Monday, October 24, 2011
In 1989, Daniel Rakowitz shocked New York City when he murdered and chopped up his ex-girlfriend Monika Beerle, made a soup out of her body, and served it to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park. Rakowitz, the "Butcher of Tompkins Square," was found not guilty by reason of insanity and moved to a state hospital for the criminally insane.
It is hard for anyone to imagine, even to those of us who lived in New York City, that not so long ago in the 1970s, the East Village was one of the most frightening areas to live in or visit. Extraordinary, because it was just a stroll away from the center Village and some of the most desirable and expensive real estate in New York City.
Even through the 1980s, when much of the city had improved considerably, Tompkins Square Park remained a high-crime area, had encampments of homeless people, and was still a center for illegal drug dealing and heroin use. Rents were extraordinarily low - many drug addicts were able to afford apartments there, with lifestyles funded by selling drugs or through burglary and muggings. Virtually everyone I know who lived in the East Village in the 1970s was robbed or assaulted. It was truly a lawless land. Even to walk to St. Marks place at night could be worrisome. Alphabet City was no man's land. Things escalated, and on August 6–August 7, 1988, the Tompkins Square Park Riot occurred. Since 2004, the annual Police Riot Concert commemorates this event.
Last week was the first time in my entire life that I walked through Tompkins Square Park at night, something that four decades ago would have been unthinkable to me. In the 2000s, a woman friend I knew regularly attended bars and clubs in Alphabet City. She trekked the area at extremely late hours. I was astonished that a single woman would venture out alone there; when I questioned her, she could not understand my concern that she did such a thing routinely.
However, even in 2011, Tompkins still has an edge. I find the nondescript, high fences to be very disturbing visually, a reminder that this place's character is far from the parks of Paris, where a fence a few inches high with a small sign to stay off the grass is adequate to keep trespassers off. Here, even after renovation, I find the atmosphere much like that of a well-manicured prison yard with a feeling that restraint is necessary, lest there be an outbreak or an invasion of some kind. No doubt that many of these impressions are now largely a product of my mind from witnessing decades of decay, horror, and crime there.
So, on a recent chilly Saturday night, I walked through Tompkins Square Park from one end to another. It was only 8PM, but already the park was deserted with only a few stragglers here and there. The atmosphere was spooky and eerie to me. I was quite uneasy in that small jungle at night, but at least I saw no cannibals.
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