In the early twentieth century, the Upper West Side was home to a rapidly expanding Catholic population, thanks to the new IRT subway. The Archbishop of New York at the time, John Cardinal Farley, established St. Gregory the Great in 1906 in order to provide for the growing Catholic community. Curiously, the building in which the congregation currently resides was meant to be a temporary church until a new one could be erected. The construction never happened, and St. Gregory the Great Church has resided in the same space now for over one hundred years.
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include." It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later.The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000.West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that." In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year.Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.
Like many uptown churches, Central Baptist Church had its origins downtown. It was founded in 1842 on Laight Street and later moved to the Times Square area before finding its current home in 1916. Sharrata Hunt, the office manager, showed me around the main sanctuary, pointing out the stained glass windows that depict the life of Christ and the large organ that, though it has not worked in thirty years, is a grand addition to the space. Today, there are over 150 active members. In addition to the English masses, there is a Spanish mass every Sunday and Haitian services on Sunday evenings. Sharrata showed me to the chapel, which is ornamented at the front by the same style of stained glass as the sanctuary.Music is very important to Central Baptist Church. Arrayed around the altar are a piano, bass guitar, and drum set, which are used at every service. Sharrata also let me know that there are some extraordinary musicians in the congregation and that David Wallace, the music director, is a trained opera singer. One of the church’s parishioners in the early 1900s was Robert Lowry, a respected hymn-writer who is best known for “Shall We Gather at the River,” which is still in the hymnals.On the lower level, there is a gym that was started by Pastor Bruschweiler, who was the head of Central Baptist church until the mid-1990s. I could hear children playing down there as I stood on the ground floor. The basketball court is a wonderful resource for neighborhood children and has helped expand the church community. Sharrata informed me that one Elder of the church became a Christian because he came to Central Baptist Church for basketball so often. He even married a girl who was a cheerleader for the basketball team. On the top floor of the church, there is another gym, which is used as a dance studio. “The church is a good resource for local schools,” Sharrata said.
The Church of Saint Thomas More has only been known by that name since 1950. However, the church that it resides in is much older. The religious structure on 89th Street was built in 1870 using sandstone from Nova Scotia. It was inhabited by the Episcopalians and a Dutch Reformed congregation before it became a Roman Catholic church and was rededicated to Saint Thomas More. In the summer of 2015, the parish merged with Our Lady of Good Counsel on 90th Street.
With velvet curtains, old art, and gilded mirrors, the Auction House resembles a centuries-old salon. Although regal and classic, I found it to be very approachable. The exposed brick walls – now a common feature of New York City bars – and warm, low lighting makes the space seem more like someone’s living room than a museum. The cozy drape-enclosed rooms attract locals who enjoy huddling around the fireplaces in the cooler months. The bar calls itself a “diamond in the rough,” a term with which I heartily agree. I spoke to Johnny B. Barounis, who explained that when he first opened the bar in 1993, it was the only one of its kind. Johnny got his start in 1978 working the door at places like the China Club. He prided himself on being “the first person somebody sees on the way in, and the last on the way out.” After a while, he became tired of the “big, loud, schmaltz-filled nightclubs” and wanted to open a place where people could have conversations and escape the chaos of the city. He opened the Auction House, which earned its name because most of its furniture and art came from the auction houses that Johnny scoured throughout the Northeast. The reproductions of old paintings, especially by Rembrandt and De Goya, fit very well in the space, which, being an old carriage house, has fifteen foot ceilings. As for the furniture, “the turn of the century motif will never go out of style,” Johnny said while discussing the timelessness of his design choices. At the time, the only real bars were traditional Irish ones, so Johnny was a true innovator in creating something more like a drawing room or a parlor – “a lounge.” “We were one of the first lounges in the city. Now everyone has a lounge,” Johnny stated, adding that many policies that are now commonplace were first set into motion by the Auction House. For example, after spending many years running the doors of nightclubs and seeing the damage that people fresh out of college (“In their fifth year of college,” as he put it) could do, Johnny implemented an over-25-only rule, which was enforced with ID checks at the door. He also did not allow baseball hats: “It’s always the kid with the baseball cap that causes problems.” As a big animal rights activist, he does not allow fur to be worn in his establishment. The Auction House also has never had any signage. When the lounge first opened, not having a sign was a very risky move. It soon leant the place a sense of mystery and privacy, however, suggesting that patrons of the bar “had to know about it.” The policy attracted quite a few celebrities, including many SNL cast members. These days, however, many bars opt to have no sign. Johnny suggested that he has considered adding a sign to the auction house, just because the idea of having no marking on a bar has become so mainstream. Johnny is very proud to have been continually running a bar for over twenty years. “In this city, four years is considered a long run.” More specifically, however, Johnny is happy to have designed a space where people can make connections. “Five different people met their spouse here in our first year,” he said, proudly. “We’re putting people together.”
Some of the most beautiful tulips in the city can be found between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue at the West Side Community Garden. The small green patch of urban wildlife was begun in a vacant lot in 1987. It is entirely run by volunteers. Along with the impressive flower garden, which is the center of a neighborhood Tulip Festival each April, the space features a vegetable garden and a small amphitheater. The public is invited to help plant bulbs each November and watch them blossom in an array of dazzling colors in the spring. The Garden boasted 13,000 bulbs in the spring of 2016. And oh what an exquisite display they make. My first time stopping by the garden was in February. The gates were shut tight; however, even in the heart of winter, this charming park was filled with chirping birds. (There is an entrance to the park on both 89th and 90th Streets.)
A breathtaking cylindrical monument sits on the edge of Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River. On Memorial Day in 1902, it was dedicated to the soldiers and sailors who fought with the Union Army during the American Civil War. President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the ceremony, after which veterans paraded up Riverside Drive. Though now locked, the large bronze door at its base was originally left open for visitors. The monument was given landmark status in 1976.