and manage crowds that gathered here to protest. The park was an infamous gathering place for hippies and runaways in the 1960s. By the 1980s it was a no-go zone of violent crime and drug- dealing, and became a focal point for conflicts between homeless activists and police. Attempts to oust them in 1988 sparked a two-day riot. With the area’s gradual gentrification, today’s Tompkins Square Park is an altogether more peaceful place: young professionals, families, students, and seniors come here to sit on park benches, enjoy arts festivals, or play on the basketball courts or playgrounds.
One of the main draws of the park is the large dog run, complete with bathing areas, where apartment-bound dogs of all breeds and sizes are let off the leash by their owners to scamp around and maybe get a hose down. Look up and take in the rare sight of dozens of American Elms, among the few elm trees in the country not wiped out by Dutch Elm disease.
Every year around Labor Day, crowds pack the park for the Howl! Arts Festival inspired by former East Village resident Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem. The highlight is the drag queen festival Wigstock. The weekend before, the park celebrates another former resident with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival: two days of free concerts. Park-goers also enjoy classic French films at sunset each Friday night in June and July.
For some live jazz, French food and crisp oysters, neighborhood nightspot Jules Bistro is worth knowing about.