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The Canary in the Mine

There was a rousing community rally Saturday at the West Park Presbyterian Church on Amsterdam and 86th Street. Councilmember Gale Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and attorney Michael Hiller combined eloquence with data to oppose the proposed demolition of the 181-year-old landmark church for a high-end residential tower. But actor Wendell Pierce brought the crowd to its feet with an emotional talk about what we value and what we defend. “We are the canary in the mine,” he said. A New Orleans native, Pierce said the homes of jazz greats from New Orleans were “destroyed with indifference and apathy.” He urged the audience to testify against the demolition a the City Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing tomorrow.

I encourage you to watch the video of his talk.

The Conservancy will be testifying again tomorrow against granting “hardship” to the church owners who have neglected the building for years. We are still working on tomorrow’s statement but our prior testimony still holds.

Our Sacred Sites program has dealt with restorations at some 800 religious institutions across the State. We agree West-Park needs repair. But we disagree with the Presbytery’s claims of cost and urgency. The Presbytery claims everything needs to be repaired at once. We live in the real world where preservation most often occurs in stages. As Michael Hiller noted, the first issue in looking at a hardship claim is whether the building can serve its original purpose or a community use. Throwing out his arms and looking around the sanctuary, Hiller noted that Lighthouse Chapel International holds weekly religious services at West-Park and the non-profit The Center at West Park hosts regular performances and provides rehearsal spaces and other classes.

West-Park Presbyterian Church, Upper West Side.

Celebrities Mark Ruffalo, Amy Schumer, and Pierce have now joined the cause (Their videos here). They did a great job bringing out the media. But they were there as community members, and they also spoke from the heart about upholding preservation and landmarks. We all need to do the same.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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