In 1980, Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg wrote about the copper roof of the church across the street from his apartment in the East Village. The Church of Mary Help of Christians on Avenue A was then sixty-three years old, and would appear in many other poems by Ginsberg. Today, at ninety-seven years old, the church is in very probable danger of being demolished.
The property was recently purchased by developer Douglas Steiner of Steiner NYC and Steiner Equities Group, who, in a display of absurdist Muppet Movie villainy, also obtained permits to demolish the church, its 150-year-old rectory, and its 90-year-old school. Included in the site purchased by Steiner is a large yard which would provide sufficient space for development, making the demolition of the history buildings on the lot unnecessary. The organizations trying to save the church have asked Steiner to build on the yard, to preserve the historic buildings, and to possibly integrate the buildings into the set up of this development. So far, Steiner has refused to change his plans. Never mind that what makes Village real estate so valuable is the Village’s incredibly rich history. In order to keep the value of his development units high, it might be intelligent of Steiner to preserve some of that history, as well the uniqueness of the neighborhood.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Historic Districts council, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, and the East Village Community Coalition have taken up the issue. On Wednesday, they gathered a few dozen preservationists in front of the church to protest the upcoming development. Of particular interest to them is the fact that the church was built on top of a former cemetery. In 1909, the cemetery was decommissioned by the Catholic Church, and the bodies were transferred to a cemetery in Queens. What remains unclear is whether all of its 40,000 bodies were moved. Preservationists have called for a complete archaeological evaluation of the site before any work is done to determine whether some skeletons stil remain. Other efforts of preservationists included an urgent request to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to make the church a landmark. That was in February of 2012. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has not yet evaluated the site, but as of right now, the East Village, unfortunately, looks like it’s losing another component of its history.
Get in touch with the author @LaraElmayan.