Volume 75, Number 13 | August 17 - 23, 2005

Editorial


A writer’s death and reflections on Tompkins Sq.

The murder on Aug. 2 of Steven Vincent by Iraqi thugs is a tragedy, depriving us of an immensely talented writer and a man who cared deeply about his East Village neighborhood and who, in his own way, worked diligently to try to improve it. The same passion and combativeness that Vincent brought to his writing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he took on certain groups in the East Village proved to be deadly in Iraq, where some people don’t want the truth exposed and are willing to kill to keep it suppressed.

Vincent, 49, was the first American journalist to be attacked and killed in Iraq and that’s how many will remember him. But in the East Village, he’s also remembered for being a prominent member of the Democratic Action Club who worked to bring Antonio Pagan to power as a city councilmember and to remove the homeless tent city from Tompkins Square Park and reclaim the park for the broader community.

Vincent’s death gives pause to flash back to those days that were literally a war in the neighborhood. Some groups, among them squatters and anarchists, were vigorously opposed to a curfew for Tompkins Square Park. After the 1988 riot over the curfew, City Hall left the park alone for four or five years, during which time the homeless took over the park.

Some made good friends among the homeless. Advocates said until the city could provide decent housing, the homeless shouldn’t be kicked out of the park. Still others saw the shantytown as a way to keep gentrification at bay. Certainly, the Catholic Archdiocese would never have thought of selling St. Brigid’s Church on the park’s eastern edge to developers back then, as it is set to do today. Others enjoyed having no curfew so that they could have all-night metal jams, drumming and clanging away on pots and pans and garbage cans.

But the larger community no longer felt safe using the park. There were needles in the playgrounds. Signs were posted asking people not to burn the trees in their fire barrels. It had reached that point.

Eventually, the city moved to evict the homeless and close the park for a renovation. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to believe conditions were once what they were.

We do owe thanks to Vincent and his allies for helping bring about the change. Clearly, his methods didn’t always rub everyone the right way, but he meant to do the right thing, and maybe that’s the only way it could have been done.

Obviously, though, gentrification has happened, and now threatens to displace nonwealthy residents and wipe out many positive aspects of the neighborhood as it once was. Yet, now the HOWL! festival, founded two years ago, seeks to recapture and keep alive much of that artistic culture and spirit that gentrification has put on the run. The festival will be happening at venues around the neighborhood and, appropriately enough, in Tompkins Square Park from Aug. 21-28. We encourage people to enjoy the festival and get a taste of some of the best culture the East Village has to offer. No matter where one stood in 1988, or 1998, everyone can enjoy HOWL!

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