Where’s Tompkins Park South?

“On account of the narrow, winding walks, and the obstruction of vision by bushes in the outer parts, it is difficult for the guardians of the ground to observe or control the conduct of visitors, or to protect the borders of flowers. The place is therefore resorted to for clandestine purposes, and by people of bad character. It becomes untidy, loses reputation, and there is a complaint of the noise and bad language heard at the windows of the neighboring houses.”

– Olmsted, Vaux & Co. on the undeveloped Tompkins Park, 1871

This entry is a supplement to my post on Bed-Stuy from two weeks ago; unfortunately, the only mention I could find of this sub-neighborhood in print media was this article in The New York Times from 1996 discussing Internet access for residents of poorer areas. The Brooklyn Collection usually has a wealth of information, but this time the archives were almost entirely dry.

Most of these folders held only one sheet. None told me the derivation of the name Tompkins Park North.

The area is named for Tompkins Park, which in 1985 saw its name changed to Herbert Von King Park. Known as “The Mayor of Bed-Stuy”, Von King was active in the community for over fifty years, founding the area’s first Boy Scout troop and serving on  the boards of various local organizations. He died in 1984.

It appears that in 1970, devotees to Malcolm X attempted to rename the park after him:

Tompkins Park, in turn, was named for the abolitionist Daniel D. Tompkins, who served four terms as governor (1807-1817) before resigning to take the vice-presidency under James Monroe. Tompkins failed to take the high national office seriously: he occasionally showed up to Senate sessions drunk, ran for governor again in 1820 against DeWitt Clinton while in office (and still managed to get the nod for a second VP term), and for the most part avoided Washington for his last three years.

He also caused an uproar by inviting a group of women to the floor of the Senate to watch the proceedings, to which at least one senator claimed: “Too many women here for business to be transacted properly!”

Daniel D. Tompkins. (From New York Public Library)

Tompkins Park opened in 1857, but it wasn’t until fourteen years later that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux put forward a plan for the space. (They were probably busy with bigger projects.) Olmsted and Vaux were concerned with improper activities happening in the park, so they kept things simple with plenty of lines of sight. This fear amuses me, because I see drug deals happening in the woods in Prospect Park with regularity.

Note: north is to the bottom.

The park is now home to the Herbert Von King (née Tompkins) Cultural Arts Center, which provides activities for the neighborhood. The nearby Magnolia Tree Earth Center teaches residents about urban beautification.

Vice President Tompkins, by the way, still has a park in Manhattan and an avenue in Brooklyn (alongside the park) named for him, so he can rest easy.

Unfortunately, none of this information tells us when and why Tompkins Park North came into being. My guess is it was introduced by realtors in the 1970s or 1980s as an alternative to Bed-Stuy – doesn’t it have a nice ring to it? – à la Greenwood Heights. And why no Tompkins Park South? East? West? Is it because the area is mostly to the north of the park in which people of bad character congregate?

The neighborhood is across Classon Avenue from Clinton Hill, which some real-estate agents now designate its western area. So if my guess as to the Tompkins Park North name is correct, certain blocks of the neighborhood are undergoing their second re-designation in fewer than 50 years.

Of course, if anyone has any more-concrete insight on the name, I’d love to hear it.

Bound sources:

Annual report of the Brooklyn Park Commissioners, 1871 (self-published).

The Daily Plant, Vol. XI, No. 2074 (City of New York Parks & Recreation, 1996).

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One Response to Where’s Tompkins Park South?

  1. Doug says:

    Here’s a few random tidbits:

    1. May 19 happens to be Malcolm X’s birthday
    2. There’s also Tompkins County in upstate NY – where Ithaca and Cornell are located.

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