The end of World War II brought a massive shift to mass transportation by car. Before the war, the streets of Brooklyn were already jammed with traffic. With the lifting of war-time rationing on gas and car production, the byways became a tangled mess of lobster pools of angry, red-faced motorists going nowhere.
For decades, corrupt city governments had frittered away the monies that could have relieved the boroughs’ rotting transportation system. In his biography of master builder Robert Moses, Robert Caro noted that by the 1930s, “as for Brooklyn, borough of churches, its inhabitants had been praying for a way out of it for decades. There was, in the entire borough, not a single major through thoroughfare.” Moses was about to change that with devastating consequences for Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Moses would be relentless in bulldozing 627 miles of roads in and around New York City. For him the need outweighed the human costs. Social arrangements could be re-arranged like tinker toys. In 1956 a reporter riding around with Moses noted that the builder was always “mentally readjusting houses as though they were so many toy building blocks.” Oh, there is a church that blocks the right of way of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, let’s turn it sideways, he would muse.
Transportation plays a crucial role in religious change. The Silk Road in Central Asia allowed easy passage of Buddhist missionaries to China. Better ships and navigation allowed Columbus to bring the Catholic faith to the Americas. In their letters European Puritans often mention how going to the New World might be an option for escaping persecution. The Mayflower Compact set the ground rules for the Plymouth Puritans’ journey and became a model for the United States Constitution. The great 19th century missionary movement traveled on fast sail ships, then even faster on steam ships and on the railroads. The Williamsburg Bridge profoundly changed the religious situation of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway ushered in another religious era by destroying religious sites and enabling the middle class to leave the city with their churches.
Moses drew up his master plan in the 1920s and 1930s, but corruption and politics had slowed him down. An early glimpse of his modus operandi in dealing with churches can be seen in the battles over the Meeker Avenue extension in Williamsburg. The large Deitz Memorial Baptist Church (founded as the First Italian Baptist Church and now Devoe Street Baptist Church) stood in the way of the extension; down it went in 1930. In 1933 a federal housing law laid the basis for further destruction by endorsing the condemnation and clearance of slums as a way to make room for new housing. Later, the Meeker Avenue extension was incorporated into a plan for building the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway with an expanded use of slum clearance.
The construction of the BQE, which began in 1946, tore whole neighborhoods in half, not just a few houses and churches. The deterioration of the social fabric in Greenpoint and Williamsburg was severe.
Starting in 1948, ten of the most populated blocks in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint area were mulched down to provide a road bed for the new highway which was completed in 1952. About 5000 people were displaced, leaving neighborhoods and their congregations in tatters. The expanded authority for the drastic action came from Title 1 of the Housing Act of 1949 which allowed “slum clearance.” Opinion among urbanologists was trending toward seeing the densely populated city as a problem and suburban decongestion as the ideal. In 1951 such sentiments added to the uncertainties created by massive destruction of neighborhood meant that new business investment in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhood was almost completely frightened away. Working class people who moved into the area probably did not take much note of the long term investment drought. New settlers felt fortunate in the present to find an affordable toe-hold in the city, even if it was a bit shabby and getting shabbier.
Because the home prices dropped during the construction of the BQE, poor Hasidic Jews immigrating from Hungary and Puerto Rican migrants settled together in the poverty-stricken, disrupted areas of south Williamsburg. This lead to a community without the strength of internal cohesion, though the new migrants from Puerto Rico brought somewhat more material resources with them than did the previous generation.
In the early 1950s Puerto Rico’s economy was industrializing and creating enough prosperity so that even more Puerto Ricans could afford to move to New York City. Also, Dominicans started to arrive in greater numbers in the neighborhood, though not in large numbers until later. Local churches started more outreach efforts to accommodate the incoming Hispanics. For example, the African American church leaders Ivory and Hattie Downer of the Williamsburg Church of God retooled their evangelism service as “a tent for all nations.” However, the center of gravity of the local African American community had shifted to East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Puerto Rican churches were often most successful in reaching out to new migrants by making connections based on home town origins in Puerto Rico.
After the United States took Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, religious freedom was established. Consequently, Protestants started to come to plant churches. To avoid competition they divided up the countryside outside of San Juan with the Methodists working in the north around Arecibo, the Baptists in the middle around Ponce and the Presbyterians to the west.
The Pentecostals, however, were not part of this arrangement and spread everywhere. This angered Henry Van Dyke, the president of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, so much that he denounced them. During a holiday trip in the Caribbean, he discovered that the Pentecostals and other groups were outgaining the establishment churches. Coming back to New York, he angrily complained of “harassment” by these “fringe groups.”
In Williamsburg and Greenpoint the Puerto Ricans and Hasidic Jews created a countrapuntal symphony of religious sounds on the streets. Spanish and Yiddish tones flowed out onto the sidewalks, briefly mingling, possibly unheard by many because it was incomprehensible. Their linguistic differences also reflected religions rooted in different historical eras.
Tent revivals in McCarran Park, between Roebling and Havermeyer and on Moore Street in the 1950s tossed in crackling loudspeakers, singing and preaching Jesus into the summer air. Pastor Norma Canty, who was brought into the Williamsburg Community Church of God (now called the Cathedral of Joy) by one of its tent revivals, recalls how the events sounded like a circus “because there were children running” back and forth. In the spring bonfires of hametz (leavened bread and other temporarily forbidden materials) smoked and crackled, attracting large crowds of onlookers anticipating Jewish Passover.
The Pentecostals and Hassidics were alike in their modesty in dress and strict discipline. Their ladies wore head coverings and long dresses with long sleeves. The sidewalks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were pleasantly dotted with family groups walking together for religious services and socializing. Physical contact between the sexes out in the public was restrained, but light touching of the hands of the children conveyed deep, not so visible emotions. Parents were worried about their children in this rough riding city. There were troubles emerging on the streets.
Addictions were spreading among Puerto Ricans. Since the 1930s, there had been newspaper reports of arrests of drug dealers in Williamsburg, mainly for selling marijuana and home brewed alcohol. However, some dealers in the neighborhoods sold hard drugs, dragging a few of their neighbors into addictive spirals towards a living hell. Their families were forced into an early confrontation with issues of life and death.
The rise of Pentecostalism among Hispanic New Yorkers was an antidote to the drug addiction disease. Consequently, because their success in turning around troubled lives and their strong opposition to witchcraft (“brujeria"), some journalists and other contemporary observers reported that as a Protestant ethic grew among Puerto Ricans, the number of customers for the potions and lucky talismans sold in the botanicas, which once dotted the Williamsburg streets, went down.
However, the established, older Protestant churches often didn’t see this side of the picture. Rather, they tended to dismissively lump the Pentecostals with the spiritualists. The contempt for grassroots religions reinforced the elite’s neglect of the needs of Hispanics in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. According to a local conference in 1948 of evangelical Protestant pastors from immigrant churches, racists were attacking "Puerto Ricans as interlopers and regarding them as less good citizens in the United States..."
Communal life in Brooklyn as a whole started to fray. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle closed in 1955. The voices of the common people got less attention. Symbols of Brooklyn vitality like the Brooklyn Dodgers disappeared. The baseball club decamped to Los Angeles in 1957. Activity at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was winding down. By the end of the decade some factories along the Williamsburg and Greenpoint shore were shutting down.
More gangs and crime appeared. Some locals recall that in the 1950s a surge of Northside gangs like The Dukes of Williamsburg, The Continentals, and The Turbans tangled over turf with Southside gangs like the Puerto Rican Phantom Lords, Mighty Midgets and Hellburners. Before he converted and became a pastor, Nicky Cruz led a revenge raid on the Phantom Lords as a favor to the Hellburners. The signs were that the 1960s and the 1970s would be rough years for Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Churches formed as they converted gang members. The era of ex-gangster churches gathered steam in the late 1950s till the late 1970s. The evangelicals response to those years would change their ministry focus in Williamsburg and Greenpoint toward rescuing people in vast danger of personal destructiveness.
For more on our journey through Williamsburg & Greenpoint religions see:
Illustrated Explorer's Guide Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Think of Brooklyn Community District 1 as a city with over 173,000 people in 2010.
Surprising truth about Billburg & Greenpoint: thick with religious faith and practice. There are over 300 religious organizations in the area.
The Jews of Williamsburg & Greenpoint. About 61,000 Jews live in the NYC community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint.