The tranquility of Tompkins Square Park is misleading. The Elms, many dating back to the 1870’s, the dog run, the playground and the grass typical to many urban parks, are but a thin mask to the turbulent events that took place on these grounds in the late 19th century.
Tompkins Square Park bares witness to a particularly difficult time in the lives of the German-Americans of Klein-Deutschland.
In 1874 a group of approximately seven thousand young working-class immigrants gathered in the park to protest the economic hardships and working conditions, protest that became known as the Tompkins Square Riot. The protesters planned to march from Tompkins Square to City Hall in demand of a public works program that will provide employment and end evictions of unemployed.
The protesters assembled peacefully in the park for a licensed demonstration and were unaware that the permit given to them had been revoked.
They were working-class immigrants, many of them German, all unemployed and many not having eaten in days. They were met by at least fifteen hundred policemen, almost two-thirds of the city’s police force.
With horses and raised clubs, the officers charged without warning in what a local labor leader described as ‘an orgy of brutality’. The police arrested forty-four men for disorderly conduct, riotous conduct, incendiary speech, carrying concealed weapons, inciting to riot and assault.
This was a clash between uptown and downtown, between immigrants and established residents, between blue-collar workers and affluent residents, between socialists and capitalists. Public response was split along class lines: the working class sympathized with the demonstrators and uptown residents supported police actions. There were xenophobic insinuations and the rioters were described as foreigners, chiefly German and Irish, communist and socialist.
The press of the time identified this as a threat to free speech and questioned the government’s right to regulate such gatherings.
Tompkins Square Park continued to serve as a place to voice dissent right up to 1990s when local residents protested the gentrification of the area and barring of the homeless.