“When one species disappears, others tend to follow.”
Old story from NY Times
In East Village, Harbingers of Spring Are Missing
Young, tattooed travelers gathered in Tompkins Square Park in 2009. The visitors have been absent this year.
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
Published: June 14, 2011
For years, warm weather in the East Village has been heralded by an influx of young, tattooed visitors carrying backpacks and bedrolls and wearing clothes so stiffened with grit that they have come to be known in the neighborhood as crusties.
On Tuesday, the benches were empty along a stretch known locally as Crusty Row.
Their arrival in Tompkins Square Park has become a predictable harbinger of spring, a surviving custom in a neighborhood that has undergone various upheavals and changes over the past several decades.
But this year, they have not materialized. People have reported stray sightings of one or two visitors, but nothing like what the neighborhood has come to expect. No one knows if they are simply late this year or if, for some reason, they will not come at all. Either way, their absence has been conspicuous.
“It’s like the birds aren’t migrating this year; the salmon aren’t swimming upstream,” said Chris Flash, an East Village resident who runs a local bike courier service and an underground newspaper called The Shadow. “The whole ecology of the neighborhood is out of whack.”
The visitors are seasonal nomads, crossing the nation in rough accordance with changing weather patterns, heading south or west in the winter and venturing toward the Northeast in the summer months. Many travel along rail lines like the Union Pacific and the Norfolk Southern, hoisting themselves into empty freight train boxcars.
Several cities are known to be relatively hospitable to the travelers, among them San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va. In New York, the group has become such a fixture in Tompkins Square Park that the area where members have generally assembled — near the park’s western edge, just south of the Temperance Fountain — is known as Crusty Row.
There, the travelers could typically be found relaxing on wooden benches and whiling away the hours talking (adventurous tales of illicit rail travel were popular), drinking (preferred beverages included cheap vodka, malt liquor or “space bags,” the name given to the silvery bladders found in boxes of wine) and smoking (self-rolled cigarettes predominated)
Dozens of the nomads would set up what seemed like semipermanent encampments along the row, at one point designating their territory with a black flag emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. Many would arrive at the park shortly after the 6 a.m. opening time and remain until the midnight curfew, leaving in between only to avail themselves of free meals handed out on Avenue A or to ask for spare change on St. Marks Place.
Last summer, a steady flow of the travelers frequented the park from May through September. During that time, a local photographer, Steven Hirsch, documented the visitors’ presence and recorded their stories on a blog, crustypunks.blogspot.com. This year, Mr. Hirsch theorized that the visitors were steering clear of their usual haunt to avoid a blizzard of summonses that he said the police began issuing late last summer for infractions like drinking in public or lying on a bench.
A street poet who goes by the name L.E.S. (for Lower East Side) Jewels, a Crusty Row regular who lives in New York year round, agreed with Mr. Hirsch. On a recent afternoon, he sat on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, away from the Row, and ruminated in rhyme on the absence of his more mobile comrades:
“It’s a park, it’s for all, for all to be,
and Tompkins Square now is just a memory
it ain’t like it used to be.
I’m sitting here in Tompkins Square,
drinking vodka like I do anywhere,
next thing you know you got a pair of cuffs on,
and those silver bracelets, they ain’t no fun.”
Over the years, some people who frequent the park have expressed distaste for the travelers, saying that too many drink alcohol openly and that they tend to create a disorderly atmosphere. Others have been more tolerant, arguing that whatever harm the travelers cause is only to themselves. Susan Stetzer, the district manager of Community Board 3, suggested that many East Village residents had accepted the visitors.
“People just don’t make a big deal about them,” Ms. Stetzer wrote in an e-mail, adding, “At least they are quiet.”
On a recent afternoon, Crusty Row was empty, save for a few parkgoers. Levent Gulsoy, 55, gazed toward the empty row of benches where the travelers used to gather. “That’s not a good sign,” he said. “When one species disappears, others tend to follow.”