Monday, August 14, 2006

East Village Observation: A Testament to Immigration Threatened

Architectural Testament to New York’s Immigrants Threatened
By Cody Lyon
On a warm Thursday evening at around 8pm, around 50 former parishioners, neighborhood activists and other community members gathered on a corner at a loosely organized vigil in New York’s East Village for the St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church building. Earlier that morning, a demolition crew from A. Russo Wrecking Company had begun the destruction of the old structure, knocking a large hole in the back of the yellow boxy building that has been sitting on the same corner for 158 years. The New York Archdiocese, which disbanded the parish in 2004, has said the building is unsafe, in danger of collapse, and that it plans to demolish the structure so that it can use the corner property for other purposes fitting its mission.

The humble, yet grand structure is a testament to working class immigrants who after escaping the Irish potato famine, made lives in New York and built a church they could be proud of. In later years, the church became home to many of the neighborhood’s new immigrants, Latino Catholics. The building stands on the corner of 8th Street and Avenue B casting its familiar golden yellow reflection on the new generations from other corners of the world, who play or pass leisure time directly across the street in Tompkins Square Park. Architect Patrick Keely’s ‘Gothic Carpenter’ structure has seen countless parishioners share faith and find community in what used to be a working class neighborhood known as the Dry Dock District. Over the years, the old church bore witness to the numerous transformations of an area that some still say is New York’s most colorful and arguably diverse. Trendy bars, boutiques and high rents are more accurate testaments to today’s East Village.

And with this change, comes a commonly New York dilemma.

The city’s changing face and church going habits have resulted in declining membership throughout most of the borough’s houses of worship. With declining memberships comes declining funding for individual up-keep and building usefulness and when paired with the rising value of the land they sit on, makes for heated battles between preservationists and building owners, who recognize the potential profits of land use and air rights.

Being the largest owner of religious properties in the city, The New York Archdiocese has been forced to re-align its finances, leading to difficult choices that have included the closing of several parishes, including St Brigid’s, which was disbanded in 2004. The properties that these buildings sit on have increased in value at a remarkable pace over the past few years, which could provide the Archdiocese with much needed revenue.

Andrew Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University said of St Brigid’s slated demolition “the most recent parallel is St Thomas Roman Catholic Church in Harlem” the 1907 ecclesiastical church on St Nicholas Avenue designed by Thomas Poole. After closing the Harlem church, the Archdiocese actually began demolition of the structure for a housing development but was interrupted because of community opposition. That church remains standing, but padlocked, in deteriorating condition and still slated for demolition.

The increasingly heated battle in the East Village between those who want to save the building and The Archdiocese of New York has gained increasing attention over the past few weeks. One weekly community newspaper quoted an anonymous resident who said she hoped the building’s destruction would raise her property values. Most coverage has profiled efforts by community activists, preservationists and former parishioners to save St. Brigid’s. The Archdiocese has been vague in most of its responses to questions about future plans for the property.

At the Thursday vigil, as thunder roared, breezes blew and lightning crackled across the evening sky, candles were lit, and participants sang the Rosary in Spanish. Then, as the curious stopped by to listen, speakers that included City Council-person Rosie Mendez spoke to an increasingly informed group of East Village residents, many who were un-aware of the church’s planned fate.

“If they destroy this building, they destroy the history and architecture that it’s inside it and there is nothing that can bring it back” said Council person Mendez.

“ We’re going to be in court tomorrow, and we’re hoping we can stop this” Mendez shouted from the sidewalk, supported by crutches thanks to a broken ankle.

The former parishioner’s attorney had argued to save the building based on a technicality, that when the Archdiocese applied for a demolition permit last February, there was no properly convened board vote included former parishioners of St. Brigid’s.

Moments later, Mendez said of the men running the Archdiocese “they ultimately make the decisions.”

“I think a lot of communities in Manhattan are vulnerable, because of real estate speculation” Mendez said, noting that many Catholic church’s are located on prime Manhattan real-estate markets.

Some observers speculate that preservationists, neighborhood activists and former parishioners expect The New York Archdiocese to bankroll church preservation efforts.

Not so say opponents of the church’s destruction. In fact, The Committee to Save St Brigid’s Church points out that an anonymous donor once offered fair market value to the New York Archdiocese to purchase and restore the church, but, according to committee members, the Archdiocese refused to even meet with the individual.

Archdiocese spokesperson Joseph Zwilling told “Village Voice” in an August 3rd article that the Archdiocese does not exist to create monuments but instead to serve “the needs of people consistent with the Catholic mission and purposes of the Archdiocese of New York.”

Opponents of the church’s destruction see an archdiocese bowing to financial pressure caused in part by Priest scandal lawsuits. There is no denying the huge profits tucked into the land St Brigid’s sits on. So, as some demolition opponents see it, the Archdiocese quietly slipped in and began the destruction of St Brigid’s, un-announced. But, neighborhood eyes and ears on the ground quickly informed other concerned residents, leading to temporary halt in demolition, the evening vigil and sudden groundswell of opposition.

Harry Kresky, the lawyer representing The Coalition to Save St. Brigid’s, says he called the New York Archdiocese lawyer earlier that day, and asked for a delay in demolition while the court determined the church’s fate, to which an Archdiocese lawyer told him “no way” and hung up the phone.

Columbia’s Professor Dolkart said there had been examples in the past of church’s linking up with community groups to help raise money for the preservation of historic buildings offering The Universalist’s Church on Central Park West as an example.
Another alternative to demolition could be through private developer and community partnerships, as Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Julia Vitullo-Martin told the “New York Sun” in June.

In her article, she said “sensitive development that uses various tools like the transfer of development rights to preserve a house of worship while building profitable housing to pay for it.”

Regardless of alternatives, prospects at the Thursday night vigil sounded grim.

That night, lawyer Kresky told the crowd that he wished he could be more optimistic and hopeful, but “they were dealing with powerful players” offering harsh speculation that although it was cardinals and bishops running the Archdiocese, they were out of touch with the hearts and humanity in the community.

In an emotional voice-cracking plea, neighborhood resident and Committee member Carolyn Ratcliffe told the crowd “the church’s destruction rips the heart out of all us.”

“That church represents what this community stands for, it’s a place where immigrants came, where they found support, where they made a life, that’s us” said Ratcliffe.

True, Manhattan’s East Village is a place where immigrants came, and still do. But, most of those who now make the international neighborhood home have access to greater economic resources than those who escaped the potato famine.

And, as the neighborhood changed around it, time was taking a toll on the St Brigid’s building. A huge crack in the north wall, threatens the support of the building’s roof. A few years ago, parishioners raised over $103 thousand with stoop and yard sales for repairs to the building and turning the money over to the Archdiocese. According to participants at the vigil, the Archdiocese never applied the funds to the building’s repair. But, some realistic estimates on repair costs have been as high as $7 million, a far cry from the $100 thousand or so that has been raised to save the church by former parishioners and opponents of the proposed destruction.

A few observers believe that the Archdiocese has access to enough cash to leave the building standing and that it is ignoring the concerns of the local community.

Later that evening, as the lightning became more frequent, Betty Brassell, a 50-year East Village resident originally from Augusta Georgia, said “it’s a shame anybody with money would want to tear that beautiful church down.” With that, raindrops began to fall, and Brassell shuffled alongside Rosie Mendez down Avenue B towards home.

Before everyone had left, Vigil participants were told that the workers would be back at 7 that next morning. Protesters would be there to greet them.

The next morning, the men from A Russo were back at the church some using crowbars to knock out imported lead stained windows from Bavaria. As protesters watched, choking back tears, screaming at the ongoing demolition, a protester of the demolition appeared on the roof. By 9 am, windows on one side of the building destroyed, rubble piling up outside the hole in the back, an order came from the Department of Buildings to stop work because of un-safe demolition conditions. As workers sat idle in the heat, a DOB official sat quietly in his air-conditioned car.

When asked how long the stop work order would last, he said, “at the most two or three days.”

Further downtown in a courtroom action was being taken that might save the building for a little longer.

At 2 pm down at 60 Centre Street, the group opposing the demolition of St. Brigids Church received the decision they’d been praying for. Judge Barbara Kapnick signed a court order, temporarily halting the demolition of St. Brigid’s Church, at least until August 24.

Later that night, many of the same vigil participants from the night before, gathered again, this time, directly across the street from the church for a celebratory pep rally. By the time Council Person Rosie Mendez arrived with lawyer Harry Kresky, a large group of bicyclists, were passing through on Avenue B finishing their own protest for cycling rights. Fist’s raised in triumph the group on the street, which had grown in size, engaged the passing group to join the chant “save St. Brigids, Save St. Brigid’s!”

For now, the church’s long-term fate remains a mystery.

“No comment” as to the situation at St. Brigid’s according to Lisa de-Bourbon, a spokesperson for the City’s Landmarks Commission, an organization that with city council approval, has the power to save the structure.

So, for a few more days, the yellow church built by Irish immigrants will continue its role as an architectural icon in an ever-changing international neighborhood. The structure will remain, providing a window into a past that may, or may not have been as exciting as the present the old church is now witnessing.

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