Angels and religion ghosts in American Bible Society's flight from New York City


Let us now praise the fact that The New York Times offered a story about the departure of the American Bible Society from the Big Apple, even if that story was labeled as a "Building Blocks" feature that focused on the architecture of the building at 1865 Broadway, rather than covering some of the cultural implications of this symbolic evangelical group's flight to a less demanding location.

As the old saying goes: New York, New York. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere. Well, what about the opposite?

There are moments when this piece hints at the larger dramas behind the architectural lede. Still, let's let the Times team start where it wanted to start:

“Behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
Angels have never been especially conspicuous around Columbus Circle in Manhattan. But it is hard to look at 1865 Broadway, the former headquarters of theAmerican Bible Society, and not think for a moment about the ladder of Jacob’s dream, as described in Genesis 28:12.
If the bold, Brutalist rungs of the main facade do not persuade you of a biblical provenance, you are also free to read symbolism into the 12 deep recesses at each floor. Might they represent the 12 tribes of Israel? Or the Twelve Apostles?
No matter, really. On the eve of its bicentennial, the society moved to Philadelphia, where it dedicated new headquarters last week. It sold its site at Broadway and 61st Street for $300 million to Avalon Bay Communities, which plans a 300,000-square-foot apartment tower on the site.
Soon, 1865 Broadway will be gone, after only 49 years.

The missed opportunities for depth in this report? There are at least two that should be noted. For example, there is this quote from the society's leader:

“Leaving New York was bittersweet,” Roy L. Peterson, the president and chief executive, said in an email. “The building was in need of significant updates and repairs, and the cost of living and doing business in New York City had become untenable for the organization and many of its employees.”

How literal is that term "high cost"? It would have been nice to know some of the details, especially in light of the real-estate explosion in Midtown that is driving prices out of the roof and far into the heights of the city's changing skyline.

But what about the employees? Might the people who work at an evangelical organization be a rather different flock of folks than the normal tribe that lives in this part of New York, or in New York at all? After all, quite a few organizations are leaving Midtown and headed elsewhere in the city that St. John Paul II once called the capital of the world.

The feature does a fine job of noting some of the ABS links to American life, culture and, of course, politics during its history. The story did note:

Among Philadelphia’s draws for the society were lower operating costs and convenience for employees who already worked in nearby Chesterbrook, Pa., Mr. Peterson, the president, said.
Asked whether New York officials had tried to persuade the society to stay, he said, “We did not receive any contact from the mayor’s office.”

Maybe Bible people don't belong here? That's the really interesting point that could have been explored, since New York City is, quite frankly, in an era in which church life is strikingly vital. Perhaps this departure is a sign of a struggle inside evangelicalism to live and work in a place like New York, New York. Maybe life here was hard on the ABS team on multiple levels.

There was one other hint at that, one covered in an earlier Times feature. As in:

An incongruously delicate entrance pavilion, by Fox & Fowle Architects, was added in 1997. That year, an art gallery opened in the building that expanded in 2005 to become the Museum of Biblical Art. With the departure of the American Bible Society, however, the museum had to close this year, despite having attracted record crowds for a show of sculpture from the age of Donatello.

MOBIA, you see, was an attempt to show the central role of the Bible and faith in mainstream art -- real, global level art and art history -- and to make that statement right there on Broadway. Where else could a major testimony about the importance of art be made?

The Donatello who made that point, and then the museum was gone.

This Times feature was fascinating on many levels. But the angels in the lede needed more attention. There was an important story in between the lines here, a story about religion and culture in New York and in America, in general. The flight from Midtown was understandable. But New York, period? Did that need to happen?


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