Tompkins Square Park


in East Village & Lower East Side

This 10.5-acre park dating from 1879 is like a friendly town square for locals, who gather for chess at concrete tables, picnics on the lawn, and spontaneous guitar or drum jams on various grassy knolls. It’s also the site of basketball courts, a fun-to-watch dog run (a fenced-in area where humans can unleash their canines), a mini–public swimming pool for kids, frequent summer concerts and an always-lively playground.

The park wasn’t always a place for such clean fun. In the ’80s it was a dirty, needle-strewn homeless encampment, unusable for folks wanting a place to stroll or picnic. A contentious turning point came when police razed the band shell (where the legendary and now-defunct Wigstock drag festival was founded by Lady Bunny and friends) and evicted more than one hundred squatters living in a tent city in the park in 1988 (and again in 1991). That first eviction turned violent; the Tompkins Square Riot, as it came to be known, ushered in the first wave of yuppies in the dog run, fashionistas lolling in the grass and undercover narcotics agents trying to pass as druggie punk kids.

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival is held in the park, bringing some of the biggest jazz names to the ’hood each August. This park is named after Daniel Tompkins, who served as governor of New York from 1807 to 1817 (and as the nation’s vice president after that, under James Monroe).