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Demolished But Not Forgotten


Birds sing in the broad sycamore that stretches over a forgotten block on Manhattan’s East 19th Street. Not far away, at the end of the block, the impenetrable brick wall of Stuyvesant Town’s towers rises up where once the street continued on to the East River. On both sides of the street several bleak brick buildings, bearing no ornamentation but rusty fire escapes, stand amidst the row of corniced town-homes that have inhabited the block for the better part of a century. And on the north side, wedged between the tidy shutters of a brownstone and a sleepy terra-cotta colored tenement, is an empty, debris-strewn lot where not so long ago the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

In New York City, and particularly on Manhattan’s East side, which is renowned for its impetuous race to constantly reinvent itself, the church’s congregation had long since learned that almost nothing in Manhattan lasts forever. For nearly six years the crumbling stone arch of the church’s front facade stood amidst the mostly demolished building—a tombstone for the congregation that once called it home. But earlier this year, in the solemn dead of winter, the sounds of hammers and chisels pounded away at its stones, and the arch faded into the shadows of the neighborhood that once raised it.

Rev. Brooke Swertfager led the Christ Lutheran Church congregation for the last 10 years before it closed its doors forever. Now in her 50s, the witty, auburn-haired Swertfager carries herself with grace, but as she speaks she seems haunted by the loss of her congregation’s home. In her office in the Lutheran Seafarer & International House by Union Square, Swertfager leaned back in her chair and rested her chin on her fingertips as she looked back on her life at the small church on 19th Street.

Due to financial troubles and declining attendance, Swertfager’s last few years at Christ Lutheran Church had been a gradual but difficult realization that the once great congregation’s time was coming to an end. For Swertfager, saying goodbye was a bittersweet moment.

“Frankly, I’m so glad that they did it,” said Swertfager, her malachite-colored eyes moist despite her stolid voice. “It was kind of like a scab on a wound.”

For 125 years the Lutheran congregation had called East 19th Street home—although, even during those years, it wasn’t the first time they’d had to watch one of their houses of worship demolished before their eyes.

In 1868 a group of German and English immigrants—led by German-American George Unangst Wenner—founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ above a blacksmith shop near the corner of 5th Avenue and East 14th Street. In those early days, Wenner used an anvil for his pulpit and the congregation numbered less than a dozen. But as waves of immigrants continued to pour into the area, the congregation steadily grew.

For over a decade the congregation migrated from one place to another as it matured, finally finding a more permanent home in what was then New York’s “Little Germany”—a vibrant neighborhood that stretched along the East Side of Manhattan.

“At the beginning of the ‘70s, after a decade of continuously rising immigration, Kleindeutschland was in its fullest bloom,” wrote historian Stanley Nadel. “Kleindeutschland, called Dutchtown by the Irish, consisted of 400 blocks formed by some six avenues and nearly 40 streets,” and was lined with covered-markets, beer halls, and oyster saloons. The neighborhood also had its own amusement district that featured puppet shows and classical drama performances.

Here the congregation found a home at 406 E. 19th St., the Chapel of Free Grace. The impressive gothic revival church, with its gabled tower, elegant chapter house, and stained-glass rose window, was a symbol of its quickly growing social and cultural significance in the community. But despite the Lutheran immigrants’ relief at settling down, after years of transience, their troubles were far from over.

“The extraordinary conditions of a rapidly expanding metropolis, with its nomadic population, together with our special drawback of congregations divided among various races and languages as well as conflicting schools of theological definition, make our tasks heavy and confront us with problems of grave difficulty,” wrote Rev. Wenner, in his 1918 book, “The Lutherans of New York: Their Story and Their Problems.”

His congregation had finally found a home on the East Side, but New York City’s race to modernize as it approached the turn of the 20th century was creating a kind of urban diaspora that was slowly tearing his congregation apart and redefining the neighborhood around it.

“The completion of the Elevated Lines in 1879 and the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 changed the course of history for our Lutheran congregations,” wrote Wenner. “It was hard for those of us who still held the fort on Manhattan Island to see the congregations we had gathered with painstaking effort scattering in every direction, especially to lose the children and grandchildren of our faithful families.”

But the problem was one that had only just begun when Wenner wrote these words. The neighborhood around the Lutheran church was to become an increasingly transient place in the decades to come, and by the time Rev. Swertfager arrived nearly a hundred years later, there was already little left to salvage.

While walking his dog below the leafy sycamore on 19th Street, John Donnelly glanced back at the blue scaffolding around the empty lot where the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

“I guess the church didn’t have a congregation anymore, so they sold,” said Donnelly, who has lived in one of the apartment buildings across the street from the church for the past 15 years. He said that, although the neighborhood traditionally has a high turnover rate, its deep-rooted community has dissolved even more so in recent years.

“Most of these buildings are rentals,” said Donnelly. “Over the years it’s become a lot more transient because you have a lot more college kids moving in.” He said that many of these rentals have replaced homes in the area and that the new, younger tenants are probably less invested in neighborhood dynamics.

The changing demographic was also one of the reasons that Swertfager said contributed to the decline of her congregation during the years that she served as pastor at Christ Lutheran Church.

“When I came there in 1991 several couples retired and moved away,” Swertfager said, “and I was left with primarily single, elderly women.” It was a sobering realization for Swertfager, but by the time she arrived, the Evangelical Lutheran community which had grown in vast waves during the late 19th and early 20th century, had almost completely vanished from the East Side of Manhattan.

One of the major blows to the neighborhood’s sense of community came in the early 1940s. As World War II came to a close and soldiers began returning from overseas, city planners searched for solutions to New York City’s housing crisis. At the time, one of the most prevalent strategies, which was championed by city planner Robert Moses, was known as “slum clearance”—a program in which entire neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with towering apartment complexes.

“You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate,” Moses said, referring to his methods, “but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.”

Although the neighborhood around the Lutheran’s Chapel of Free Grace was home to some 3,100 families in the early ‘40s, this was one of the neighborhoods chosen for “slum clearance.” Throughout the early part of the decade almost all of those families were evicted to make way for a new housing project known as Stuyvesant Town.

The New York Times wrote that the large-scale eviction of the tenants living in the Stuyvesant Town area was, “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York City’s history.” It was the beginning of the end for a once unified community that had long called the neighborhood home. It was also the beginning of the end for the Lutheran congregation that had made its home there 66 years ago.

“In Stuyvesant Town, because of design, they became semi-autonomous and turned away from the rest of the neighborhood,” said David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Columbia University. In what had once been a tightly-knit neighborhood of New York that blended seamlessly with the city around it, was now a looming brick colossus of 56 towers fenced in a 16-block area, and separated from the world around it.

Not only did the construction of Stuyvesant Town, and its twin development of Peter Cooper Village, isolate its residents within, it also fragmented the neighborhoods around its borders. After the Chapel of Free Grace was demolished to make way for the huge developments, the congregation constructed the Christ Lutheran Church at 355 E. 19th St.—a block away—but only to discover that most of its congregation had disappeared, scattered throughout the city and across the nation.

Over the following years the church fell farther and farther into disrepair, slowly running out of funds as its community dwindled away.

“It was an albatross—we couldn’t maintain the building and there was constant damage,” Swertfager said, adding that she spent most of her time keeping up with repairs herself in the moldering building because of the church’s financial troubles.

“We saw ourselves running out of reserves,” said Swertfager. “We sold while we could still get good money for it and before it crumbled into oblivion.”

In 2006, after two years of research and consultation with a real estate lawyer who had recently negotiated the sale of another church by Washington Square Park, Swertfager found a buyer she trusted—a couple with plans for altering the property, but who shared her vision of preserving the legacy of the church.

“We left it with the Goulds,” Swertfager said, “and they had architects coming and going and we had a very special relationship.” But over the course of the next few years, Swertfager noticed that although portions of the church had begun to disappear, little progress had been made.

Jonathan Gould, the developer who had purchased the property, hired architect Garth Hayden to design a low-rise luxury condo tower that would adaptively fit on top of the church while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the church’s facade. Hayden spent the next two years personally surveying and measuring every beam and wall of the church, and designing architectural models of the planned renovation. But things didn’t turn out the way that Swertfager and he had expected.

“We proposed alterations to the church and it was approved and ready to go,” Hayden said, describing the tedious process for obtaining construction permits from the Department of Buildings. However, after working on the project for over a year, he said that for undisclosed reasons construction was halted. Then, after several more months, structurally weakened and exposed to the elements, the arch of the Christ Lutheran Church that had stood at 355 E. 19th St. since 1948 collapsed.

“It was really unfortunate,” said Hayden, who had been very enthusiastic about the project, “because of the historical importance.”

Although Gould was unavailable to speak to current plans for the church, Stanley Vickers, who owns the property next door and sold air rights—the rights to build additional stories on the lot—to Gould, said that the deal was terminated because of financial difficulties.  In 2012 the lot was then sold to Yosi Cohen, a developer who recently began construction on a seven-story apartment building that will soon rise above the remaining town homes beside it.

For five years the crumbling stone walls of the lot had sat derelict—a melancholy reminder of the old Little Germany—soon to disappear into the ever more transient neighborhood.  The church had been part of the community for nearly 60 years, and although most residents didn’t know why it had been torn down, the few who had long lived on the street were sad to see it go.

“The community didn’t know,” said Swertfager. “There is no community there, really.” The neighborhood where Rev. Wenner had founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church nearly 150 years ago was gone, and the congregation that he had worked to bring together was nowhere to be found. Little by little, the buildings and the residents that had once inhabited Little Germany had been replaced.

After closing their doors in 2007, Swertfager’s remaining congregation joined the Lutheran Seafarer’s & International House, a guesthouse for travelers and asylum seekers, half a mile from the old church on 19th Street and right beside the transit hub of Union Square.

“We’ve done better since we moved over here because we get people from every borough,” Swertfager said. The very trains and bridges that had torn apart Rev. Wenner’s congregation more than a century ago were now bringing together a splintered community in the neighborhood that it once called home.

While New York City continues its perpetual reinvention all around her, Swertfager continues to lead the remnants of her scattered congregation, only one block from the blacksmith shop where the congregation first came together. And after all of the years of searching for home, for now, the congregation has found one in the Seafarer’s & International House, whose motto is, appropriately, “Because nobody should be isolated or forgotten, whether at sea or ashore.”

Death and Life in Brownsville

I saw a memorial in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and felt as if I had been transported to a different time and place. Here, on a street corner in New York City’s most dangerous neighborhood, people chose to stop their daily routines and remember someone killed during hers. Purple balloons hung from a deli’s display window and a large framed picture of the murdered woman stood at a table next to pages of memories from her loved ones. Her orphaned children wore T-shirts emblazoned with her photograph. Others attending wore pins and ribbons, each a remembrance in some way. The crowd swelled to about 150 people and the memorial service began. Speakers talked about the woman’s life and what a wonderful mother she was. As they spoke, I found myself in another world where death was quick and random—Kashmir.

Two years before walking through the streets of Brownsville, I was in Kashmir, where in the summer of 2010, 117 boys were killed by the Indian military. This valley in the Himalayan mountains, a place of great physical beauty, has been locked in a seemingly endless war that has left 70,000 Kashmiris dead.


In 2010, there were government-imposed curfews, a government ban on all media, random arrests and high emotions everywhere you looked. As news of each killing emerged, more people took to the streets to protest. But eventually, the protests ebbed. As they did, Kashmiris slipped into a life of resignation and with it, apathy, as if to say, what can be done? As the death toll rose, Kashmiris stopped collectively pausing to remember each individual that died. There were simply too many. It was simply too much.

But things were different in Brownsville, at least on this day. Over the course of two hours, police officers, clergymen and women, friends and family spoke of the murdered woman.

So much of Brownsville reminded me of Kashmir—the constant patrolling of security forces, the ever-present fear that life was fragile, and could end painfully in an instant. But that moment in time, of pausing to remember the dead—that felt different to me. And as I spent time in this Brooklyn neighborhood, I began to see that unlike the growing weary resignation that I had felt that summer in Kashmir, people in Brownsville coped with the random death around them not by turning inward—but by turning to each other.

She was everywhere you looked—on the living room walls, the kitchen fridge, the rooms where her children slept. She was on custom-made T-shirts and lapel pins her children still wore. She was in her fiancé’s poetry that sat framed in the narrow hallway, in hundreds of cards and notes from friends and strangers, some taped to the walls, others waiting to be put up. Zurana Horton is here, in this tiny Brownsville, Brooklyn apartment that seven of her 13 children called home. She was everywhere you looked, and yet, she is nowhere to be found.

“Your children are not supposed to go before you do,” said Denise Peace, as her eyes welled up with tears. “I couldn’t believe my baby was gone.”

Zurana Horton was 34 when she was shot dead in broad daylight. On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2011, she was walking home after picking up one of her daughters from elementary school. As she, her daughter and other children passed a supermarket, gunfire cut through the air. People screamed and ran for cover. Horton stood in front of the children, shielding them. Twelve shots were fired. One hit a woman and another hit an 11-year-old girl. They would both survive. Another struck Horton in the chest, and seconds later, she fell over into a pool of her own blood.

This wasn’t the first time there was gunfire at the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Watkins Street. Just a week earlier, witnesses said there was an unexplained gunfire exchange that left a bullet hole in the supermarket window, but injured no one.

This wasn’t the first time Peace lost a child to gun violence, either.

Denise Peace, who is 56, was left to ponder the unfathomable loss of yet another one of her children to gunfire.

“The hardest thing for me this time,” she said, “was burying another child again.”

In 1991, she lost her 16-year-old son, Quan. He was shot in a robbery in Bushwick. Another son, Zacquran, was shot and killed in the same neighborhood in 2010.

“Immediately after Zurana passed away, I was really angry,” Peace said. “So angry that I got numb. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know what I felt. All I knew was that I couldn’t break down. I had to be strong for my grandchildren.”

“Some of the children still don’t know what happened to their mother. When you ask the two babies who their mother is, they’ll point to me.”

The oldest of her children was 18, the youngest just a year old.

“She gave her life for those kids, and she would have done it all again because that’s just the kind of person she was,” said Horton’s ex-boyfriend, O’Niel Vaughn, 43, the father of eight of her children.
Horton was planning to marry her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day in 2012.

Everyone you meet in Brownsville seems to have a story, or rather a variation on the same story—being part of a gang, or knowing someone, always younger than 25, who was, or is. Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City and has been for years. It has the highest concentration of low-income public housing in the United States, and is that rare Brooklyn neighborhood untouched by gentrification. There are spots in Brownsville where it is impossible to see anything but the looming projects of the New York City Housing Authority. Brownsville is a labyrinth of these housing projects, which are home to some 21,000 people. In a sense, it has always been so for Brownsville, which decades ago was a predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood that was also home to the notorious Jewish crime syndicate, Murder, Inc. Such was Brownsville’s unsavory reputation that its residents would claim they lived in adjoining East New York, which today is no safer.

Decades later, Brownsville experienced a shift in population, as white people moved out and black people moved in. In 1968, the rising racial tensions between the black residents and white teachers boiled over into a contentious teachers strike. Today, Brownsville feels like the Brooklyn that time forgot. Even once dangerous Bushwick is having a renaissance—a place of gun violence, joblessness, entrenched poverty, made all the worse, and more deadly by turf-fueled gang violence originating from inside 18 large public housing complexes, built side-by-side through the middle of the neighborhood.

The man recently convicted of killing Zurana Horton was part of a loosely knit gang. At the time of the shooting, Andrew Lopez was 18 years old. He had not been aiming at Horton—she happened to be standing in the way as he stood on a rooftop and tried to shoot at a rival gang member.

Lopez’s Young Guns gang and its rival 8 Block are part of a new generation of gangs in Brownsville, two of the 300 across the city that the NYPD keeps tabs on. Some of the gang members are as young as 10. Police say they are violent, unpredictable, emotionally driven, and armed. The Young Guns and 8 Block live in and around two housing projects, Glenmore Plaza and the Howard Houses. Their grip on the neighborhood is so powerfully menacing that people are too scared to call the police, and feel themselves in danger whenever they step outside.

“It used to be that I never wanted to go out at night because it was too dangerous,” said a woman who chose to remain anonymous. “But Zurana was killed in the afternoon, in broad daylight. There is no safe time here anymore. There is no peace of mind anymore.”

For every hour that passed in Brownsville in 2012, a crime was committed, according to the Brownsville Police Department’s annual crime report. And since January of 2013, there have been three murders, 14 rapes, 120 robberies and 174 assaults in this particular neighborhood. In just the past few weeks, a woman was stabbed in the early morning hours, a man was shot inside the supermarket he worked at, and another was found dead outside a church on a Sunday morning with three gunshot wounds to his back and one on his shoulder. In 2011, Brownsville’s 73rd police district reported the highest murder rate in the city. Brownsville also has significantly higher dropout rates and incidents of violence in its schools, in addition to low test scores and high truancy rates.

In a place so consumed by violence and the harsh realities that come with it, the people of Brownsville look to one another—for safety, for strength in numbers—in good ways, and sometimes in bad.

The young boys that join Brownsville gangs often say they do so for protection.

“I didn’t exactly have the best childhood,” said one former gang member. “And some of my friends came from abusive homes. A lot of us had no choice but to join one gang or another.”

Said another, “They’re my brothers. They’ve got my back. I know they will look out for me.”

The mothers of the slain children look out for one another, too, even as they resume the myriad tasks of parenting—this time for the grandchildren left behind.

The grandmothers gather at a small playground tucked between the projects. The children play on swing sets and slides, and their grandmothers keep an eye out.

“If we don’t watch over them, they will end up in the same places as those that killed their parents—in jail, or in one of the gangs here,” said Inez Rodriguez, a grandmother. “And the way this neighborhood has been over these few years, I know I wouldn’t trust anyone else with these young minds anyway.”

To live in Brownsville often means having to defy—and in some ways redefine—traditional definitions of family, of social life, of what it means to be part of a community. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers to grandchildren has risen 12.8% since 2000, from about 2.4 million to more than 2.7 million. Between 1990 and 2000, census figures indicate the number of U.S. children being raised by grandparents rose 30%.

In Brownsville, there are so many women caring for their grandchildren that they have a support group. In 2010, the NYPD and Brooklyn clergy came together to create Grandmothers Love Over Violence. The grandmothers share stories, compare legal and parenting advice, cry on a friendly shoulder, pray and simply let off steam. The program makes it easier for grandmothers to learn how to work with their grandchildren, and makes it comfortable for them to relate to police officers and get help.

“We’ve become a group like no other,” said Rodriguez. “It is one thing to know you will never see your children again. It’s another to be reminded of that every day, every time you stare into the eyes of the young kids they’ve left behind.”

“It’s been my place of comfort,” said Denise Peace. “Because of them, I know I’m not alone in this.”

Every month, the grandmothers walk through the doors of Mt. Sion Baptist Church on a busy corner near a loud highway overpass. Some lean on walkers and canes, some are in wheelchairs. Some have toddlers in their arms. These are the moments for the women to think about themselves, and one another; their grandchildren and great grandchildren are in daycare, at school, or being cared for by babysitters or relatives.

“I thought I was done taking care of babies, and now I have this little princess,” said Daphne Georgalas as she held her infant granddaughter in her lap. “If this happened to me years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it. But now I know God is watching over us, and he’s helping me watch over her. On my worst days, or when my shoulders ache from the exhaustion of taking care of the kids, I just pause and think about that. Take a deep breath and carry on.”

“I believe I’m stronger today because I know what my purpose is in life now,” said another grandmother choosing to remain anonymous. Like other grandmothers here, she explained that her faith helps her get through every day.

“It’s hard, but it does feel good to know I belong to a strong community.”

A short walk away from the church, a group of teenage boys exchange greetings and fist bumps. They are part of a gang, but one that is relatively new, and they’re still deciding what to call themselves. Gangs in Brownsville aren’t the way they were back in the 80s and early 90s—massive, corporate-style drug organizations were driven out years ago from the streets of Brooklyn by aggressive policing and the prospect of finding jobs. Left behind is a fractured drug market filled with unstructured and crowded clusters of close-knit, hard-to-identify gangs. They’re still gangs, but the label is often more stylistic than organizational. Instead of a couple of big gangs, there are dozens of small ones, often made up of cousins and next-door neighbors. And for many, joining one of these gangs is like a social acceptance shortcut—it provides boys who are young and unsure of themselves a prepackaged identity, and built-in friendships.

“It made me feel important, made me feel I was somebody,” recalls Greg Lamar, a former gang member. “There was nothing else to do here, there still isn’t. I was young, restless, bored. Joining a gang seemed like a quick fix for everything that wasn’t working for me.”

There are others paths. Sonny Townsend is one of a growing number of people in Brownsville who has picked up a video camera instead of a gun. “I belong here,” he said. “No matter what goes down in the ‘Ville, it’s my ‘Ville.” Townsend will walk through the projects with his friend Money, and interview residents on camera about their hopes and fears for Brownsville. And often, they get people to open up in ways no journalist has been able to. On his YouTube channel, Townsend has about 70 videos—some are part of a series he calls the “Walk thru Brownsville projects,” which include the interviews as well as footage of them walking through the projects and explaining what life was like before.

Townsend says this is his way of “showing Brownsville from the inside.” It is something he chose to do because of his own frustration with life, and frustration with the way the media covers Brownsville.
“Journalists come here only when someone gets shot,” he said. “Well what about what happens before that and after that?”

“Some people, they’re afraid of change,” Townsend said. “They don’t want to change their hoods, don’t want to change their lifestyles, even if it benefits them and their children. They will complain about what they see, but they fear change.”

For some, however, the violence is overwhelming; they are ready to move out.

“The projects are just like one big prison in my view,” said Darryl Odom, 49.

Odom knows what real prison is like—he served 13 years for armed robbery until his release in 2010.

“When I got out, I wanted to be a new man, a better man. But no one knows how tough that is, especially when all that’s around you is pulling you in the wrong direction.”

Odom is currently unemployed, and said he is increasingly frustrated with life in Brownsville. At the end of the month, he is packing his bags and getting on a bus “to anywhere but here.”

Danielle Johns is only 10, but she speaks as though she’s much older.

“What goes on in Brownsville? Looting, shooting, raping, and killing. There’s nothing else here,” she said. “My Mom says we’re leaving this place and moving to North Carolina.”

“You can get a gun like a box of diapers around here,” said Josephine Spearman, 60, whose 31-year-old son Maurice was shot dead in 2010. “Like a box of diapers. Think about that. Nothing makes sense here.”

“There are too many kids raising kids. When I was growing up, if the neighbor saw we was up to something, she’d whoop my ass. It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” said a woman who asked to be identified only as Doll.

“All our men are locked up or dead. There is no future. Nobody cares anymore. There is no love.”

As she sits in her apartment living room waiting on her grandchildren to come home from school, Denise Peace wipes off the dust from a photo of her daughter Zurana Horton.

“I’ve thought about leaving this place, lots of times,” she said. “But if women like me move away, what’s going to happen to Brownsville? What’s going to happen to all the other children who can’t leave? This place is in desperate need of attention, in desperate need of love. We can’t look away anymore.”

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