Something for Democrats to Run On

A terrible premonition dawns on my Democratic friends: Their party could fail to win either the House or the Senate this November.

An even darker vexation follows: Trump is re-elected in 2020 (after winning the Nobel Peace Prize).

My wife, shaken by this foreboding, challenged me to think of something the Democratic Party can do to stop this train wreck. It’s not enough, she says, for us just to be against Trump. We need to be FOR something.

I usually vote Democratic as an old family tradition. I’m more loyal than liberal.

But this doesn’t work for most voters. And being appalled at what we have now isn’t good enough.

So I came up with something.

I’m thinking of a busy community college campus full of people of all ages, high school dropouts, single mothers, blue-collar workers. They are struggling and sacrificing for a better future, not just for themselves but for family and that deep American impulse to rise a notch or two.

This is not like the elite university where I teach, Washington and Lee, but is much more common and important for America’s future. Take, for instance, Surry Community College, with a campus in Mt. Airy, N.C.

One of our sons, after four years in the Marines, just completed his training at SCC on the GI Bill for three types of metalworking. The school asked him to come back and teach welding. He has taken out a mortgage to buy a farm and is waiting for his first child to be born.

A few years ago, after fighting in Iraq, he was hopping trains, Dumpster-diving and protesting police oppression. But there’s something about the future that calls us all, at some point, to improve our position, to plant fruit trees or raise children, to do something not only for others, but for our own not-yet-born.

The Democratic Party should claim this. It should be the party that honors the American will to build and plant and sacrifice for our future. It should point out the contrast between this impulse and the live-for-the-moment hedonism that, oddly enough, has become the Republican brand.

Yes, Trump promised rebuilding infrastructure. But since his actual plan is such a disappointment, the Democrats should re-claim it, 10-fold. Better roads and bridges, yes, but also public transportation.

Democrats have an opening here. They should face the disaster of traffic in cities like my own  hometown Atlanta by being smart about the future, finding the good balance between preservation, recycling and engineering.

Today’s technology is neither good nor bad in itself, or rather, both very good and very bad. We don’t know what kind of future it will bring. But Democrats can talk about making it good, with time horizons going out 50 years and more.

I don’t have a slogan as catchy as Make America Great Again, but I have this idea: invest in the future beyond our selfish, crazy present. Creating a huge deficit on tax cuts that feel good, temporarily, is not future thinking. Supporting children and ordinary people’s drive for education and health is future thinking.

Seeing global alliances as an investment and not squandering our privilege as the world’s last super power, that’s future thinking.

Spending on Medicare and Social Security is related. It’s keeping a promise made by our future-thinking (Democratic) forebears.

The GOP agenda seems to be driven by a fear of the future and a reliance on TV’s emotional present tense.

I understand that. The future is scary and the present is stimulating, like Reality TV.

But the future is also something Americans have always believed in. That was the genius of the Founding Fathers. It’s why we fought a savage Civil War. Robert Frost liked to say in lectures that we don’t just believe IN the future – we believe the future IN.

We don’t control it, of course. This is not about a five-year plan or the perfectibility of man, but about actionable belief – planning and trusting at the same time.

In his poem “Carpe Diem,” Frost jokes that “seize the moment” was a hoax imposed by old poets who liked to imagine young love that way. But in reality, the poem says, life lives in the past and in the future. The present, he says, is too confusing, too much for the senses.

If Democrats could steer their party toward the future, in rhetoric and in faith, then the tail winds of the GOP breakdown will get them somewhere for sure.

This ran in the blog on Southern culture and politics “Like the Dew.”



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A Tory ghost on the Lower East Side

Last July on the Lower East Side of New York, I was draining the ice cubes of my second cocktail at Schiller’s Liquor Bar on Rivington Street when I fell into a trance. Rivington himself seemed conjured up from the vasty deep of history.

Time: July 1, 1802. Place: Hanover Square, New York

Rivington etchingGreetings, honored colleagues of the American press. I am James Rivington, or Jemmy Rivington to my friends. A “Judas” and a “servile wretch” to my old enemies. But that was a quarter century ago, during the tumultuous years of the American Revolution. I am an old man now, 78 years of age, and I have made my peace with God and my fellow man. I wish only to set the record straight on a few points of my character and my actions during those heady years when I published one of the finest newspapers in America.

I was born in London in 1724, an age when wit and fashion met in the coffeehouses and taverns, and everywhere, presses were cranking out magazines and books.

I grew up to learn the ways of a gentleman – which meant settling into my father’s business and enjoying life. Since my brother John was handling the family publishing business well after Father’s death in 1742, I eventually started another publishing shop with a partner named John Fletcher the playwright.

By temperament, I was a gambler. Many gentlemen are gamblers, but my love of gambling was inordinate. I lost as much as 10,000 pounds on one trotter at Newmarket! But then Fletcher and I made that much in profit publishing Smollett’s magnificent History of England. The life of a gambler is a life of sudden turns in the wind.

A favorable wind blew me out of England to seek my fortune in America in 1760. I landed in Philadelphia, set up a bookselling shop there, and tried my luck setting up similar businesses in Boston and New York. I helped devise a wonderful scheme for selling land in Maryland by a lottery. But this investment collapsed utterly, and I was left in ruin.

I started my New York print shop right here in Hanover Square in 1773 and launched my weekly newspaper, the New-York Gazetteer. It was a fine newspaper, lovely typography, the royal arms on the masthead, written in the King’s English, and a vital balance to the radical non-sense being printed up in Boston around this time. I printed all sides of the issues, “Open and uninfluenced,” “to please readers of all views and inclinations,” and I protected the identity of any author who wished to be protected. I had an astonishing circulation of 3,600.Rivington hung in effigy

Publishing the only major Tory newspaper, I decided to reach the widely dispersed readers of that political stripe. So to the name The New-York Gazetteer I added or the Connecticut, Hudson’s River, New-Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. I even considered adding “West Indies,” but it wouldn’t fit on the masthead.

Well, 1775 proved quite a tumultuous year. The more I sought to give a calm, balanced account, the more the so-called Patriots attacked me. A mob from New Jersey hung me in effigy. To show my contempt for this insolence, I printed a woodcut of myself hanging from that same tree, well-dressed and bewigged, as always.

Then came that thug “King” Sears, a leader in New Haven of one of those so-called Sons of Liberty gangs. He led a rabble to come attack my press. Soon, I was under arrest, but was pardoned.

Now let me tell you another story. You will be astonished when I tell you that I helped General Washington win the War of Independence in 1781.

I returned to New York in 1777, when it was safely in the hands of the British Crown. General Washington had been ignominiously routed. The Crown promised me 100 pounds a year to be the official newspaper of the royal government here. I resumed my bookstore business and opened a coffee shop. The latter was very popular with the British officers, which made it an excellent place to gather the freshest news for my paper. This also made it a perfect place to gather intelligence for the Patriot cause. Yes, that’s right. I was engaged in espionage for the other side.

By 1779, I could see which way the Fates were tending. I was a gambling man and I bet on your great country.

I knew Washington, and his spies knew me.

In 1783, Washington entered New York in triumph. The British soldiers had withdrawn, and virtually all Tories had fled to Canada or back to England. Except me. Now why do you think I was protected? And why do you think Washington came straight to visit me in my bookshop? I took the general into a back room, telling him I had an important agricultural book on order for his plantation work in Virginia. The door was slightly ajar, and two of Washington’s aides heard the clinking of two heavy purses of gold being placed on the table. That was my payment. I took it, only because I was in terrible debt. The Crown had failed to pay me what it promised.

Call it the fair settling of accounts between gentlemen, for a gamble that won the day.

I am again in poverty. My paper and other businesses failed. I was in debtor’s prison a few years ago. But I am a loyal American, and will remain so until I die. In fact, I will make one more bet – and that is that I will expire in three days, on the exact day of this country’s glorious statement of independence, July 4. Then you will know, that I was a true blue American, and a damn good bettor.

I finished a scrumptious dessert and drifted out onto Rivington Street. Schiller’s Liquor Bar closed down the following month, victim of rising rents in the most economically stratified neighborhood in Manhattan.

[published in “Clio Among the Media,” the quarterly newsletter of the History Division of the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, spring 2018.]

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Southern Crescent

Yes I guess the gate of heaven
is everywhere.
But you had to see on your cellphone
in the dark
that the train would be two hours late
turning us three back home
at exactly the right moment so that
from your side
of the turned-around car you saw
that shooting star.

Thank you, whoever made the train late,
and made the sun rise later
throwing winter light on your image
in my rear-view mirror:
The face of an angel and the bare patch
from radiation
showing a crescent scar, gateway
to consciousness.
And out there, a celestial ocean of cloud filling
the Shenandoah Valley

hilltops popping out like islands
in a bay.

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How to change the “Confederate” name of a church

Confederate symbols in churches, especially Episcopal churches in Virginia and the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., have followed a pattern of controversy parallel to, but distinct from, the civic battles over their removal from public spaces.

Lee's church -- finally! copyIn Episcopal churches directly associated with Robert E. Lee, the controversy has been a deeply emotional, semi-private clash of sensibilities, one side claiming to respect the sacredness of history and the other, the history of sacredness.

It has been, under the surface, a re-litigating of Lee’s terms of surrender at Appomattox.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond is the church Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended during the Civil War. Five months after the mass shooting in a black church in Charleston by a neo-Confederate waif in June 2015, the church began removing images of the Confederate flag from kneelers, bookplates and plaques. “This decision is completely asinine,” one reader commented online in the Times-Dispatch. “These are monuments to the dead and have a deep and direct connection to the history of this building. Burning books and removing historical markers will not help you resolve your juvenile white guilt, self-hatred, or racism.”

The rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, resigned on Sept. 15 amid speculation that the church’s embrace of Presiding Bishop Michael C. Curry’s call for racial reconciliation had played a part. St. Paul’s own commitment to the national project is called History and Reconciliation Initiative (HRI), which some felt was somehow behind Adams-Riley’s resignation. A statement from the vestry refuted these rumors.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the vestry said. “HRI is the most vibrant and energized project St. Paul’s has undertaken in many years. This work is a mandate of the Presiding Bishop and was Wallace’s gift to the church, and we intend to live it forward fully, without reservation.”

Meanwhile, at Christ Church, Alexandria, a 1773 Episcopal parish that claims George Washington and the Lee family as former worshippers, a relatively new rector was pushing for the removal of heavy memorial plaques to Lee and Washington on either side of the altar, both donated by parishioners after Lee’s death in 1870. The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, suggesting the church needed to be “radically welcoming,” had run into resistance. “The discussion about the appropriateness of the plaques in our worship space caused friction in our parish family,” said an Oct. 26 letter signed by York-Simmons and the vestry. “We understand that the discernment process has felt confusing and exclusive. We hope all parishioners will be more fully involved as we move forward.”

In Lexington, Va., the friction began for R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in 2015 after the Charleston shooting. A parishioner who teaches Shakespeare at Washington and Lee University next door wrote a letter to the rector, the Rev. Tom Crittenden, and the senior and junior wardens calling for a “frank, Christ-centered discussion about the name.”

Father Crittenden believed that compromise was possible, with enough love and forbearance. It turned out to be a far more difficult and costly belief than anyone imagined. But in the end, he was right.

I was on the vestry of the parish for all three years of the controversy.  On Sept. 18, 2017, my final year, I voted with a bare majority 7-5 to change the name to Grace Episcopal Church.

To me, it felt like a miracle, considering how unbending the resistance had been since 2015 among some lay leaders and how empty the church’s youth program had become because of the alienation of younger families. The defense of Lee’s memorial name, which would have mortified Lee the traditional churchman, had become a gothic battlement against the shifting cultural winds.

“Grace” seems the right word, a return to what it was called in the 19th century when Lee was senior warden after he joined the church in 1865. (“Memorial” was added after he died in 1870; it became R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903).

In 2015, Father Crittenden did not try to stop the issue at the church door. But neither did he push toward a foregone conclusion. He summoned a special vestry meeting. He helped organize house meetings and parish meetings for well-run discussions. Instead of a vote, there was a survey. Nearly a third of the congregation felt there was something wrong with the name, from a Christian perspective.

Despite all of this effort at dialog – or maybe because of it – most members were unhappy with the process. Although the vestry had imposed a super-majority requirement on itself for such an upending change (falling one vote short, 9-6, in November that year), neither side felt that the vote settled anything. The church ended the year in a dark funk.

In the face of a fractured church that one vestry member compared to our national political discourse, the rector sought outside help that turned out to be based on radical peacebuilding techniques from the pacifist Mennonite branch of Christianity.

Cooperative by Design, LLC, is a consortium of “peacebuilding practitioners,” most of whom have connections with Eastern Mennonite University, an hour northeast of Lexington in Harrisonburg. Father Crittenden researched the group and, with the vestry’s approval, invited two of its consultants (one an Episcopal priest) to the vestry retreat in January 2016. Two things were memorable about their visit to that retreat: A technique of giving an individual the power to speak while others listened and secondly, the idea that conflict was not something to be “resolved” but was a kind of energy that could be used for “transformation.”

Such conflict-transformation was to come from recommendations by a group of six parishioners who would experience that transformation themselves. It would be expensive: The original contract was for up to $12,000, but the work took more time and effort than the consultants had planned on. In the end, Cooperative by Design submitted bills totaling more than $16,000.

It was hard, wrenching work for the six on the committee. They all said as much, although they were reluctant to speak as individuals about the experience. After nine months of two-hour meetings every two weeks, plus leading about a dozen focus groups with more than 100 parishioners, this “Discovery and Discernment Committee” formed a bond of confidentiality: No grandstanding. When they submitted their final 15-page report in April, they seemed to me like castaways rescued from an island after a powerful common experience.

Father Crittenden was seeking healing and reconciliation, so did not put a limit on where God might lead the committee. But even he did not expect the committee to come back with a recommendation to change the name, or that it would cost him his job. When they first came, the consultants had insisted that the name-change was only a symptom, a “presenting” issue of conflict underneath. What the underlying issue or issues might be was anybody’s guess.

Robert E. Lee as symbol, a symbol generations of white Southerners invested with almost Christ-like qualities (as historian Emory M. Thomas has noted), has been hard on the rectors of Lee’s churches. The reason Father Crittenden resigned after it was all over is complicated, and in some ways, inexplicable. A steady, patient, gifted man, Father Crittenden announced his resignation after 10 years at R.E. Lee Memorial, and three and a half weeks after the name change.

In one of his last sermons, he called the D&D report our “John the Baptist moment.”

To many parishioners, it seems he was chewed up unfairly by the name-change controversy. He was faithful to a middle way, a way that worked beautifully for him in his previous parish in Tallahassee. There, his church flourished and weathered liberal-conservative battles over doctrine that had caused six other Episcopal churches to split or close down.

In the fullness of time, it was his middle way that changed the name from R.E. Lee to Grace. The Discovery and Discernment Committee had found “identity” as an underlying issue. The answer to that identity could not be a stark binary choice, dividing “winners” and “losers.” It had to be compromise. The committee’s recommendation was to restore the historical name of Grace, but also create a subcommittee “to honor Lee and the history of this parish in meaningful and significant ways.”

It took the vestry five months to accept that compromise, and even then, it was with a close, bitter vote. But the D&D committee’s recommendation became the map. No more argument was needed. Now a sign hangs out front for “Grace Episcopal Church, 1840,” and a history committee I chair, dominated by church members who opposed the name change, is discussing an interpretive sign for the front of the Parish Hall with brief sketches of famous people who worshipped in the church. That would include Lee, of course, but also could include Jonathan Daniels, a former VMI cadet who was martyred in Alabama in 1965 while helping register blacks to vote.

Father Crittenden’s farewell sermon was on All Saints Sunday. He said that he prays we will continue to implement the Discovery and Discernment Committee’s recommendations — “all of them,” he added. “Last April, the vestry ‘tabled’ some of the recommendations. People of God, we don’t, we can’t table the work of the Holy Spirit!”


This ran as an opinion column on Religion News Service.


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Real news, in my opinion

Fake news was real.

Me and Mike

Mike and me, outgoing and incoming heads of History Division, AEJMC

There really were a bunch of teenagers in a former Communist city in the former Yugoslavia cranking out confections with tabloid-headlines quoting fake FBI sources saying Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted, or whatever.

Kids will be kids, and on social media, they learn fast. These kids learned that the American click-bait market paid better than the Eurozone, and that politics worked better than listicals, and that pro-Trump scams were easier to manufacture than cat videos.

So they flourished for a while during the 2016 presidential campaigns, fooling Trump fans with more than 100 websites that sounded like red-blooded right-wing American political sites. But the system is self-correcting. Sort of. BuzzFeed and The Guardian exposed the fraud. Google and Facebook said they would shut down fake news sites. Not much damage was done. Oh yeah, except Donald Trump was elected president.

Trump is amazing. You have to admit it. A shameless swindler on a scale that makes the Music Man and Wizard of Oz seem puritanical. To say he “lies” misses the point. Poets lie in one way. Swindlers lie in another. But it’s not really lying. It goes with the vocation.

If his dominance were just reality TV, pro wrestling or tabloid news, we could be entertained or put off, as New Yorkers and cheated contractors and golf partners have been for decades.

But we’re media historians and communication professors, not quite his “enemy of the American people,” but fellow travelers. To add another swirl to his libido for confusion, he misappropriates the term “fake news” by applying it to the New York Times and CNN.

The “failing” New York Times (with stock rising from $13 to $18 a share in the past year) does indeed commit factual errors every day. That’s journalism. Trump applies the term fake news to real journalism in two ways. One is for news he doesn’t like. The other is for when there’s an error in a news story he doesn’t like.

How do you teach this stuff these days? How do you study it?

Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed who exposed the fake-news prodigies of Macedonia, is a leading expert on fake news and on the related problem of online verification of rumors (about which he produced a good study in 2015 for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism). I enjoyed his keynote address at AEJMC in Chicago, although his narrow definition of fake news came in for debate at a later conference session.

Silverman defined fake news as made-up online material designed only to make money, not to advance an agenda. When it is to advance an agenda, he said, it’s propaganda.

Either way, I was inspired after that session to post on my Facebook page the following resolution: “I will not open any more shared sites unless I recognize the source. I don’t mean the person sharing. I mean the link. I recommend this practice to all. You can ask the person sharing to please describe why they trust some fresh source you’ve never heard of. We can solve this problem.” I would include my nephew’s amateur video that has gotten more than five million hits.

In the History Division’s final research session on Saturday, Julien Gorbach of the University of Hawaii presented a paper proposing a more elaborate taxonomy of made-up news, “Not Your Grandpa’s Hoax: A Comparative History of Fake News.” Gorbach goes back to Defoe, The New York Sun and Poe to categorize types of hoaxes that have always played out in the history of journalism. But in the age of social media, the “fun” of yesteryear’s hoaxes has been replaced by real danger, from hijacked elections to nuclear war. Like journalist Richard Hornik at Syracuse, Gorbach argues for more news literacy.

This was also the main point of a resolution from AEJMC’s RF&R standing committee that the conference approved. It addressed “threats to the First Amendment” and reaffirmed the association’s commitment “to journalism and its role and function in a free and democratic society.”

I was surprised that the resolution, with its windup of eight Whereas sentences, failed to mention Donald Trump, though his shadow fell over most of the document. The sentence on fake news was especially gossamer. “Whereas repeated allegations of ‘fake news’ underscores a pressing need for a more media-literate electorate” . . . huh? The sentence did get its verb-number corrected to “underscore.” But I had to speak up to agree with the woman who complained about the weakness of this wording. First of all, it’s the actual viral-going existence, not allegations, of fake news that underscores the need for media literacy. And then it’s Trump’s twisted name-calling – hardly deserving of the term allegations – that misapplies the term fake news as his way of dodging and changing the subject.

The high point of the conference for me was getting a bear hug from Mike Sweeney as about 50 members of our division stood in prolonged applause for Mike. He has been matter-of-fact about his cancer, and the daily rest he needed even at the convention, because of treatment. Through all this, he continued working at Ohio University, chaired the division, edited Journalism History, and supervised the ad hoc committee that Frank Fee chaired to map out how our division can take on this publication.

I didn’t have anything like a proper gift for Mike, but I happened to have a historic button that meant a lot to me. So I gave it to Mike. It was a large black button that announced James Meredith’s March Against Fear, Mississippi, 1966. As I said then, Mike is one of the two living heroes I look up to. (The other is our daughter Sarah, 26, whose brain surgery in New York three days later successfully remove half her slow-growing tumor, and didn’t damage the insular cortex she dearly needed to protect to do medical journalism well.)

Our job is to not be afraid, looking to James Meredith and Mike Sweeney for examples.

Now I have a new button that I got in New York, from a friend at the Times. It’s a small white button that says “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.”

Note: This was my initial column as AEJMC History Division head, in the fall issue of Clio Among the Media, the division’s quarterly newsletter.

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After tragic fire in historic synagogue: Shared space or hyper-gentrification?

Story and photos by Doug Cumming

NEW YORK — An abandoned synagogue that for 120 years housed New York’s oldest Eastern European Jewish congregation was not noticed much – until it lit up the sky last May.

The flames that pillared up from Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that Sunday evening, Mother’s Day, caught residents’ attention more than two miles away. People who knew the history of this neglected site in the Lower East Side began calling one another, like relatives when a loved one dies.


Ruins of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue

Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer who had long hoped for the building’s restoration, got such a call, but couldn’t bear to go outside and look. “I had a very good sense I didn’t want to see its demise.”

For another neighborhood preservationist, avoiding the pain took longer.  “I couldn’t go there for about two weeks after the fire,” Holly Kaye, founder of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, told a Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing July 11. “It’s just a tragedy.”

Now the question that neighbors and preservationists are asking is this: If any portion of the looming ruins can be saved, will it be used as part of a shared community space that honors the rich immigrant history of the Lower East Side? Or will it become another iconic gesture embedded in another multi-million-dollar luxury apartment building?

The cathedral-style neo-gothic brick building, whose name means “Great House of Study,” dates back to a Protestant church in the 1850s. Its first rabbi in the 1880s, Jacob Joseph, was the city’s only “chief rabbi,” a European title that didn’t last in New York beyond Rabbi Joseph’s massive funeral in 1902. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s rabbi from 1952 until his death in 2003 was Ephraim Oshrey, a noted Talmudic scholar and Holocaust survivor.


Elissa Sampson, an urban geographer, observes a pew in her home from the original 1850 building.

In her residence several blocks from the ruins at 60 Norfolk St., Sampson points out a piece of the original synagogue, a short wooden pew, that survives in her home. She flips through the pages of The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, a 1978 book she helped update for a second edition in 2013.

There is a photo of Rabbi Oshrey, a remarkable religious leader who drew many old-time as well as newly arrived Orthodox Jews to the synagogue. Sampson said he played a leading role in saving the building when much of the Seward Park area fell victim to “slum clearance” in the 1960s. Oshrey had the building “landmarked” in 1967, the early years of New York’s powerful Landmark Preservation Commission.

“Rabbi Oshrey, being no fool, did not want to lose his synagogue,” said Sampson, who is also a visiting lecturer at Cornell University. “He understood very well its history and was in a good position to know why it was important.”

The landmark protection of the building became a hindrance to finding a viable commercial future for the synagogue. In 2012, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, the son-in-law of Rabbi Oshrey, filed a hardship application with the LPC for relief from the landmark restrictions. (With no remaining congregation, ownership of the synagogue had been transferred to “Beth Hamedrash Hagadol of New York Restoration, Inc.” for $10, according to a deed dated May 13, 1969, signed by the new owner Aron Mendel. Mendel lives near Rabbi Greenbaum in a Hassidic section of Brooklyn.)


Photos of the synagogue and Rabbi Oshrey in the book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side

The LPC did not grant hardship relief in 2012.

At the July 11 LPC hearing after the fire, several speakers aired rumors or suspicions that neglect of the building since 2012 was deliberate, since its real estate value has risen by some $6 million since the fire.

Holly Kaye, who had been working for 20 years to save the synagogue, quashed those rumors. She said Rabbi Greenbaum’s request for hardship relief outraged the community, but when she talked to the rabbi about this at that time, he immediately withdrew the application and completely changed his outlook. Since then, she said, he has worked with community groups and potential development partners to save the synagogue.

In fact, Kaye said, a meeting about a preservation plan was just days away, with the Chinese-American Planning Council and other development partners, when the synagogue was ravaged by the fire. To imply that the rabbi had anything to do with the fire “goes against everything that I know,” she said.

Sampson agrees. “While the rabbi is indecisive and did not take the right steps from 2007 to before the fire to secure the building and restore it,” she said, “there’s a distinct difference between saying that and connecting it to the arson. It has absolutely nothing to do with the arson.” The building wasn’t even insured – or insurable, she added.

Rabbi Greenbaum did not respond to email or phone calls.

Whether or not the building could have been more secure or in better shape, the deterioration was so advanced, Sampson had ceased giving tours of the interior. The mold was a liability, she said. There had been other minor fires inside, and young people were frequently breaking in to party. Bernice Cincron, manager of the high-rise residential building next door, said her supervisor would call the rabbi whenever they noticed a break-in.

Police questioned three 14-year-olds suspected of being in the synagogue when the fire started, and released one of the juveniles after charging him with arson.

The LPC disappointed the applicant, who wanted permission to conduct the demolition completely free of landmark restrictions. Instead, the LPC granted the right to remove all unsafe portions in accord with engineering studies by both the LPC and the owner. The engineering studies agree that most of the walls and towers are too unstable to be saved. But once the remains are safe, the owners and development partners are to assess how these might be incorporated in a new development plan.

This gives community activists some hope. The day after the July 11 decision, the online Bowery Boogie published an upbeat, anonymous op-ed by a resident who lives across the street and watched the fire from there.

“I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, and have seen amazing culturally significant buildings transformed into parks, galleries, municipal buildings and other structures,” the resident wrote. “We as a community, if we think creatively, can do that with the space and structure that is salvageable at Beth Hamedrash.”

This is Elissa Sampson’s hope. It’s not so much a matter of how much of the physical building remains, but how it is used. One vision is something like the re-purposed synagogue at 172 Norfolk St., a Reformed German Jewish synagogue older than Beth Hamedrash Hagadol that was saved from the wrecking ball by Spanish artist Angel Orensanz. Today, that brightly painted building is a cultural center, a wedding venue for celebrities, a highlight of Lower East Side tours and rented space for a Reform Jewish shul.


Tour group views Angel Orensanz Center at 176 Norfolk St., several blocks north of the burned synagogue.

The contrasting vision that Sampson fears is hyper-gentrification, embodied by the 16-story glass Blue Tower at 105 Norfolk St., where apartments rent for as much as $18,000 a month and the top floors sell for $7 million, according to Lower East Side Tenement Museum tour guide Laureen Fredella.

“So the real stakes in the Lower East Side are that of belonging in terms of long-term residents, and fostering a sense of belonging in new-time residents,” Sampson says. “It’s across the board, in having equity in the neighborhood in ways that play fair whether it’s access to green space, public space, housing, and having diversity.”

Historically, the area was the most densely populated place on the planet and an incubator of the hope, liberty and faith of American immigrants. Now, Sampson says, it’s one of the most economically stratified neighborhoods in New York City.

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Rounding Manhattan

The tourists sitting in rows on the top deck of the docked Circle Line Manhattan waited to be entertained, and at $41 per adult ticket, $27 for children, it better be good.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls,” a brassy New York voice blared over the speakers, beginning the invisible tour guide’s spiel. His intro seemed a little long for not moving out of the diesel fumes while the ship sat lashed to the pier’s parking deck.

“There are some very cool things to see,” the voice said. He promised a lot of history and claimed this tour was different from all the other sightseeing tours. When you’re well out from the city looking back, he said, something very special happens.

Engines kicked in under the steel deck, and presently, the voyage was out on the windy Hudson River. The promised magic took hold.

Women began to look like models in a studio when a fan blows their long hair and they gaze off into a gel light. The sinking sun behind a cloud over the New Jersey side cast down cathedral light beams. The boat curved toward the south over what the tour guide called a “sacred space,” where Captain “Sully” Sullenberger had belly flopped an engine-less jet airliner in 2009 without losing a single passenger. The geese that clogged the engines didn’t fare so well.

The guide could be found in the covered foredeck, an actor named Malachy Murray who said he had played Dracula on Broadway. A mic in one hand, that arm covered in tattoos, he invoked the old days of the world’s greatest shipping port, of the Hamilton-Burr duel in those woods on the New Jersey side, and of the immigrant’s dream back when Ellis Island took in the tempest tossed and wretched refuse. Thick blond hair spilling over his shoulders, he is Irish-American, lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and when asked about his classic New York accent, quipped, “I worked hard on it for 52 years.”

The two-hour tour circled around the great island of file-cabinet skyscrapers, chugged under the cable-knit East River bridges to Roosevelt Island, and muscled out to a vantage point between the Statue of Liberty and dense-packed lower Manhattan as both lit up. The glow brought a hundred cellphone cameras aloft, offering a perfect contrast to the blue-gray waters below and clouds above the color of a large bruise.

“Is that great, or is that awesome?” Deanna Ezzell of Kansas City, Mo., said to her husband Jason, pointing at the Statue of Liberty they had been inside the day before.

A light rain began falling and the festive mood got even higher when the crowd huddled close together under the shelter behind the foredeck. Most of the wet seats in the open were abandoned. But a young woman out there with a few others laughed under her tightly held umbrella, rib-bent upward in the wind like a flower.

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