Monday, May 24, 2010

☞ READ: Harlem Churches Struggle to Stay Open

Today's New York Times article on how some smaller churches in Harlem struggle to stay open because of dwindling numbers covers many topics including gentrification, long-time residents selling their brownstones and moving to the south, along with the fact that older members are passing away. The one thing it does not really touch upon is that the newer generations of New Yorkers might not be as religious as their parents. If anything, the population of Harlem (since 2000) is growing for the first time in over four decades so there is a potential for growth if the new arrivals were so inclined to go to religious services. So what is the problem? Read more in today's NY Times: LINK. Photo courtesy of Ozier Muhammad


  1. I also felt this article was a little off. I generally think NYTimes coverage misses a lot of Harlem's nuance and jumps straight to gentrification; a catch all term that let's them take a shortcut and avoid a deeper explanation. I also think the decline has more to do with less interest in church from younger generations.

  2. I agree that there is probably somewhat less interest in church among younger generations. I also think competition for members must be tough; in my part of Harlem is is hard to go a single block without passing a church.

  3. For me "The church was the absolute center of the community." is the key line in this article. If the churches want to keep their status and benches filled they need to keep up with the community every day, its changes, the new faces, its needs. Outreach, updated programming, openness and community involvement are key I believe.

    I think the newbies in the neighborhood and the kids of the old-timers are looking for churches, but what they find is not necessarily appealing to them. There is so much competition in this field, there are so so many religions, groups and houses of worship. I am sure it is hard hard work to keep it up.

  4. These tiny brownstone churches that are vanishing are a very positive, rich and vibrant part of Harlem’s unique culture. A sad loss.

  5. I agree with Katherine.

    It should be understood, however, that there is a difference between established churches that are members of recognised dominations—Episcopal, AME, Baptist and Roman Catholic, etc. And the little storefront churches. All have their places but I find it especially sad when the architecturally significant churches such as St.Martin’s Episcopal find their congregations diminished and their beautiful buildings in jeopardy.

    The Episcopal Diocese of New York has division devoted to congregation development. But it’s not an easy row to hoe and despite protestations some parishes do not want to change enough to encourage new growth. Change is difficult, especially in a church where “we’ve always done it this way” is THE way.

    Thus endeth the lesson.

  6. @Westsider—my neighbour from across the street told me he remembers when, as a child, he went to church in my building.

  7. I am of two minds about this. First there is the aspect of community involvement. I am supportive of the church's efforts when they are out in the community helping- whether it be a basketball tournament for the kids or working to help stop some of the violent gangs in the community.

    Then there is the other side. I live next door to a small church. With the exception of a few community outreach programs- they have largely been a bad neighbor. Congregants intentionally litter- and their porter throws out their trash on our side of the property line. This has caused us to receive fines from their trash more than a few times. Double I really need to say more about it? Noise- while they do exceed reasonable noise levels past 9 pm, that's not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that they are in violation of numerous building codes...address the building code violations- and our residents won't have problems with the noise anymore. Which leads me to the violations- they don't even have a safe rear fire safety exit. The police don't want to touch them- indicating that they are above the law. This is unacceptable.

    Adding to my mixed feelings are the buildings themselves. Some of these structures are amazing and will hopefully remain for generations to come. Unfortunately, far too many look as if they should have been condemned- and probably would have if they weren't protected by the powerful Harlem ministers. One or more of these buildings may see a tragedy as a result of a partial or full building collapse before the city gets involved. I hope it does not come down to that. I say hold the owners of these buildings to the same standard of everyone else. If the building is not safe- then they should not be able to hold services until they fix the problems.

    Also who set that law about not allowing restaurants to sell alcohol when they are within x feet of a church (any religious institution?)? It's hampering Harlem's ability to re-vitalize itself. Maybe it won't- if enough church's close. I know I am looking forward to the opening of the new Harlem Beer Garden. I don't drink often- but I would like to enjoy a drink every now and again without feeling like I need to leave Harlem.

  8. This is only one experience (mine) but it may hold true for others as well. When my wife and I moved to Harlem several years ago, we were excited about the "small town" feel and mostly friendly neighbors, who would actually say hello and wave when we passed on the street.

    It was that same enthusiasm that led us to the Mount Morris Presbyterian Church one Sunday. We hadn't joined a church yet in the city and wouldn't it be great if one so close was the one we wanted to worship in?

    We got no further than the outside door. A lady - a minister or an old time parishioner? - popped out and demanded to know what we wanted. We were both so taken aback; not the typical Sunday greeting. We replied that we were new to the nabe and wanted to check out the church. Response? "It's closed!" Okay...

    We walked away wondering if our white faces was the reason we were so aggressively turned away. Or because we were new? Or maybe the lady was having a bad day?

    In any case, we haven't been back and have instead joined a Presbyterian church on the UES. When the author of the article wrote that many of the churches had not reached out to the new residents and "some, in truth, expressed little desire to do so", that really rang true to me.

    Successful churches mirror the communities around them. And Christian churches should be welcoming to all who wish to worship. It's kinda sad to read this article, but makes me wonder how much their own decisions have added to their issues.

  9. how about there being a need for churches in harlem to merge? is there anyone that believe that merging several of the congregations might actually yield profitable venture?

  10. Anon 1:15.


  11. Seems every Black Harlem Church that can has happily sold their land to a developer or happily entered the frenzy of cashing in on Harlem and their own culture. Greed. The examples are everywhere in Harlem. The worse illustration is...

    "The New York Times describes the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino as "a Harlem landmark in all but name," citing a "Landmarks Preservation Commission... proposal, dating to 1991, to designate the Renaissance complex a landmark." However, the buildings were never landmarked. The property owner, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, used backers like the New York Landmarks Conservancy to convince the Landmarks Commission that landmarking the property would "have created intolerable delays" in their plans to build a "13-story apartment house" and a "community center" on top of the complex.
    - N Kensinger

    What did Abyssinia Church teach me? Why value your culture when there is money to be made?

  12. There was an article just a few months ago about the decline of the Harlem political machine and now this about the decline of Harlem churches. These two entities have essentially defined Harlem so it will be interesting to see how the community changes over the next decade or so.

  13. 2:35,

    The changes will be for the better.

  14. Many Harlem churches are racist and corrupt. Period. Not all, but many. They are horrible neighbors and have not helped the community at all. They are introverted and keep to themselves, are full of judgements of non-believers, etc.

    The only thing worth saving is the architecture of some of these fine buildings. We can only hope they sell to a developer instead of running their buildings into the ground until it is too late to save them (i.e. Renaissance Ballroom).

  15. Anon 5/24 1:05pm -- Wow. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there are people who think that way, especially in among a subset of the old guard represented here -- but I have to say your account makes me a lot less sympathetic to the hardships these churches are facing.