There’s no gentility here in the Salt Meadows. A backwater on Stuyvesant’s farm, disturbed only in those days by the creatures of the tidal wetlands. The summers here lay down a blanket of fiery, hanging, swampish air. Dazed dog-day weeks spawn the seediness that has always been essential here. Die Weisse Garten, 1850’s Sunday picnics of beer and comraderie, Sabbath carousal that disgusted the Nativists. Nativists, whose days were numbered by the coming tsunami of immigration that made this Kleindeutschland. The third largest German-speaking city on the globe. An exotic enclave in an overwhelmingly Anglo country.
“… There were still places in the city, such as Tompkins Square Park… where a passerby might overhear nothing but German…” (1895)
Their steps still plod along underneath, in silence. There is a lonely fountain, surrounded by the hyper voices of children in the playgrounds. There was that day more than 100 years ago that shattered this neighborhood. Fire on the River, 1000 gone. Just when they were beginning their summer.
In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the ever-encroaching grime gurgled up the swamp underneath, and generations of discontentment spewed forth police riots, encampments of men living in cardboard, junkies, squatters, crack heads, punks… When the tide turned, the city regained control of the park and reversed its decay- but never totally washed out the funk.
Fringes. They still sit huddled on the benches, their faces bent and darkened, in the corners where the old men play chess. Nearby there is a monument, erected in 1891, dedicated to Temperance, a deity that long ago became maligned in this wild square. 1840’s, 1870’s, 20th century – the radical center of a politically radical neighborhood. No number of old shady trees, grassy cosps, arranged flower beds, or dappled sun, has ever managed to moderate the mood here.
It’s not all disgust, fists in the air, overdoses on benches. The winter has long forgotten the old Germans it froze to death on Avenue B. Now the ice brings a serene crystallization, And the Spring, in turn, brings forth an orgy of excitement. It’s the sort of park where you try to immerse yourself in a book, and are unable. There is too much music and delight, too many beautiful passers-by. Central Park’s design tries to lead people into nature, Washington Square’s tries to lead people into lofty ideas and civic graces. Tompkins Square’s design, with its playgrounds and its dog run, and melange of people, tends to bring park-goers into vivid proximity to each other.
It was here, in the 1960’s, that the international hare krishna movement began under an ancient elm, perhaps planted in the days of the Germans. The age of Ginsberg’s livid “Howl”, when poets, musicians, and artists, like the punks of the ’80’s, exorcized their disgust of the world with exuberant wailing.
And so the mysterious forces of this buried salt marsh persist, the past dancing with the present, the seen mingling with the unseen. Never ending. All awaiting the death of time.