In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

Frances Cabrini and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had tended to the immigrant ancestors of these departures at a nearby school, now a condominium, and at a church three blocks away, the site now a playground bearing her name. In 2012, a large mural honoring her work was installed on the rear, highway-facing wall of another condominium. If like the Irish the Italians have mostly disappeared, certain proof of their having been here remains.

Now the neighborhood is home to Muslim and Mormon communities, while Jehovah's Witnesses can be seen on corners and in the subway station, displaying pamphlets in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Until living in New York I’d had only one encounter with the Witnesses, when I was about ten years old; a pair came to the door of the house and spoke to me and my brother a few minutes before my mother came crashing down the stairs and ordered them away. It was my introduction to the word “proselytize,” as in, “Don’t you know that it’s illegal to proselytize children?”—which is what she yelled after them. Was it really illegal? And what was “proselytize”?

Visible just north of where I live is the red Watchtower sign atop the Witnesses’ Brooklyn headquarters. That building, all 770,000 square feet of it, is now being packaged with the group's two remaining Brooklyn properties in an offering expected to fetch up to $1 billion (the Witnesses are leaving for a suburban campus). Locally, it’s news of some note, and not just because of its characterization by the chief executive of one bidder—the winningly named Megalith Capital Management—as “a huge asset sale.” It’s what will happen next: The asking price virtually necessitates the construction of luxury condominiums—likely price: $2,000 per square foot—since that’s the only way for a developer to make a profit on the purchase. At a nearer-by building previously sold by the Witnesses and turned into a condo, a penthouse is currently listed at $32 million.

A Witnesses spokesman, in explaining what brought the group to Brooklyn a century ago in the first place, cited the “borough of churches” appellation, as well what he called Brooklyn’s reputation as a “center of religious thought.” Some observers credit the group, with its many live-in employees and volunteers, for helping stabilize the waterfront neighborhood during New York City’s 1970s financial crisis; others criticize it for not contributing enough of the considerable money it has saved, as a tax-exempt religious organization, toward needed neighborhood improvements. The business community, meanwhile, has commended the Witnesses for being good stewards of their assets and for their keen sense of market timing.

Out my window to the south, the spire of the local Catholic church dominates the sky; it is by far the tallest structure around, at least for now. Not so long ago the steeple was in disrepair, damaged by the elements, the black hands of the big clock frozen. Then, around the time of the sale of the church's nearby school building to a private educational organization, it was refurbished. Now the steeple is illuminated through the night, visible from the surrounding streets and highways, while the working clock shows the right time for anyone who takes a moment to look. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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