The character of Crown Heights is profoundly religious. It remains to be seen if the current gentrification will respect and support this aspect of Crown Heights culture.
There is about one religious congregation or ministry for every 480 residents of Crown Heights. There are 250 different religious sites in Crown Heights with 210 of these sites being religious congregations like churches, synagogues and mosques.
Bedford Avenue, which cuts across the middle of Crown Heights for about ten blocks, has fifteen congregations, two faith-based businesses, two faith-based social service corporations and one funeral home.
Ralph Avenue, which runs ten blocks as the eastern boundary of Crown Heights, has fourteen churches, a faith-based business and a funeral home, mostly within a few blocks of each other.
Evangelical and Pentecostal churches make up the majority of religious congregations in the community On the weekend 143 of these spirited congregations raise their hands in praise. They range in size from small storefront churches to mega-churches like Concord Baptist Church.
Four Catholic churches serve thousands of people, and several more congregations lay just outside of the community district. Catholics also operate a Golden Residence for mental health patients, low income housing, a senior center, a hospital, school and book store.
Eight mosques and one school serve the Muslims in Crown Heights. Just two blocks outside of the community district, the large At Taqwa Mosque also attracts many Crown Heights worshipers.
New Age and New Thought groups have established eight sites, and Buddhists and Hindus have two stores.
Relatively few Jewish sites lay on the north side of Eastern Parkway. Most of the Jewish sites are south. However, in addition to one synagogue and a yeshiva, there are a number of Jewish faith-based businesses north of Eastern Parkway, including a hotel for Orthodox visitors.
Religion has visibly inspired the founding of several dozen businesses in Crown Heights. One could spend an entire day shopping and finding entertainment at faith-based enterprises. Let’s say you are preparing to meet a friend from Manhattan. You start in the morning by having your hair done by a nationally-award-winning hair stylist at Divine Connection Hair Spa, then pick up a hat at Hats by Mary (who is active in a local Baptist church). After running back home to change into your neatly folded clothes from Dios Mery’s (God Mary’s) Super Laundromat, you make a quick call on your cell phone provided by Grace and Mercy Wireless Services. You need to make sure that they have the right directions for the meet-up for drinks at Noah’s Juice before proceeding to lunch at Thora’s Restaurant Isaiah 1.
Crown Heights congregations have also been outlets for New Yorkers who have been alienated from mainstream society. African American church leaders are apt to sympathize with Reverend Al Sharpton’s criticisms of racism and police policies that disproportionately punish minorities. But some are even more alienated from American society and churches and have moved off into other faiths.
In the 1960s and 1970s this movement of alienated African Americans filled the meetings of local Black Muslims and produced a number of religious sites that trace their lineage to African religions. This age of alienation can be seen vividly displayed in some of the older murals.
Quite a few of the Black Muslims shifted toward regular Sunni Islam and joined mosques that are critical of certain aspects of American culture but are still champions of democracy. At At Taqwa Masjid (mosque) Imam Siraj Wahhaj has mixed criticism with democratic values to build one of the larger congregations a few blocks from Crown Heights, become a nationally prominent Muslim leader and serve as the first Muslim chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
The most alienated and angry sometimes ended up in the mosque operated by Muslims of the Americas, Inc. They also established an “Islamberg” in upstate New York to give paramilitary training. The mosque has been accused of fostering support of al-Queda. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded by another Muslim group while he was researching whether the airplane shoe bomber Richard Reed was connected to the mosque in Crown Heights. The mosque has closed, and its leader has fled to Pakistan. The views of the mosque leader are repudiated by other local Muslim leaders.
The religious congregations’ contribution to the social welfare of Crown Heights
How much do these congregations contribute to the social welfare of Crown Heights? One way to answer this question is to determine the monetary value of the contributions of such church and ministry efforts in social services.
The work of University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan provides a useful guide. A few years ago he did a survey of the social welfare provision by congregations in several cities including New York City. He estimated the average value of a congregation's formally organized social welfare activities by adding up the value of paid labor, volunteer labor, groceries, medicine and direct monetary grants and the space utilized for these activities.
Adjusting his survey figures by the Consumer Price Index, we can estimate that each congregation in NYC today provides over $246,000 worth of social welfare benefits to the city every year.
That would mean that the congregations of Crown Heights contribute about $52,500,000 in social welfare benefits.
This does not count many other types of benefits like one-on-one counseling, the costs avoided for every person who is diverted from crime by the preaching of the religious congregations, and so forth. Nor does this figure include the contributions of Catholic Charities and interfaith groups.
For some perspective, this multi-million dollar contribution comes into Crown Heights every year, while building a new condo complex is mainly a one-time injection of money for construction costs. The newcomers to Crown Heights do have more discretionary income than the people that they are displacing, but it is uncertain how much of that will be spent in Crown Heights.
Because condominiums generally don’t provide meeting space for the community, the ability of non-profits to meet, gather and disperse social capital is severely restricted by widespread condominium construction. On Bedford Avenue where gentrification is proceeding at rapid pace, the disappearance of the 18 faith-based congregations and social service groups from that avenue would decrease the annual social value being generated for the community by $4,443,128. Over a ten-year period, Crown Heights will lose about $44 million of social capital from Bedford Avenue because of gentrification, unless equivalent space at reasonable rates for religious non-profits is found elsewhere in the community.
The future well-being of Crown Heights will be better assured if gentrification and aid to the poor and hurting through religious and other nonprofits are not mutually exclusive.