Op-Ed: Displacement from Tompkins Square Park Endangers “Crusties”

Photo credit: The Space at Tompkins.

The following op/ed was submitted to The Lo-Down by Andrea Stella, executive director of The Space at Tompkins. We welcome submissions about any and all Lower East Side-related topics. Opinion articles can be emailed to: tips@thelodownny.com.

Last week, the New York Times asked the question, “where have all the crusties gone (In East Village, Harbingers of Spring Are Missing)?” So now seems like as good a time as any to introduce our start-up non profit, The Space at Tompkins. The Space consists of East Village community members and members of the traveling/squatting community who recognize a gap in services for this unique group of individuals. We have been building the organization for the past two years, are now nine volunteers strong  and conduct walkabout outreach five days a week.

Last summer was typical. We saw an influx of people come to the city around March (it was a hot spring) and the last of them left by early November. We conducted outreach throughout the winter, knowing we might only see one or two people each time we went out, but we expected a rush of travelers to come back to Tompkins Square Park by the end of March.

As it turned out, March was cold, so we thought April would bring in the crowd… and then it was May and still no one.  Finally in late May, we started seeing a group of people around Union Square. That’s when we began to hear talk about a push to move the transients out of Tompkins.

Having worked in Tompkins for three years, and having seen this community consistently come to the park every summer for over a decade, our staff believed it was impossible for people to actually stay away permanently. It is becoming more apparent that, at least for this summer, Tompkins might stay “dead.”  Now we are all just waiting to see where people will head next — what will be their next landing point?

Photo credit: The Space at Tompkins.

Nothing could have prepared us for the displacement of the transient community from Tompkins Square Park (aptly part of our name). We have spent the past two months asking every person we come across what happened. There are lots of theories and conjecture, but main reasons seem to be the following: a heightened police presence (and crackdown), threats from “skinheads” to attack anyone who looks like they are “high,” and a general sense of confusion about where to go next.

A typical morning now consists of people coming from squats in Brooklyn, heading to Union Square (a place everyone unanimously dislikes due to its heavy police presence and lack of privacy), and then moving between 14th street and the Lower East Side, trying to find a place to stay.

The real story is not that the “crusties” are gone, but that they have been forced out of Tompkins Square Park and are now scattered around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

What does the displacement mean for the East Village community? It is actually more adverse than most people think; the “eyesore” of a vagabond-esque community taking up space in the park might be removed, but the  inability of the transient population to congregate leaves them at a higher risk for arrests and harassment — as well as more prone to drug overdoes and even death, since they are cut off from local human services.

As a start-up non-profit without funds for a physical space, we relied on TSP as a meeting place and a place to work with people who need our help. The Space offers an escort service to individuals who need to go to a doctor, drop-in agency, welfare office, etc. — and now — without a landing-point for the community, most of our time is spent looking for people instead of working with them.

After speaking with different people from the traveling community, we know that they are unhappy about this forced displacement. It marks a bitter end, or at least an obvious shift, in the East Village community lifestyle. We have noticed this push towards sterility, but once the Times picked it up, it seemed, unfortunately, confirmed.

Note: Today EV Grieve has an update on the crusties; it seems at least some of them have returned to the park in the past week.