Nathaniel Hunter Jr., Major of Tompkins Square, is CelebratedPark Loses its Mayor, Many Lose A Friend
His name was Nathaniel Hunter Jr., but most people knew him as Hippo or Junior. Some called him the mayor of Tompkins Square, and that park, in the East Village, was where he could often be found, sitting on a bench with a stack of papers and discussing the news of the day.
Countless people met him there, stayed for a chat, then returned for more visits, drawn by his booming laugh and the endless looping sentences that jumped from subject to subject nearly without hesitation or pause. For a time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the benches also was Mr. Hunter’s home, and he became a spokesman of sorts for the inhabitants of the tent city that sprang up in the park. He was 70 in May when he died of complications from diabetes. And on Saturday night, about a hundred people gathered at the Judson Memorial Church in the West Village to remember him. There were family and friends who grew up with him in Ossining, N.Y., painters and sculptors who hung out with him in SoHo and others who knew him from Tompkins Square Park. There was music, from African drummers, as well as the jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, accompanied by Connie Crothers on piano. And there were memories shared, of a man with a graying beard, a wide smile and a passion for conversation. Mr. Hunter’s daughter Siobhan Trotman said she was adopted shortly after she was born and did not meet him until she was an adult. She said she was grateful to learn about him from his old comrades. And there was much to learn. “We would all go to Junior’s bench; that’s where we would get together,” said Steve Cannon, the owner of A Gathering of the Tribes Gallery on East Third Street, who first met Mr. Hunter in the 1960s. Mr. Hunter was a contractor in those days, walking the streets of SoHo with a sledgehammer slipped through a belt loop and a pair of binoculars slung around his neck, the latter both to study the local architecture and for effect. In the evenings he frequented Max’s Kansas City and the bar at the Broadway Central Hotel. “He was like the town crier,” said Virginia Jaramillo, a painter. Mr. Hunter was friendly with Color Field painters, like Peter Bradley, and some of his own art — wood sculptures and paintings with strong, simple lines — was included in a 1971 exhibition at the Whitney Museum called “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” He spent time in Tompkins Square back then, but the park became Mr. Hunter’s residence for seven years, starting in the ’80s, after he was evicted from a nearby apartment. Mr. Moondoc said he was with Mr. Hunter in the park on a night in August 1988 when it became evident that trouble was brewing between the police and protesters who were resisting a curfew. Despite his urgings, he added, Mr. Hunter refused to leave. A few hours later, while the police battled protesters in surrounding streets, Sarah Ferguson, a young reporter for The Village Voice, said she walked into the park to find an eerie pocket of calm. There was Mr. Hunter reading a volume by Hegel. After the homeless people were forced from the park in 1991, Mr. Hunter began working for the parks department, at times living in a marble building in Columbus Park in Chinatown. About 12 years ago, after being hospitalized for a diabetic coma, he moved into an apartment in SoHo with a friend. Mr. Hunter helped others survive the streets, according to a poet and performance artist who goes by the name Pitts. He said he had been one of Mr. Hunter’s neighbors in Tompkins Square. “I was homeless, and thank God I ran into Junior,” Pitts told the crowd at the memorial. “That’s where my spirit comes from.”