The Upper West Side of New York City (where Ann and I have recently resettled) has more houses of worship than you might think. On the corner of my block is a Greek Orthodox church. Three blocks south is a synagogue. A little farther is St. Ignatius of Antioch (the Anglo- Catholic parish to which we belong). and it is next to a building that is shared by Methodists and a Jewish congregation. There are others, too. These buildings are, however, verging on becoming historical artifacts. Sunday morning brunch seems to be a bigger draw than Mass. I don’t know about attendance at Jewish services, but my impression is that American Jews are turning secular at about the same rate as American gentiles.
In this Phase 1 of the Covid-19 reopening, both cafes and churches are shut. But not quite. It’s possible to pick up a meal to go from a pizza joint or restaurant at sidewalk entrances. It’s a hopeful sign that stoves no longer sit cold in empty kitchens waiting to be recalled to service, even though it’s not yet possible to sit down inside and enjoy the New York pleasure of dinner at a too-small table crowded up against other patrons (With a little practice, anyone can get used to that form of seating. In fact, if you’re outgoing, you can meet some nice people in the course of it. With a little imagination, it’s even possible to see such encounters as the natural equivalent of the artificial requirement of passing the peace at church.)
Locked-up churches are different from poorly attended churches. Their doors bear notice of online services and the scary suspension of AA meetings and other important ancillary activities. For believers, this is distressing. I suspect it garners a small, vague sense of loss even among those whose religious beliefs are inactive or nonexistent.
Sometimes a door will be open for cleaning or something, and walking by, you can catch a glimpse of pews and altar in stained-glass filtered light. And sometimes a whiff of old incense escapes out onto the sidewalk. These moments are a plaintive though welcome reminder, but it’s no substitute for being inside and quiet, enveloped in a sense of the sacred.
West End Avenue, a busy four lane thoroughfare at the end of the block Ann and I live on, is closed to through traffic for many blocks. I suppose that’s to allow people to keep distance between each other while walking. Many sidewalks are too narrow to allow that. And now that construction has resumed, there are frequent encounters with hard hats carrying heavy loads (manual labor is called manual labor for a reason) or sitting on stoops and curbs, encroaching on sidewalks while scarfing up lunch from Styrofoam containers.
Whatever the rationale for closing West End Avenue, it’s being used in a variety of ways. On weekends (some people still have jobs and work during the week), lawn chairs and.folding tables come out and picnics in the street are common. Riverside Park, one of the loveliest 330 acres known to man, is only one block away, but some people prefer their deviled eggs and pastrami sandwiches just outside the door.
Children ride bicycles with abandon and without supervision where formerly garbage trucks and impatient cars roamed, and helicopter parents go on break. It’s a sight seldom seen in the city. Young artists in training practice their moves with fat pieces of chalk next to the yellow line. Yesterday, I saw a lawn sprinkler attached to a building’s hose that’s usually employed in spray cleaning the sidewalks. Delivery guys got off their cargo bikes and took a moment to cool off in the spray. Runners veered off course to go through it. Children played in it like they were on a suburban lawn.
On the sunny spring days of late, these scenes are pleasant, almost idyllic, including even – in a way – the mothballed churches. There is another New York, of course but I’ll leave it for another post.