Tompkins Square Park was for many years the largest open space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Built in the 1830s to spark development in the Dry Dock neighborhood, which was home to a pre-Civil War shipbuilding industry, the park was a meeting place for workers and activists who would gather there to march on City Hall or Union Square. In 1894, Tompkins became one of the first city parks to host a children’s playground, and in 1936 New Deal funding led to a total renovation to further accommodate play and recreation. The Fifties saw the park decline amid concerns over rising crime and spreading heroin use. A 1966 makeover introduced a band shell just in time for the rise of the East Village: then came Charles Mingus, the Grateful Dead and an era of protest, arrest, eviction, violence and all flavors of love. In 1991, the band shell was torn down. Ten years later a new group arrived, uninvited, to claim the northeast corner of the park, the paved section pinched by Avenue A and 10th Street.
These “multi-purpose courts” have, at time of press, one written review on Google: “Good for multiple purposes.” They measure about 150 by 260 feet, or just under an acre in size. Across their pale black and once-red surface, which in summer months can go a bit soft, runs a network of cracks darkened by water sealant and tar. Objects will appear, sometimes, and remain until they’re destroyed or taken: a handmade wooden box, an orange traffic cone, a hijacked police barrier, a tipped-over trashcan wedged purposefully into a crack in the pavement.
I discovered Tompkins first through novels, as a place of mystery and strange power. Karen, the recovering cultist of Don DeLillo’s Mao II, wanders into the park while hunting for a disappeared novelist named Bill Gray. “It was something you come upon and then stop in your tracks,” she thinks, “a world apart but powerfully here.” Tompkins is central, too, in the opening sentence of Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections, when, after endless hours sitting on a bench watching “the men walking in and out through the comfort station’s brick columns,” the gay poet-hero Arnold Hawley stands and steps cautiously into the men’s room. “This place is huge, cavernous, immense!” he marvels, “How could the place—inside—have been so big?” Well, there’s a mirror, for one, but when it comes to real, unseen borders such as this, reason plays only a bit role in their crossing.