Some Riot Veterans Are Against Guggenheim Lab, But One Is With It

At the 23rd annual Tompkins Square Park Riot Reunion last Saturday, activist John Penley urged the crowd to join him after the show for a protest outside of the Economakis house, to be followed by a “takeover” of the BMW Guggenheim Lab and maybe even a riot outside of the former Mars Bar. “We need to drive the property values down,” Mr. Penley implored. The riot never happened, but video shows that Mr. Penley did manage to suck down an illegal smoke at the BMW Guggenheim Lab and lead an expletive-laden chant of “Who’s art space? Our art space!” But was he right to target the BMW Guggenheim? Clayton Patterson, a fellow veteran of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot whose work will be shown at the Lab later this month, thinks not.

“Here you have this German company coming to America and employing all these artists and creative types and cleaning up that lot,” said Mr. Patterson. “And they’re not pushing BMWs down our throat— because really, they’re not even in our price range.”

Mr. Patterson is also grateful that on August 27, the Lab will show a documentary about him, “Captured”, that he says was “bounced” from the festival circuit. “There are very few public venues we could show it in,” he said, “because you have to be connected to the major motion pictures. So it’s good that they allow me to show a movie that’s not necessarily corporate. It’s a movie about the history of the Lower East Side— it’s not Chuck Close or some famous artist.”

“Captured” (the screening of which will be accompanied by a panel featuring Mr. Patterson and the filmmakers Daniel Levin, Ben Solomon, and Jenner Furst) documents the photographer’s artistic process while also unearthing some of the thousands of photos and countless hours of video footage he took after moving from Canada to New York City in 1979. Much like Ai Weiwei, whose photographic chronicling of the neighborhood started a few years later, Mr. Patterson’s subjects range from drag queens to the homeless to punk rockers to the Hispanic neighbors who were also featured in his tome “Front Door Book.”

The film’s most striking (and famous) footage may just be of the Tompkins Square Park “police riot,” a standoff during which officers engaged in bloody and excessive force while attempting to enforce a 1 a.m. park curfew. Yesterday over the phone, Mr. Patterson described the melee as “a pivotal point in New York City’s history.” He echoed something he also said in the movie: “In 1988 the police couldn’t close down a park on the Lower East Side. Four years later they could shut down the whole city.”

The movie ends in 2007, with Patterson photographing a 23-story high-rise that’s being built near his Essex Street home and art gallery.

“I took a very strong stand against gentrification and I was anti this new corporate word we’re living in,” he said over the phone. “But there comes a time when it’s over. The Lower East Side has changed, and you can’t hate it all.”

He said that Mr. Penley shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the Lab. “They’ve hired a lot of people. They would’ve hired John Penley. He could’ve gone over there and given a talk about how he fought for housing and ended up homeless.”

Mr. Patterson is still passionate about many issues— over the phone, he spoke out about excessive parking tickets, the current crackdown on nightlife, N.Y.U., and the Economakis evictions, which he described as “an insult against humanity.” However, he doesn’t seem to mind BMWs all that much. “BMW is a German product,” he said. “They’re not building them in China. For this German company to keep it German— that’s a model we should talk about.”

Correction: August 10, 2011

An earlier version of this blog post attributed the quote about driving property values down to Clayton Patterson. It was, of course, John Penley who spoke the words.