Spoilers ahead for the first season of “Russian Doll.”
In the summer of 1988, a violent clash occurred in the East Village between New York City police officers and counterculture protesters fighting a proposed curfew for the neighborhood’s Tompkins Square Park. After three years of off-and-on conflict, the city temporarily shut down the park in 1991.
In the new Netflix series “Russian Doll,” a violent clash occurs between Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), an East Village woman who keeps reliving the night of her 36th birthday, and her own lingering traumas stemming from an unstable childhood. In one episode she wanders through Tompkins Square Park at night, looking for her lost cat.
For the New York Times critic Jason Zinoman, the connection between the Tompkins Square Park riots of three decades ago and “Russian Doll” is clear. As he wrote in a Twitter thread on Monday, he views the show as “an against the grain meditation on the cultural guilt” around the disturbances that exacerbated tensions between community residents and law enforcement:
So what really happened in Tompkins Square Park? In 1988, it was still a place that never slept. About 150 homeless people lived in the park, which had also become a busy spot for drug dealers, young people and what The Times described as “drunken rock fans.” Surrounding the area were “graffiti-scarred tenements, nightclubs and a smattering of newly renovated dwellings where apartments sell for as much as $450,000.”
As a community board moved toward approving a curfew for the park that summer, relatively peaceful protests escalated into something more violent. On the night of Aug. 6, reporters from The Times who were on the scene described “sporadic confrontations” lasting more than four hours. Around 150 to 200 protesters, many “drinking beer and taunting officers,” marched on the park and waved signs, including one that read “Gentrification Is Class War.”
Protesters threw objects; officers were seen clubbing and injuring civilians, including bystanders. Around 100 complaints of police brutality were reported following the incident, much of which was caught on videotape by Clayton Patterson, an artist. Soon after, the city’s police commissioner, Benjamin Ward, stated that “poor planning and tactical errors led the police to lose control of the situation.”
By spring of 1991, the park still did not have an official curfew, and along with children playing on the fenced-off jungle gym, the park’s patrons included more than 100 homeless people and a “ragtag army of radical East Village residents known locally as the ‘anarchists,’” The Times wrote. The local assemblyman, Steven Sanders, called for a curfew to evict the homeless, and more unrest erupted over Memorial Day weekend.
Later that week, Mayor David Dinkins said, “It is the only city park that cannot be used by the public as a park — the atmosphere is disturbing, disruptive and dangerous.” Police officers removed Tompkins Square Park’s homeless residents and announced that the park would be closed for renovations for “at least a year.” (Some sections, including the playground, would remain open during the day, but close at 9 p.m.) A year later, Dinkins dedicated a renovated park and vowed to enforce a midnight curfew.
In 2008, on the 20th anniversary of the original riots, The Times observed that class tensions in the area had now “faded”: Studio apartments were renting for $2,000; the park’s midnight curfew was “rarely a source of controversy.” (The curfew remains the same today.)
In his tweets, Zinoman noted details both subtle and on-the-nose that signal how “Russian Doll” was influenced by memory of the riots: the ostensibly timeless aesthetic, which jumps between references to the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and the present; Nadia’s guilt over leaving her troubled, “downtown NY cool” mother to live with a more stable “yuppie family friend” in 1991, when Nadia was still a child; the street parade featuring Bread and Puppet figures derived from the radical political theater of the 1960s; the heavy presence of Tompkins Square Park itself, which serves as a backdrop for much of the season.
Nadia’s guilt is a stand-in for the city’s collective guilt for “losing the real authentic downtown represented by the ‘cleaning up’ of the park,” Zinoman continued, “a fight the city won. If the riots were the last stand of NY bohemia, then it lost.”
Horse (Brendan Sexton III), a homeless character who lives in the park and is sometimes seen standing next to a curfew sign, also plays a significant role in the show: Nadia and Alan (Charlie Barnett), the other character stuck in a time loop, “find salvation (and a way out of their ‘Groundhog Day’)” in part by “making peace with the homeless guy,” Zinoman wrote.
He posited that his theory could sound “pretentious,” or like “nonsense.” But both Lyonne and Leslye Headland, who created the show along with Amy Poehler, confirmed his analysis.
“Everything changed. And everything stays the same,” Zinoman concluded on Twitter. But, he wrote, as a friend of Nadia’s says in the show: “‘This is New York: Real estate is sacred.’”