History Of Tompkins Square Park In Manhattan

History Of Tompkins Square Park In Manhattan

Feature Photo: Erick C Freitas / Shuterstock

History Of Tompkins Square Park In Manhattan looks back at a city park situated in Lower Manhattan’s East Village. Its name is more literal than interested individuals might expect in the sense that it is a more or less square-shaped plot of land that works out to about 10.5 acres. Something explained by how it came about through New York City’s street grid system. Tompkins Square Park has closely reflected its surroundings throughout its existence. As a result, it has been constantly changing from the past to the present.

Once Marshes and Meadows

Once upon a time, the land that now makes up Tompkins Square Park belonged to the Stuyvesant family. Its location close to the East River meant it consisted of salt marshes and tidal meadows. In modern times, we know wetlands play a critical role in the economy and the environment. For example, they are rich in nutrients, thus enabling them to produce fish, shellfish, and other natural products. Similarly, they purify water by trapping pollutants while preventing floodwaters from striking with full force. However, people in the past tended to be even less appreciative of wetlands than people in the present. The land that now makes up Tompkins Square Park was no exception to this rule.

Still, that might have been a good thing. After all, that made it much less expensive for the city to acquire the land to be turned into one of six planned squares for the northward expansion in the 1820s and 1830s. Further costs came from draining the salt marshes and otherwise making the land ready for use by 1834. Even so, the thinking was that the spending would pay off when the new square would attract affluent residents capable of paying higher taxes. That plan fell through when the country experienced the Panic of 1837, an economic depression that derailed any such plans well into the 1840s.

Name-wise, Tompkins Square Park honors Daniel D. Tompkins. He was a New Yorker who practiced law before pursuing a political career. The man became a New York Supreme Court judge, the Governor of New York, and the Vice President of the United States. Unfortunately, Tompkins suffered from poor health in late life. Much of that is because he borrowed using personal means to fund New York’s efforts during the War of 1812 but struggled to secure compensation because of his poor expense documentation, which more or less ruined his finances. Tompkins died just three months after completing his second term as Vice President in 1825. Under those circumstances, it isn’t hard to see why the New Yorkers would want to pay him respect.

History Of Tompkins Square Park In Manhattan Before, During, and After the Civil War

Manhattan saw a huge influx of immigrants in the mid-19th century. Due to this, Tompkins Square Park started seeing newly-built tenements sprout in its surroundings, which were notable improvements on many of the comparable residential spaces already available in the city. The square became a place where locals could rest, relax, and have fun. Furthermore, it made it possible for them to gather together when the trends of the movement motivated them to do so. This was how Tompkins Square Park acquired its association with collective action for good and for ill.

Encamped soldiers took a toll on the square during the Civil War. It was restored in 1866. Unfortunately, the state government decreed that the square be stripped of trees and other obstructions so that it could be turned into a military parade ground just after the completion of that restoration work. To an extent, this was because the square was the largest in the city, thus making it better suited for military use than its smaller counterparts. However, it should also be mentioned that the locals were less rich and less influential, meaning they were less capable of defending their public park from the state government. That said, the square continued to serve as a popular meeting place for locals when not used by the military.

Continuous Transformations

In 1874, people gathered in the square with the intent of seeking governmental relief from another economic depression. The police descended upon them. Unsurprisingly, people took that very poorly, as shown by how they gathered again to protect their political rights. Soon enough, that resulted in a demand for the military parade ground to be turned back into a public park, which found surprisingly receptive ears at the Department of Parks because of the popular parks movement. Subsequently, the state government agreed that half of the square would be restored while the other half would be retained for military use. The work to make this happen proved slow and unsteady, so much so that mounting public discontent eventually secured a full restoration in consultation with the locals. By 1879, Tompkins Square Park was ready for use once more.

The 20th century has been just as eventful for the square as the one that preceded it. For example, there was a surge of interest from social reformers in the early 20th century because they believed that better public spaces could make for better people. Similarly, the square was a natural meeting ground for interested individuals during the political upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s. These activities resulted in extensive wear and tear, which went unfixed for a long time because there were more pressing concerns during the 1940s.

In the 1950s, locals clashed over competing visions for the use of Tompkins Square Park, which was connected to the changing demographic makeup of the area. The Department of Parks tried to intervene by building a baseball field in the center of the square to cater to younger users. Something that failed because of opposition from other locals. Everyone agreed at the time that the square needed renewal. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on what that meant in concrete terms. The following decades saw the situation worsen as Tompkins Square Park became the site of spillover from the city’s social problems. One example was rising crime, while another example was rising homelessness. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had become emblematic of New York City’s woes. That created the conditions for the clashes in that period, which culminated in the NYPD clearing the homeless encampment in the square before closing it for restoration in 1991.

History Of Tompkins Square Park In Manhattan In Recent Times

Tompkins Square Park has changed in some ways while remaining the same in others since then. It is now in much better condition than in the not-so-distant past, courtesy of new construction, conservation efforts, and other restoration work. However, there have been further clashes with familiar-sounding causes, which is perhaps unsurprising when those things are far from being resolved.




Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

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