Set against the raw and roaring backdrop of New York City in the late ’80s, the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 was the revolutionary climax for a generation of counterculture teenagers involved in the straight edge, hard-core music scene as they protested against a new curfew for the park.
Eleanor Henderson, assistant professor of writing, along with junior Malti Jones, will both read excerpts from their works of fiction about the riot today at the Handwerker Gallery. The event is one of the “Thursdays at the Handwerker” series, which pairs a faculty member with a student for a presentation of their works.
“It’s a very intense, immediate moment,” Henderson said. “I open the story, and the readers are sort of thrown into this bottle-throwing moment of the riot. It has a young person’s perspective, a tattoo artist who is sort of caught up in the riot, and follows the kind of despair of this period.”
Henderson’s first novel “Ten Thousand Saints,” will be released by HarperCollins this June. It takes place in 1988 in the neighborhood of Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan and includes the riot as a large portion of her story. She discovered she and Jones shared a similar interest in the riot when she read Jones’ work in her Fiction Writing I class last fall.
“I was really astonished when I was reading stories for workshop for the next day and she had written about the same subject that took place in one of the major scenes in my book,” Henderson said. “The detail with which she captured this moment was really familiar to me.”
Jones said her interest in writing about the riot stemmed from living in the city for a summer and her general interest in the area.
“I did a little bit of research and read some personal accounts,” she said. “There’s a really great photo series, these black and white photos taken at the time of the event, and those really inspired me.”
Jim Stafford, assistant professor of writing, coordinates the Handwerker’s Thursday night series and said he is looking forward to the pairing of Henderson and Jones’ fiction pieces.
“It has a really interesting political edge,” he said. “It really is a nice dialogue to get the conversation out there between professors and students who happen to be doing work together or on similar themes.”
While both authors will focus on passages from their stories about the riot, Jones said she was drawn to the time period as a whole.
“My short story opens with the riot but then the main story is really a love story,” she said. “The riot sort of epitomized the political, social attitudes of the time period. It gave me a chaotic, hopeless background that I could set my story in.”
Though she does share similar themes to Henderson’s work in her story, Jones said her work focuses more on character.
“I wouldn’t quite say it’s historical fiction,” she said. “But it does open with the main character literally stumbling into the riot as it unfolds. The [characters’] struggles come out of a product of class struggle and the poverty and drugs and violence that were in that area at that time.”
Stafford said the Handwerker series has been running for about 10 years. In the past few years, it has traditionally paired a student and faculty member doing something through the writing department.
“It’s been fiction and poetry so far, but I think we’re going to get into some different things,” Stafford said. “[Tonight’s] event will have multimedia with photos of the event showing behind the readers.”
There will also be an open mic after the readings so audience members can share their own work.
Jones said she is looking forward to sharing her piece with an audience outside of class and having the opportunity to share this piece of New York City history with others.
“It’ll be really cool to share my work in that setting,” she said. “I’ve never really done anything like that before, only just peer reviews in class.”
For Henderson, the opportunity to share her work with the campus, as well as partner with her previous student, is an exciting prospect. She said she hopes the audience is compelled by the tumultuous events of the time period.
“It seems like a moment that was a climax for this very fraught period in New York history,” she said. “It was a really dramatic confrontation. Our reading is not just educational, but intended to be artistic. The point of the series is to offer a forum for creative work.”
If You Go
“Riot Girls: Fiction from Tompkins Square Park”
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Handwerker Gallery
How much: Free