When I was a young anarchist college student (in the late 1980's) Tompkins Square was the place to go if you wanted any type of psychoactive drug, good, heady Marxist economic debate, midnight adventure with a drunken, neurotic punker chick, or a good, solid riot with the police. Apparently the whole neighborhood has since been taken over by Yuppies, but once upon a time - well the only word for the place was glorious.
From the park to the East River - that is, about four avenues - the neighborhood had been entirely abandoned to various heroin dealers, anarchists, cult organizations, and a few hard working lower middle class Latinos that hated everyone else in the neighborhood - justifiably, actually - with a passion. One of the tricks of making money in New York City real estate is called gentrification - that is, you buy a whole bunch of property, slowly move everyone out of the neighborhood, and then when the non-white ethnic minorities have left, renovate the whole thing and rent it to stockbrokers, advertising executives, larval lawyers, and other such. Because of this, about 30 of the larger apartment blocks in the neighborhood had been abandoned - temporarily of course, until the neighborhood could be retaken. It seems a long time ago, but New York had a pretty bad crises with homeless people (this is before the mayor gave them all one way tickets to Dubuque), and a bunch of activists, teenage runaways with a too-highly developed social concience, etc. all decided they were going to take over the abandoned buildings and run them according to communal principles, mainly anarcho-syndicalist (which from my experience means a lot of people arguing about whose job it is to take the trash out.) The police, of course, were not happy with this plan, and so the great squatter-police war of the Lower East Side began.
As a typical, mal-adjusted adolescent, this was everyone's dream - you get to pour urine down on the police from an abandoned building where life is a little like Animal House and have orgies every other night while declaring your solidarity with the lumpenproletariat. Then there were some middle aged organizers (who probably should have known better), all circling around a newspaper called The Shadow.
This newspaper - the headquarters kept moving and were a sort of public secret, not because it was illegal but because the police would just sort of beat up anyone hanging around it - was the bane of the local police chief, a sort of Beauford P. Justice type. The "reporters" would photograph undercover cops, even write down their license plate numbers from the parking lot and publish it. There was also plenty of Anarchist theory, and tips on defending your abandoned building from Police Raids. The police, in turn, would just smash anyone who they even dreamed was connected to the newspaper - which included yours truly, in a phase of my life I am now deeply ashamed of (but enjoyed at the time.)
My adopted abandoned building was called 3BC, mainly because it was on third street, between avenues B and C. In order to get in, you needed to go around the back of an abandoned front, pick your way through a yard littered with used needles dropped off by the local junkies, and crawl up a rusty ladder because all the first floor entrances were boarded up to keep the cops out. Then, in case of an attack, there were further deeper recesses of the building - specifically, this was on old style, Jacob Riis type tenement, with an interior with no windows, but rather some air-shafts which had the job of ensuring our immigrant ancestors didn't asphyxiate - some rickety old planks were thrown over the airshafts, the doors were permanently barred (I think we spent a few weeks gathering the rubble to bar the doors) - and it was pretty much assumed the police would not want to crawl over the planks. (Which in the last, final raid which brought down the building turned out to be the case - we all hid in the deep inner recesses for about 48 hours until we thought it was safe to come out.)
I was one a few locals who helped build the place - I was only 17 and a college student, studying for mid-terms by candle-light until we figured out how to steal electricity from the nearby brownstones. Besides us, there were a lot of teenage runaway beatnick poet types, and Jayne, who was my first (and only?) love, and merits a node of her own, which I will write one day. I don't remember how I ever found out about the place, but it was the first place (since I was 8 and we left the small village in Israel where I grew up) that I felt at home. What we were doing was absurd, of course, and we were doomed not only to failure but we were also damned annoying to everyone around us - but we were young, and it was so otherworldly and romantic that now it seems like one long dream. I broke my virginity in that abandoned building, I got into my first fistfight there, I learned how to use a switchblade from my surrogate Puerto Rican father figure (he lived on the third floor and was a recovering junkie), and I actually did battle with the police. I suppose I could have gone to prison for a long, long time, but I was much too young and stupid to have figured this one out.
Well, nowadays I am what I guess one would call a successful businessman, but there was a time when I would wander through Tompkins Square park at 3 in the morning with an axe to cut up park benches for firewood so we would have heat in the middle of the winter. I roamed in a pack, like a wolf - or a dog. I had people who would kill for me, and who I probably would have killed for myself. We were absolutely wild - we would run around in the middle of the night in the garbage tanks behind supermarkets looking for yesterday's meat to cook in barrels over burning park benches - (this was called Dumpster Diving) - and we had absolutely no shame about it whatsoever.
The finale to the whole episode came in a series of brutal riots in the park which were mainly started by squatters who absolutely hated the police, for reasons more related to the gut feeling that they represented some kind of establishment we were all rebelling against for our seperate reasons than any type of rational political thinking. In the last great riot of the park (this is already 1991) the local precinct cops, (which for New York, had at this point an incredible experience in Riot Control used dump trucks to herd everybody down 11th street towards the river, while mounted officers broke all of the bottles in the garbage with truncheons to keep anyone from getting a bottle thrown at their head. Most of the people involved in the movement were arrested, although some of us (including yours truly) escaped through the circulation vents of a couple of abandoned buildings on the route - we knew the neighborhood as well as any urban guerilla knows his patch of turf I suppose.
I am probably much, much smarter now than I was then, and I certainly am a more normal, contributing member of society - hell, I even pay my taxes. But there was a time when being a homeless/student anarchist in a small tenement neighborhood in Manhattan gave me everything I wanted - adventure, love, comradeship, a sense of home. I would never go back to that way of life, of course - I couldn't, even if I wanted to - but there are no small number of nights when I lie awake and wonder whether or not I'll ever find anything in my life to give me that much ecstacy again - even something as essentially false and illegitmate as our life in that neighborhood was.