Volume 80, Number 11 | August 12 - 18, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Lincoln Anderson

Harry Greenberg in Tompkins Square Park.

Tompkins Square’s ‘Mr. Clean’ gets ready to retire

By Lincoln Anderson

After more than two decades as the supervisor of Tompkins Square Park, Harry Greenberg is ready to ride his golf cart off into the sunset. He’s not leaving until the end of September, though. And, technically, at first, he’ll just be taking four months’ worth of accrued vacation time, leaving the door open for a possible return.

“Sometimes, you just get to a point where you feel it’s time,” Greenberg, 57, said on Sunday. “I feel it’s time.

“I don’t want to die on the job. I want to enjoy myself a little bit. The odds are I’m not coming back — I don’t want to put that in stone. Retirement, it sounds good, but you don’t know.”

As he spoke he sat in his electric-powered cart, parked midway on the park’s sun-dappled Ninth St. transverse. Somewhere nearby, a sax player blew a mellow “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“This is just a different kind of park,” Greenberg mused of Tompkins, his beat for the last 22 years. “You don’t treat anyone different — even the ‘travelers,’ as we call them,” he said, referring to the young drifter punks who migrate to the park in the summer.

“They’re pretty good,” he said of the youths, also known as “crusties.” “They just like making a mess. Let’s be honest: If they didn’t make a mess, they wouldn’t need me here — job security,” he quipped.

Greenberg has worked for the Parks Department 33 years, starting with 10 in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn — near where he grew up and still lives in Coney Island — followed by a brief stint in Morningside Park. Before that, he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, posted stateside.

It was thanks to former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern that Greenberg wound up at Tompkins Square Park.

“At the time, Henry Stern was saying you couldn’t work in the borough you lived in,” Greenberg recalled. “Why? Because it’s Henry,” he laughed. “I like Henry.”

And so, he found himself the supervisor of the iconic East Village park — hot on the heels of the Tompkins Square riot of the summer of 1988.

“The police like to call it a ‘police action,’ ” he noted. “I came right after the big one. There were a lot of little ones. In those days, if they could riot about it, they would. The anarchists had more fight in them in those days — today, they’re getting old,” he joked.

Up to one-third of the park was at that time taken over by Tent City, a homeless encampment.

“Well, I knew I was walking into a lot here,” he reflected. “I was hired to make sure everything was cleaned up — and that’s what I did, clean. Tent City, you could never clean it up. We used to have these big superpackers and Dumpsters come in to try to clean it up. They had mattresses — they had rats nesting underneath them.”

Parks employees fought Stern’s borough-of-residency ban and won. So Greenberg could have returned to Brooklyn, but found he preferred the more dynamic Tompkins Square and decided to stay. After a taste of Tompkins, working in Brooklyn seemed “boring,” he said.

He said it was right for the city to close the park in 1991, kick everyone out and renovate it before reopening it the next year. The curfew imposed during that period kept Tent City from taking root anew.

“They were living here. Now, they can’t live here anymore. I’m not against the people,” he stressed, but he said the change was for the best. Back during the Tent City days, you wouldn’t see little kids in the park, he recalled.

He still has the Tent City sign in his office. His predecessor took it off the park’s old band shell and framed it.

The park still has its challenges, though.

“You have the ‘travelers,’ you have the drinkers — that has to be my dirtiest section,” Greenberg said of the park’s southwestern corner. “But you can spend an hour there and clean it all up.” He keeps a Parks worker posted in that area to give it extra attention.

Greenberg is quick to credit his staff for keeping Tompkins clean. Actually, the number of his workers has shrunk over the years, forcing him to do more with less. In 1990, he had 15 permanent workers in Tompkins Square Park, and also managed part of Parks District 3, which is contiguous with the East Village and Lower East Side’s Community Board 3. Today, he only has four permanent workers for Tompkins, who also have to maintain 34 other sites in a portion of the district, such as the planted islands on East Houston St., for example.

“That’s everywhere; it’s not just here,” he said of the staff cuts he’s been dealt.

His workforce is supplemented with seven people doing court-ordered community service and five J.T.P.’s, or individuals in the city’s Jobs Training Program.

“It’s like the old WEP [Work Experience Program], except they get paid,” Greenberg said, calling J.T.P. the better program.

“I have a whole crew — it’s not just me,” he emphasized. Getting a little misty, he said, “Let me tell you, I’ve had a very good crew — I’m getting emotional here.”

He singled out for mention one former WEP worker, Amy Taylor, who was able to get off welfare and earn a full-time Parks job at Tompkins, only to be transferred to another location. Greenberg managed to bring her back to Tompkins.

Also helping him keep the park in shape are the organizers of the annual HOWL! Festival and the punk rock concerts, who do a thorough cleanup after their events, he said.

“They’re very good,” he said, adding he’s gotten to know the punk concert organizers, like Jerry The Peddler and Chris Flash, well.

“We actually became friends,” he said. “At first, could I say we were friends? Not really. I was just here to do a job.”

One of his pet peeves is that, now with 311, people use their cell phones to place complaints — if trash baskets are full, for example — when they could get quicker results if they just came to his office and told him. It might take a week for a 311 complaint to make its way to him, he noted.

“Three-one-one’s not instant,” he explained. “It’s a great system, but they should just come and ask me.”

During his 20-plus years in Tompkins Square, Greenberg has seen plenty of changes. There’s much less garbage nowadays, he noted, not just because of his top-notch crew, but because people actually use the trash cans. In the old days, people tended to dump garbage near the cans, but not in them, he said. He’s seen little kids who used the park’s playground grow into college students. In terms of its grounds, Tompkins got another playground on its eastern side, and a dog run, the first in the city.

Unlike outer-borough residents, most Manhattanites don’t have backyards, which is why it’s “the busiest borough for parks,” Greenberg noted.

“Parks are their backyards in Manhattan,” he said.

Yet while last Sunday was a beautiful day in Tompkins Square Park, it wasn’t as busy as it used to be, he observed.

“We used to have a lot more people on a Sunday,” he recalled. “The central lawn used to be packed. You couldn’t get another blanket in there.” Where people are going nowadays instead of the park is a mystery to him.

Although there are drugs in the park, it used to be far worse. Plus, Greenberg noted, “What park doesn’t have drugs?”

“I used to come to this park early in the morning, and there were drug dealers and hookers. Now it’s normal people,” he said, though adding with a laugh, “They could be hookers and drug dealers.”

He gets along with everyone, and that’s the key as he sees it.

“It’s part of the job,” he said. “If you can’t deal with the public, you don’t belong on this job.”

He does admit that some people are difficult, like the guy who follows him around and writes down everything he does.

“You can’t make everyone 100 percent happy,” the supervisor noted.

“The skateboarders, they can drive you crazy,” he said. “I was fixing cracks one day, and I asked them to skate in another area for a while. But they ran right over them. You always have somebody of some generation with that rebel attitude — it’s their turn.”

As for what he’ll do in retirement, Greenberg said, for starters, he has a new mixed-breed puppy, Molly, to train. And he’d like to go apple picking somewhere nearby, like he used to when he was young. He’s looking forward to traveling a bit, too, but not too far.

“All the things I couldn’t do when I was working, because I was too tired,” he said.

He lives with his wife, Vivian.

Speaking of pets, Greenberg used to have a cat he kept in the park, named — what else? — Tompkins. She lived to 22 and weighed a whopping 35 pounds.

“Takes after his owner,” he said with a smile. Tompkins passed away two years ago and has a memorial tile by the park’s Temperance Fountain.

Greenberg doesn’t have a bad word for the mayors or Parks commissioners he’s served under. David Dinkins is the only mayor he met personally, and he said he liked him and thought he was a good mayor. He also gave high marks to Betsy Gotbaum, Dinkins’s Parks commissioner.

“She was great,” Greenberg said. “She made people from The Arsenal [Parks headquarters] come out and work in the parks once a month. It’s very easy to sit in the golden tower and tell us what to do in the field — and you don’t know what it’s like to be out in the field. They were out here, doing the work, and that meant a lot to us.”

Since word of his retirement has gotten out, parkgoers have been telling Greenberg they’ll be sorry to see him go.

“They don’t want me to leave,” he said. “But when everybody gets the chance to retire, they’re going to do it.”

For whoever replaces him, there’s one basic requirement, according to Greenberg.

“You need someone that fits the neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t know if I fit the neighborhood — I guess I kind of blend in sometimes, people tell me.”

John Penley, an East Village activist since the days of the riots, said Greenberg really has been the perfect fit.

“He gets along with all sides,” Penley said. “He’s not disrespectful to anyone. I’ve seen him be just as respectful to Jerry The Peddler when he’s setting up a show as he is to community board members. People don’t consider him to be a city official; they see him as old-school neighborhood. He doesn’t seem to be that political. I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him.

“Tompkins Square Park is not the easiest park in the city to be a manager of,” Penley noted. “Because of the wacky mix of people you’ve got over there — substance-abuse problems, alcohol problems, craziness — it’s not easy to do upkeep. But the park is gorgeous, considering the changes I’ve seen it go through. It’s going to be tough to replace him.”

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