Tompkins Square Park: Hip to Be Square

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[Tompkins Square Park ]isn’t what it used to be. Sure, on an evening stroll you still run a fair risk of having your neck licked by a guy tripping on acid. But since the Tompkins Square Park riots—20 years ago today—gentrification has left its mark.

In an attempt to capture the energy of a time when the East Village was a playground for junkies and gangs, squatters and the homeless, photographer [Q. Sakamaki] recently released a book of photos spanning 20 years in the park—bounded by avenues A and B between 7th and 10th streets—aptly titled Tompkins Square Park.

“I’ve wanted to make this book for a while now,” said Sakamaki. “It was a big moment in New York for the struggle against gentrification. In the last five years, photographic technology made the book possible. Then the 20th anniversary [of the riots] came, so three years ago I decided to do it now.”

Sakamaki—who has covered war zones overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq—was interested in documenting not only the activists and supporters of gentrification, but the homeless themselves. “My core interest has always been in human beings and ongoing emotions,” he said.

[Tompkins Square Park] is homage to the struggle against gentrification that residents faced, but, to be sure, is not a means of romanticizing the poverty that followed. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the initial loss of what Sakamaki called “a sense of freedom.”

“I don’t completely denounce gentrification,” he said. “Even I think it is part of natural human development. But if gentrification is too drastic and too quick, if it does not protect the needy, I strongly oppose it.”

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