Everybody in New York has at least one place in the city that haunts them, but some parts of downtown seem genuinely possessed. Tompkins Square park in the East Village has always been a stage for small acts of refusal to conform to the changing rules of metropolitan life. But the first weekend in September, what might have been a funeral became a party instead, as the skate community came together to celebrate having saved their hallowed ground: a stretch of asphalt known as the “TF,” short for “Training Facility.”
If you didn’t know better, you might assume the community wanted some capital improvements to the flat, cracked asphalt that comprises the Northwest corner of the 10 acre park. But the neglect is part of the appeal for skaters who just want a place to learn tricks and hang out — nothing’s fancy, nothing’s in the way. They can easily move around indigenous objects like city garbage cans or traffic cones to create make-shift obstacle courses. The first skate competition there dates back to 1989, and it was a backdrop in the 1995 movie Kids. Since then, each new generation of skaters have made it their home. Pros like Alexis Sablone credit it with being one of the best places for female skaters to feel comfortable enough to try the sport.
Last month, Fanny Cohen, a city planning student and friend to many of the skateboarders from the area, was reading a community board newsletter which outlined the plan to replace TF with synthetic turf. As part of an effort to protect the Lower East Side from future flooding, the city is looking for places for kids to play sports while the nearby East Side River park is ripped up. She alerted her friends and they mobilized immediately. A 22-year-old artist and local skater named Adam Zhu, who grew up on 12th street, started the hashtag #savetompkins on Instagram, as well as a petition to protest the plan that quickly attracted 32,000 signatures.
With the help of Steve Rodriguez, a skater who’s designed some of the city’s most beloved skate parks, the issue made it all the way to the Parks Department. The two sides met in the basement of Tompkins Square Library, where Rodriguez, Sablone, Zhu and others pleaded with city officials to look elsewhere. “The stories about growing up here, learning how to skate, what it meant to them, what this neighborhood was like at that time, were very moving,” parks commissioner Mitchell Silver told me at the rally. “The petition was one of the largest I’ve seen in awhile.”
Despite the good vibes of the initial meeting, after a month had gone by with no word from the city, Zhu and his friends began to worry. With the support of city councilwoman Carlina Rivera, he organized a rally for the first Saturday in September. The night before the rally began, the city called Rodriguez to deliver the good news: The TF would stay as it was.
“This is a place where you can come any day of the week to skateboard, but it’s also for people who feel like a misfit,” Rivera said, as dozens of skaters streamed into the fenced-off lot on their boards — a triumphant, sweaty bunch of people of all ages, genders, and races, eager to talk and happy to be around each other. Someone had brought a watermelon to share. When I asked Zhu, who works at Supreme, if he’d been bitten by the activist bug, he laughed. “A lot of people have told me, like sort of jokingly, that I should run for mayor.” Everybody has to start somewhere, why not Tompkins?