AN ORAL HISTORY OF TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK

May 13, 2024/ & / INTERVIEWS/ Comments: 2

photo: Patrick O’Dell

In the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park there is a large slab of cement. Once intended to be a softball field, this area has instead been claimed by skateboarders and their homemade boxes, rails and ramps. It’s the go-to place to talk shit and meet up with homies, and it’s been a centerpiece of New York City skateboarding for decades.

Since multiple generations of skateboarding has happened at Tompkins, each navigating threats to the park’s future and increasing levels of gentrification, there are many rumors and stories that circulate about the history of this sacred ground.

Billy Rohan, Tombo Colabraro, “Grandpa” Jeremy Weiland, Yaje Popson, and Adam Zhu all spent their formative years as integral parts of the East Village, so we felt they would be able to recount what truly happened within and around the confines of the park’s fences. In an attempt to get the most complete timeline of the infamous and beloved TF we reached out to them all.

Originally featured in our Volume Three book, follow along as we document the changing scene surrounding the iconic DIY space known for raising multiple generations of New York’s best skateboarders.

Adam Zhu (AZ): I grew up on 12th street and played in the park as a child. I started skating when I was about nine or ten. It was the first place I learned how to skate, in the flat area. Basically, that’s where I met my friend group and was the jump-off point for the rest of my life.

Yaje Popson (YP): I grew up in the neighborhood so I used to play in the playground next door. I remember when people weren’t even skating there for a while. People would just rollerblade and do random shit. I did my first ollie over a board there. It was ‘99 or 2000. Tompkins is pretty important. I don’t think there’s Yaje without Tompkins.

Billy Rohan (BR): My first time up there I was around 14, around 1997. When I really moved to New York it was around 2001, right after 9/11.

Tombo Colabraro (TC): It was like, 2000 maybe? I don’t drink or anything anymore but I’ve killed a lot of brain cells in my life so I don’t remember if this is totally correct. I’m sure people were always skating there because the ground was good, but I wanna say that the ramps showed up in 2000. It was definitely small and tight-knit and you knew everybody.

Grandpa Jeremy (GJ): I’m not from New York. I’m from right outside of Philadelphia and I had moved up there with an ex-girlfriend of mine. She lived at Union Square and this was like the 9/11 era. I met Lurker Lou and through him I started hearing things about Tompkins.

photo: Patrick O’Dell

TC: I had heard about Tompkins from listening to punk. I think I saw a concert there of this band Choking Victim and was like, “Whoa people skate here too.”

AZ: The hardcore scene was big. The history of squatters and homeless and riots. That all kind of ties into the whole counter-cultural identity of the park. Squatters’ rights and the identity of the East Village, that’s all really important to tapping into the history of the park.

GJ: There used to be a halfpipe in this fucking place called C Squat and this guy Seth Roscoe was one of the squatters. I remember he used to tell me about contests they used to have back in the 80s and early 90s.

TC: C Squat was this gnarly abandoned building that these squatters took over. There was a ramp in there that went to vert and they would always throw parties and people would skate the ramp. A lot of punk rock bands would play there like Choking Victim, Leftover Crack, INDK… I remember the first time smelling crack, being like, that’s not weed, that’s something else. My friend Andrew who I went to the show with, he was like, I think crack smells like purple… And I was like, you mean grape? And he was like, no… purple.

”Squatters’ rights and the identity of the East Village, that’s all really important to tapping into the history of the park.”

BR: I heard in the 80s Sean Sheffey and Andy Kessler and all really OG guys all skated there. At one time they had a really big contest, and when I say really big I don’t mean like street league, I mean like 5 ramps that they put together, and a bunch of people showed up and got psyched.

AZ: There was a contest there back in ‘89 with a huge wallride. That is what a lot of people say was kind of the genesis of the skate scene there, or was a big part of cementing it.

photo: Irene Ching

AZ: The other thing that was a big part of Tompkins was the Hare Krishna spiritual movement that Yaje’s family was a part of.

YP: Every Sunday the Hare Krishnas would feed the homeless. Their main master, who popped it off in America, started chanting to the hippies in Tompkins. That’s where it all started and now it’s a worldwide movement.

GJ: When I started going to Tompkins there were skaters and stuff, but also just kids from the neighborhood that hung out there. They would just be there to fight some kid when they got out of school. I’m not kidding, it got to a point where it was like as soon as you walked in the first entrance off 9th Street- you know those metal gates? They used to jump inside the gate to fight each other so they wouldn’t get in people’s way. It was weird. It was lawless.

ABC SKATE SHOP

TC: ABC. That was the shop. It was on the other side of Tompkins. I remember going there and seeing Billy Rohan and other dudes skating a box and at the end of the day Billy would yell at everyone – probably like 10 to 15 people skated there, back when if you saw somebody had a skateboard you’d be instant friends – he would be like “Hey, we gotta bring this shit back.” All of us would bring it back to the shop and they’d lock it up at the skate shop at the end of the night.

BR: One of the wildest memories I have from that place was Rob Campbell, we called him the Manimal cause he was mad diesel, he was like a buff skater with dreads and shit. He rolls up to this little yellow flat bar that was there and does a backside flip to switch frontside overcrook and pops back out. We all look at each other and we’re like, nobody is gonna believe that Rob just did this mad perfect.

photo: Patrick O’Dell

TC: There’s a video called Alphabet City that came out a few years later that this guy Shea [Gonyo] made, super cool dude, and I know it has a ton of Tompkins footage in it. It’s got a banging Billy Rohan part in there. He does a backside noseblunt on Blubba. We were like in our diapers and he was noseblunting that thing, like what the fuck?

BR: ABC skate shop hooked me up with a job. It was like two or three blocks from Tompkins right there on Ave A and 13th street. Scotty Schwartz and Kerel Roach were building boxes and bringing them out there and we’d roll them back and forth. There weren’t as many skateparks around the city.

YP: When ABC opened up it popped off. Then there was the yellow flat bar that Kerel would bring and a couple of jump ramps. I remember one day I walked by and there were like 100 kids sessioning the box and I was just blown away.

”That’s why we called it the TF, it was the training facility.”

BR: There were all sorts of boxes that Scotty would build. He was the carpenter of the crew. He knew how to build the boxes.

YP: I think one of the biggest memories was all the ABC heads stacking shit and making contraptions with the ramps. They would just do the craziest shit and I was so impressed by it. I think Kerel had a pro board on ABC with roaches on it. He would hold it down. Scott Schwartz too.

TC: Gio Moya, Billy, Falla, Rodney… all the ABC dudes who would bring stuff there. That was also when there were like no skateparks in the city and you had to drive like 45 min to go skate anything that was even remotely considered a skate park.

BR: Even though you had a million spots in New York, there was no spot to just try tricks. If you wanted to get a trick on pyramid ledges, you had to learn it somewhere. What we’d do was roll things down to Tompkins to just have a smooth spot to skate a box and get your tricks. That’s why we called it the TF, it was the training facility.

TC: That was also right when Dyrdek had his TF in CA that you’d see in magazines and stuff. I feel like it was Rodney who was like, this is our TF.

photo: Patrick O’Dell

AUTUMN

YP: After ABC and before Autumn, I was seriously holding that place down alone. It slowly picked back up when Autumn opened up. This dude Dave Thomas would come around with the fresh crooks and crooks shuv its. He just had the most white gangster steeze and he would skate with a backpack. He’d come in and just make everyone laugh. Straight character.

AZ: Dave Thomas owned Autumn, which used to be on 9th street. Jeremy – Grandpa – he’s still around. He was a major OG to us growing up. He was mad good at skating and worked at Autumn. He would give us advice and blessed us with stuff here and there.

TC: When ABC left, Autumn moved in like instantly. I don’t think they moved into the same space but I’m also pretty fried. I remember Dave was thinking about moving the shop right by Tompkins and it was like, yeah this is an amazing idea to just put the shop over here. And then it became the Tompkins that we all know and love.

GJ: Billy Rohan started talking to me and Laura Malika and then I met Ted Barrow. I just started going to Tompkins after that because I really didn’t know too many people in New York besides the people I had met in Philly during the Love Park, Alien Workshop era you know? Ted kinda put me on to Autumn and I ended up working there.

photo: Paul Roura

YP: Autumn blessed it. Grandpa Jeremy was a big part of me getting sponsored. He knew everyone from buying, selling, whatever. He would send my tape out and looked out.

GJ: ​​Everybody from Tompkins was just fucking coming in and hanging out there. They would get bored hanging out in Tompkins and come sit on our bench, drink, hang out, and then we’d all go back to Tompkins after I’d get out of work or whatever.

Basically Autumn was the garage for all the boxes and rails. They used to lock them up on the signs right there at the corner. Just like the rails that wouldn’t fit in the shop. You literally had a skatepark inside of Autumn that everybody would come grab and put out every single day.

”Tompkins is one of the strongholds against gentrification.”

BR: There was Kevin Tierney, Yaje Popson, Adam Zhu, Shawn Powers, Slicky Boy, AJ, sometimes they called him the Sponsor Monster, this kid Tyreke Halloway. Now they’re grown up, it’s weird man. They’re 26, 27 years old. I’m 40.

YP: I remember Bryon Winfrey and fucking Max Palmer. Way before he was known he was already my favorite skater. He was probably a freshman at Pratt and like a secret talent until like the late 2000s. Also Adam Zhu and Caleb and Slicky Boy. Lurker Lou dubbed us all the Dunions. I was like king Dunion cause they all started dressing like me.

photo: Paul Roura

GJ: A lot of the Dunions did crazy things when they were younger. I forget who it was, but one of them got fucking hit by a taxi cab right across the street from the TF I think. Like crossing the street. None of them died.

And then you get to like Sage, Sean Pablo, Aidan, and Ben Kadow. All those dudes would come to Autumn when they were little ass kids. This was like after the Dunions. I got to see all those kids fucking grow up and skate. The amount of people from young to old that I’ve watched grow up at the TF is insane. I mean, Christ, I used to let Aidan hang out in the store while he was supposed to be at school. He’d just be like, “I don’t feel like being at school today.”

12TH & A

AZ: Billy Rohan was a big figure for me when I was growing up because he was the responsible guy. He started 12th and A which is another major place in the neighborhood that brought the skate scene to the East Village.

BR: 12th and A was really a fluke. Tompkins didn’t have the best ground, but I would pass over and look at 12th and A and it had this perfect ground. I remember one day Andy Kessler helped me take a plastic bench there from another spot. We threw it over the fence and got it in there and skated it for a bit but it still wasn’t like a TF or anything. You had to jump the fence if you wanted to get in there.

photo: Paul Roura

AZ: Billy organized contests that I don’t think any since has compared to. Halloween Hellraiser, King of Spring… A lot of these events really cemented friendships that I had at that time that I still have today. In particular, just 12th and A cemented close friendships that I had with kids in the area but when he had the larger contests, we got a bigger picture of the entire skate scene in New York. Kids from uptown would come, kids from Brooklyn, from all around. Billy was definitely a major part of all that.

BR: I’ll never forget, there was a group of kids at Tompkins and one of them stole my cell phone and I caught him and I called him out on it and it wasn’t a good idea because next thing you know, his whole crew comes looking for me because I called him out on it and I guess it like embarrassed him so I couldn’t go to Tompkins for like weeks because these were some gangster kids and they were gonna fuck me up. So I started going to 12th and A and little by little it turned into a thing where the principal of the school saw that we were bringing stuff over there and then next thing you know this nonprofit that ran the park over there was like do you guys wanna work on something? I was like it would be really cool to have a wallride and a box or something, and my mom was living in NY at the time and I had asked Gonz if he would kick us some money to build a wallride and my mom would paint the logo as a tribute and he gave us $400 bucks and bought the wood and then my mom painted the Krooked eyes on the wall. I always thought it was ironic because people thought that Gonz had painted it but my mom was like an old-school sign painter artist so she was able to recreate them exactly. That was how we got it started, then Acapulco Gold gave us some to build a box and later Supreme.

GJ: I love everything about what Supreme’s done. They really did everything correct. Any money that ever needed to be put up- Supreme would always be there to put money up. Especially when Billy started 11th and A or 10th and A or whatever you wanna call it.

photo: Paul Roura

BR: Supreme actually helped out a lot, more than people know, because they never really asked for anything. We were like “Hey, we’ll paint this big supreme logo on it,” and they didn’t really care if we did or not, but we did to thank them, and they helped a lot.

[Gonz] was like the Willy Wonka of skateboarding and sometimes he would come to 12th and A and I remember one time he had penny loafers on and he just did this amazing frontside air on the wall ride. And that thing was straight to vert. Just no socks, did it, and just rolled out. We were like whaaat, that was sick. And also a lot of the guys from Zoo York. Like Jeff Peng, he was a cool kind of fierce dude who didn’t take shit from anybody but he was honest. Brutally honest sometimes.

SAVING TOMPKINS

AZ: I actually schmoozed up to one of the parks department ladies and gave her my number and told her to call me before they do anything drastic like throw away all the obstacles.

There’s always been gentrification in that area since I’ve lived there, but I will say I’ve definitely seen my neighborhood change drastically. I’ll actually say that Tompkins is one of the strongholds against it because inner city kids are always coming there that aren’t the face of gentrification. It’s a big reason why I felt the need to not let that field get turfed because skating is one of the last bastions of hope for the identity of the neighborhood.

photo: Adam Zhu

That was partially because I was working with Supreme to build stuff to put there for everybody. At one point, Supreme had put a few obstacles there, then I think DC or another brand did another big event and left a bunch of obstacles there, and at some point, it was just overcrowded and the parks department was freaking out. The Save Tompkins thing, the actual parks commissioner and people realized that OK, this is actually a place for skateboarders. That definitely put some respect on our shit. Before that, they were only consulting with the permitted sports about the future of that zone. After we caused an uproar about skaters being there I think they realized that they had to work with us.

“America’s biggest pastime is baseball, and we have a baseball field that changed over to a historic skateboarding spot.”

Actually, at one point we tried to reach out to some of these other sports teams that we felt it would also be in their interest to not have grass there, like you can’t really play hockey if there’s grass on the floor. What actually happened was that they told us the city had already reached out to them and was planning to relocate them and because they didn’t want to get on bad terms with the city they weren’t gonna support our cause, so basically fuck them [laughs] but at the same time I’ve also had to encourage the skaters in the area that they have to let them play, as per my agreement with the parks department, that way we can all coexist

BR: What they did with the whole Harold Hunter Foundation and all the things that have happened over the years is really a big deal. The fact that Adam made that happen with the city of New York was a game changer. America’s biggest pastime is baseball, and we have a baseball field that changed over to a historic skateboarding spot. That says a lot for the future.

photo: Sophie Day

TOMPKINS TODAY

TC: I didn’t hang out there that much towards the later years because I was skating in Brooklyn a lot and there were other places to meet. Also, we had cell phones. Tompkins was in a time when nobody had cell phones, texting was like a fucking Rolls Royce of a luxury. You get like 20 texts a month. So you’d just go to Tompkins and meet up and see who else was skating that day. Then the little missions would break off from there. Communication became a little easier, I stopped going there as often. It was like a hub.

GJ: With skate shops, you don’t make too much money and the rent is insane there. Andy Henry and I were actually trying to buy Autumn to keep it going, but Dave kinda didn’t want to see his baby go to anyone else. And it was like no hard feelings. I still keep in touch with Dave. I love everything that he ever did for me. If I never worked there I wouldn’t know anyone that I know today. I still talk with everybody that I hung out with 15 years ago, 20 years ago.

TC: Not to be like old man guy, but there were a lot less skaters there when I was coming of age so you would go there because you’d be like oh shit, there’s other skaters here. Now I can be on the train and I see a kid with a board and I don’t recognize anyone anymore and in my head, I’m like this kid could be the best skater or the biggest fucking kook ever and I wouldn’t know because that’s how out of touch I am.

photo: Sophie Day

YP: The last I saw Tompkins it was just a bunch of kids that don’t even skate that we’re just using it to hang out. It’s just a weird scene. The last couple of times I saw it I felt old. It’s hard to embrace generation after generation. The first couple is a good lesson but how many times it keeps happening is amazing. Every three years or so it seems like it’s a new generation of skaters and now it seems like it’s getting even shorter. It definitely still has a bit of a neighborhood vibe. I heard there’s new lights now. That’s probably gonna change the vibe, instead of the old yellowish. Everything is getting washed out though. Culture is dying as we speak. Is there any left?

AZ: With Autumn and 12th and A closing, I think there was a bit of a bleak point for the skate scene in the area but it can never die because it’s so iconic and historic. There is a period where it felt like a lot of non-skaters were coming, but I think Tompkins has always been for people who are kind of rejects or maybe don’t fit in in other places or are more into counter-culture or are more on the fringes of society.

BR: As long as you’ve got a spot with smooth ground, friends, and a good imagination, you can have a Tompkins anywhere in the world.

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Comments

  1. HR

    May 20, 2024 2:21 pm

    Good shit

  2. FakeHippy

    May 20, 2024 8:37 pm

    Met Yaje once and he literally said, “you don’t know who I am?”

    Good to see he still loves talking about himself.

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