Sunday, August 30, 2015

195. Religion in New York

    “We have here Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch and also many Puritans or Independents and many atheists and various other servants of Baal.”  So wrote a Dutch citizen of New Amsterdam to officials in Holland in 1655, complaining of the diversity of religious faiths in the colony.  He supported Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s attempt to impose the Dutch Reformed faith on the colonists, but the population was too diverse both ethnically and religiously to be made to conform.  When the British seized the colony in 1664, they in turn tried to impose the Anglican faith, but with the same result: the city simply could not be made to conform.  Right from the start New Amsterdam, and subsequently New York, attracted such a mix of peoples that a policy of mutual tolerance was practiced, with occasional attempts at conformity that never had even a ghost of a chance.  Many residents were too busy making money to find time for religion, and those who did find time went their separate ways. 

     And since then?  As of 1990 – the latest comprehensive figures I have access to – the city’s places of worship ranged in number from 471 Baptist, 457 Jewish, 403 Roman Catholic, and 391 Pentecostal at the high end, to 69 Russian Orthodox, 60 Moslem, 40 Greek Orthodox, and finally, at the low end, 3 Quaker and 1 Baha’i.  But in the quarter century since, those figures have surely changed, perhaps radically, because, as we shall see, religion in this city is in flux.

     Precisely because New York was a place of many faiths – faiths that might squabble among themselves but that didn’t try to wipe each other out  -- the city became a place of refuge for the persecuted.  New Amsterdam had been founded in 1624 by a group of Huguenot Walloons sponsored by the Dutch West India Company.  More Huguenots from the Netherlands and Germany followed, including Peter Minuit, famous for buying the island of Manhattan from the native peoples.  By 1650 Huguenots were about a fifth of the settlement’s population, and when, in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed French Protestants certain protections, many more French Huguenots fled the Sun King’s radiating splendor to find sanctuary in New York.  So welcoming was the city that the Huguenots assimilated readily; by the eighteenth century, Huguenot merchants numbered among  the city’s leaders, and members of the Huguenot community gradually became affiliated with other denominations, especially the Anglican Church.  Such is the price of acceptance: loss of identity.

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Expulsion of Huguenots from La Rochelle, 1661.
World Imaging

File:Denkmal Peter Stuyvesant.jpg     Peter Stuyvesant may have cast a sour glance at the Huguenots, but after all, they had long preceded him to New Amsterdam.  But when, in 1654, a group of 23 Sephardic Jews arrived, some of them fleeing the fall of Dutch settlements in Brazil to the Portuguese, he put his gubernatorial foot down: the “deceitful race” were barred from buying land or participating in the citizens’ militia, and were invited to depart.  But the Jews’ leaders, knowing their rights under the laws of the Dutch Republic, which guaranteed freedom of religion to all, appealed to authorities in Holland, and Stuyvesant’s superiors reminded him that “each person shall remain free in his religion.”  He was further advised that certain influential Jews had invested heavily in the Dutch West India Company, which by itself must have settled the matter: the Governor was told to back off.

     But what really ticked Stuyvesant off was the arrival of English Quakers, likewise fleeing discrimination in their homeland.  Their aggressive sermonizing and, when moved by the Holy Spirit, their fits of jiggling or quaking (hence their name), invited his disdain.  These oddballs, he decided, were a threat to the peace and stability of the colony, and probably crazy as well.  When they persisted despite his disapproval, he forbade the settlement of Vlissingen (today’s Flushing, in Queens) to allow their worship, whereupon the townsfolk, all English, signed a remonstrance to the Governor reminding him that Dutch tolerance extended even to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, in consequence of which they must respectfully refuse to obey.  This Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is now celebrated as a forerunner of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, but Stuyvesant, not being conversant with said Bill, arrested four of the remonstrating townsfolk and clapped two of them in jail for a month.  Only the coming of the British in 1664 ended his antics of intolerance. 

     So much for religious diversity in New Amsterdam; it was there from the start, though not without fitful challenges.  Now let’s fast-forward to the twenty-first century and a vast metropolis that has been fed over the centuries by wave after wave of immigrants.  What kind of religions are here today?  Using the terms loosely, at first glance I’m tempted to divide New York religion into three categories: High Church, Low Church, and No Church, meaning the more formal and traditional, the more informal and upstarty, and the Great Unwashed. 

     The people I have socialized and worked with in Manhattan are white middle-class professionals – writers, directors, editors, artists, bank employees, teachers, librarians, chefs, and attorneys – who for the most part fall into the category of No Church, or the Great Unwashed.  Some of these No Churchers may never have been touched by religion, but most have fallen away, gently or not so gently, from the faith of their childhood.  To really know them, you need to know where they’ve come from religiously, culturally, and geographically.  Being No Churchers, they’re the ones who, no doubt, create the impression that New York is a secular city devoid of religion – a place, in fact, where people go to lose their religion, if they ever had any in the first place.

     My friend Ed was raised a traditional Roman Catholic in Denver, where he served as an altar boy, and then attended a Jesuit university.  When he first came to New York he was an observant Catholic who attended Mass and dutifully went to confession.  But then, as the years passed, he became less dutiful, began questioning his faith, and finally fell away completely, even to the point of denigrating it with, I’m sure, no small amount of bitterness.  If Catholicism left its mark upon him, it was visible, I think, in his courteous, soft-spoken manner, very reserved; he was not one to give himself emotionally, to yield to impulse.  Which reminds me of a French friend whom I knew at Lyons when I was studying in France ; he had attended a Catholic collège, rather than the secular secondary school, the lycée, and showed the same well-mannered, soft-spoken reserve.  We can leave our childhood faith, but it won’t necessarily leave us. 

     My friend John, who is proud of his Finnish descent, was raised a Laestadian Lutheran in Minneapolis and was taken by his mother to a church where the service was in Finnish, of which he understood barely a word.  He describes Laestadianism as a freakish, fundamentalist branch of Lutheranism that flourished in northern Minnesota.  Its aversion to sin and worldliness went so far as to consider going to movies a sin, as well as alcohol consumption, dancing, and women wearing makeup.  When he attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in English and philosophy, he lost his faith, and upon coming to New York he became a full-fledged atheist and remains one to this day.  Religion for him is simply a distant and unpleasant memory from his childhood, something he can do quite easily without.  But unlike Ed, he feels no biting resentment, no bitterness.
     As for me, as a child in Evanston I was exposed to a gentle Methodism, quite liberal, that imposed no catechism or ideology, no ban on movies or dancing, but instead inculcated a few basic concepts of morality, the need for understanding and compassion, as exemplified by the story of Jesus, retold every Easter by a talk with slides, and celebrated every Christmas with a well-attended Nativity pageant, superbly dramatic, in which the whole church participated.  Even yours truly was involved, musical illiterate though I was, white-garbed and holding my electric candle high, as the triumphant strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus brought the whole attendance to their feet, and the high-school and adult choirs marched down the aisles singing lustily, till our resounding hallelujahs climaxed and closed the performance with a whopping big musical bang.

     Because the Methodism I had known was, as I put it, gentle, even in my later – and inevitable – lapsed state, where I felt no immediate need of religion, I nursed no resentment, no bitterness, only warm memories of the Methodists I had known, their principles, their winning love, their faith.  At times I ask myself if I have ever encountered anyone who impressed me as being truly spiritual, and always I recall my junior-year Sunday School teacher, Dr. Edmund D. Soper, white-haired and spectacled, soft-voiced, a teacher and scholar with a mellow wisdom.  What it was about him that was spiritual I cannot define or describe; it was simply an intangible aura that you sensed.  My partner Bob says the same of his mother’s Lutheran pastor in Jersey City, a truly spiritual man such as one rarely encounters today, or perhaps ever. 

     Only on one other occasion have I personally encountered a truly spiritual human being.  While working in the library of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, I heard a talk by Father Martin D’Arcy, the celebrated English Jesuit, a quirky little black-robed man, sharp-featured and ascetic, with a bright eye, a mischievous smile, and a superb sense of humor, and there again I sensed true spirituality.  Not in the other priests whom I encountered there – some smooth and clever, some prickly and caustic, some diligent and businesslike – but only in him.  His quirkiness was far removed from Dr. Soper’s mellowness, yet they both conveyed spirituality.  A rare quality that even the No Churchers have to esteem.  If it were less rare, maybe there would be fewer No Churchers.  Maybe.  And maybe not.

     Even if I’m not myself a believer, I respect those who are.  Whenever I’m in the Union Square subway station – a huge labyrinth of passageways giving access to any number of subway lines – I give a smile and a friendly wave to the women, often black or Latino, who have a table there with literature and invite people to learn what the Bible really says.  They look so committed, and so ignored by the hurrying commuters, that I can’t resist this gesture, which always provokes a warm smile and a friendly wave back.  Maybe someday I’ll stop and tell them that I still have the Bible I was given by my mother at age sixteen, a bit decrepit but still usable.  (The Bible, not my mother.)

     But things aren’t always so simple.  When, some years back, I renewed contact by mail with a woman I had dated in junior high and high school, we exchanged several letters and seemed to be beginning a warm and cordial relationship.  Living now in Nashville, she told me she attended a Bible-based church and some years ago had experienced a Damascus Road experience similar to that of the apostle Paul.  Interested, I asked her to relate it, and finally she did, telling how she had fallen into the blackest of depressions and, desperate, finally surrendered herself to God, following which her depression lifted and she felt a joy like she had never known before. 

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Conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, a painting by Hans Speckaert, 1570s.  Never was 
a conversion more dramatic or more crowded; no room for quiet contemplation here.

     This account fascinated me then and still does now; not for anything would I dismiss lightly or demean in any way what is obviously the most important event in her life.  So far, so good.  But after that she urged me to give up being gay – as if it were something you could turn on and off at will – and finally she put the question, “What do you do about Jesus?”  I replied honestly, “I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.  This way we get along fine.”  Which ended the relationship; no more letters, nothing, kaput.  I truly regret it, but I’m leery of a faith that cuts you off from others; I know several Catholics who share their faith but don’t try to convert me, and we all have a rewarding relationship.

     So much for the No Churchers.  So what about the High and Low Churchers?  In supposedly godless New York they’re all over the place.  For instance: 

     In a former vaudeville theater in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, some six hundred worshipers leap to their feet to join a Latino band in song, shaking their tambourines.  Then a preacher gives a fiery sermon and speaks in tongues, and parishioners with tear-streaked faces raise their arms heavenward, eyes shut, in collective rapture.  Nothing quiet or meditative here.  It is noisy, it is public, it is passionate.  And it is definitely Low Church.

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A Pentecostal service.
Peter van der Sluijs

     But what is it?  It’s the Sunday morning service of the Pentecostal megachurch Aliento de Vida (Breath of Life), founded twelve years ago by the pastor, Victor Tiburcio, and his wife, immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  Who are the worshipers?  Immigrants from Ecuador and Argentina and El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago and just about any country in Latin America, some of them legal and some not: ordinary people from the bottom of the social heap who want passion in their services, as well as help in learning English and navigating the complexities, legal and otherwise, of realizing the American dream.  So great is the demand for Aliento de Vida’s services, simulcasts are offered by the church’s own TV network. 

     But this is nothing, compared to the Pentecostal festival in Central Park on July 11 featuring Luis Palau, the “Hispanic Billy Graham,” one of the world’s leading evangelical Christian figures, a gathering that drew 60,000 worshipers – the limit allowed on the Great Lawn -- for the largest evangelical Christian gathering in the city since Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens in 2005.  Of the 1700 churches participating, 900 were Hispanic, reflecting the surging growth of immigrant-led churches in the boroughs outside Manhattan.  Yet participants weren’t just Hispanic, but Korean-American and African-American as well.  The mayor himself was present to offer a few welcoming words and get prayed for, and the crowd danced and cheered and leaped and prayed, and listened to white-haired Luis Palau preaching in shirtsleeves in both English and Spanish, as everyone present expressed the collective joy of being Christian and proud of it.  And this in the heart of godless New York!  Most definitely and exuberantly Low Church.

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Luis Palau preaching.
Asociación Luis Palau

     If Pentecostalism is sweeping New York and the nation and much of the Third World, gathering new converts by the thousands and tens of thousands, who is losing out?  That most High Church of all High Churches, Roman Catholicism.  Some years ago the Archdiocese of New York, faced with declining attendance, aging priests, and mounting maintenance costs, initiated a broad reorganization that led to the closing of dozens of churches in the metropolitan region.  Thus Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in East Harlem closed in 2007, and its church on East 113th Street was boarded up.  But that’s not the end of the story, for a handful of parishioners refused to accept this change, which some denounced as “betrayal” by the Church, and ever since have met on park benches in East Harlem housing projects to sing hymns and join hands in prayer.  They do this every Sunday, despite raucous sounds of children playing and dogs yipping nearby, braving the scorching heat of summer and the icy rigors of winter.  Yet the closing of this and other parishes in East Harlem is understandable, since the Puerto Ricans who once filled the pews have left for other parts of the city, replaced by Dominicans and Mexicans who are drawn to the storefront Pentecostal churches that have popped up in the area.

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A Roman Catholic Mass.  Very High Church, quiet, traditional, dignified.
James Emery
     And the closings go on.  Just recently almost forty Catholic churches were closed in another wave of closings climaxing the biggest overhaul of the diocese in its entire history.  At Our Lady of Peace on the Upper East Side, tearful parishioners gathered for a last Mass on Friday, July 31.  “This is the beginning of our crucifixion,” said a lifelong member of the congregation, “our Good Friday, the nails driven into the coffin of Our Lady of Peace.”  Parishioners of many of the closed parishes have appealed to the Vatican, which will decide their cases after September 1, but in the meantime the archdiocese has denied them any extension that would keep the churches open until the cases are resolved.  The mood of gloom and doom contrasts vividly with the exuberant and joyful services of the Pentecostals.

     Somewhere between Low Church and No Church are the pagans.  Yes, there are pagans in New York City.  I used to think of them as weirdos who emerge periodically to celebrate the vernal equinox or some such occasion, half naked or dressed in outlandish outfits, and who then disappear until the next celebration.  But they are more organized than that.  The Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies at 419 Lafayette Street (between East 4th Street and Astor Place) offers an introduction to the modern pagan witchcraft religion known as Wicca, with classes in magic, the Greater and Lesser Sabbats, the history of witchcraft, god and goddess archetypes, Shamanism, divination, talismans and amulets, voodoo, the use of spells, and countless other topics.  And yes, with the proper training, you can become a witch.  But they don’t worship Satan, they simply want to be in tune with nature and its forces.

A pagan handfasting ceremony, celebrating a wedding or betrothal.
ShahNai Network
     And yes, there are self-proclaimed Satanists too, though often they don’t really believe in Satan or worship him. The Satanic Temple, whose founders hail from Boston but through the Internet have proselytized throughout the country, has been called a sharp thorn in the brow of conservative Christianity.  They mean to be a counterforce to President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and they do this by launching a religion of Satanism that meets all the Bush administration’s criteria for receiving funds.  Their Satanism is really science-based and atheistic, a way of celebrating outsider status, of looking where other people don’t want to look, to find the obscure, the bizarre, the anomalies.  But it is often political.  If a state allows voluntary prayer in public schools, they propose that Satanic children should be allowed to pray in school… to Satan.  And it plans to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to oppose abortion waiting periods, arguing that it violates Satanic doctors’ belief in the sanctity of good science.  A thorn in the brow of conservative Christianity indeed, but to avoid threats to their families the founders use pseudonyms.  With great anticipation I await their intervention here in New York.  But I leave it to others to decide whether they should be categorized as Low Church or No Church.

Saint Patrick's, as seen from Rockefeller Center.
J.M. Luijt

     To do justice to my announced theme of religion in New York, I’d have to do a series of posts, a whole book.  I haven’t even mentioned Saint Pat’s, the looming Fifth Avenue edifice whose slow beginning in the nineteenth century, with walls rising only as finances permitted, signaled the growing influence of Roman Catholicism in what had hitherto been a WASP city.  A prime tourist attraction, it has a souvenir stand inside its sacred walls, which shocks me, a WASP who in his European travels absorbed the notion of the sacredness of Catholic churches, where God is literally present, and souvenir stands are not to be found (not inside, that is, for souvenirs are always to be had).  A crypt under the main altar harbors the remains of numerous cardinals and other prominent Catholics, including Archbishop Francis (“Franny” to some) Spellman, whose presence there may or may not be a scandal.  (See the much-visited post #136, July 20, 2014).

File:Islamic Cultural Center E96 jeh.JPG

     And if you google “places of worship in New York,” you’ll come up with pictures of the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue near Columbia University; the Islamic Cultural Center of New York at Third Avenue and East 96th Street, its domed mosque overtopped by a towering minaret; various synagogues; and with a little more poking about, the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem; the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on Canal Street in Chinatown, with an outsized gold statue of a smiling Buddha, his right hand raised in blessing; and the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street, its multiple cupolas topped by crosses.  And these are only the biggies; there are smaller sites as well, each with a story to tell. 


     Dazzled by thoughts of minarets, Buddhas, and cross-topped cupolas, I now ask myself what I would most want to see, if visiting an unfamiliar place of worship.  The answer comes immediately: I would most want to see something truly holy, something awe-inspiring, something to take me out of myself, something with a touch -- or a punch -- of mystery.  And this from a No Churcher!

    Coming soon:  How New Yorkers spurned powdered wigs and knee britches and took to pantaloons, and the French language preceded English in Manhattan.  How fifty thousand New Yorkers -- a third of the city -- turned out to greet a visiting Frenchman (and it wasn't General de Gaulle).  Why did the Empress Eugénie adopt the hoopskirt -- what was she trying to hide?  And what did Congress have against french fries?  All this, and more, under the aegis of the tricolore.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder



Sunday, August 23, 2015

194. Wild New York

     A marshy expanse of wetlands where plovers, sandpipers, dowitchers, and yellowlegs scurried across the damp sands at low tide, feeding, while bitterns stood like frozen sentinels, awaiting their prey, and mallard ducks and wild swans glided in the shallows, and eagles and osprey soared overhead, and the skies were darkened in season by migrating flocks of wigeons, oldsquaws, and mergansers.  Estuaries teeming with mussels and clams and periwinkles, and oysters in great numbers, some large, some small and sweet, all of them inducing visions of tasty meals.  And beyond the shoreline, low hills and towering forests of oak and chestnut and maple with strawberries in the spring, blackberries and raspberries in summer, and in the autumn apples and walnuts and wild grapes.  Moving furtively in the brush were deer and wild turkeys, as well as raccoons and otter and quail and, lurking in dark wooded fastnesses, mountain lions and black bears and wolves.  The air was clean, the land was lush and green.

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Arturo de Frias Marques

     A glossy ad luring visitors to some distant, unspoiled Eden, a travel agent’s spiel replete with cooked-up, frothy vistas no place on earth could match?  No, simply a realistic description of Manhattan in the early 1600s, when the first European settlers arrived.

     And today?  I’ll spare you the obvious litany of cluttered urban woes, the cliché depiction of a cacophonous wilderness of asphalt, concrete, steel, and cement.  But if you look about and look close, you’ll find that, miraculously persisting, there is still a wild New York.  And I don’t mean teen-age gangs, madcap cyclists, screeching ambulances, or the naked cowboy or bare-breasted cuties exposing themselves to tourists in hopes of tips in Times Square.  I don’t mean homo sapiens sapiens in any form, but real, wild, living creatures.

jeremy Seto
     Let’s start with a celebrity predator known to thousands.  I mean, of course, Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk whose neck is unusually light in color, giving him his name.  He first appeared in the Park in 1991, and since then has nested each spring with his mate of the moment in ornamental stonework high atop a residential building at Fifth Avenue at 74th Street, just across from Central Park.  Pale Male’s marital adventures have always been observed from far below by a throng of eager fans watching anxiously with binoculars and telescopes to see if the young will hatch and survive, as many have done, leaving the nest to reside in Central Park.  Pale Male’s consorts have a way of disappearing, often as a result of eating a poisoned pigeon or rat, but Pale Male survives, always taking a new mate that his fans immediately christen: First Love was followed by Chocolate, who was followed by Blue, then Lola, then Lima, then Paula, then Zena, then Octavia, and so it goes.

Courtesy of

     If I say Pale Male is known to thousands, I’m not exaggerating, for he has been the subject of a one-hour documentary film and a book.  An aging stud, he is the first hawk known to have nested in the city, and his fans are fiercely loyal.  In December 2004, when the board of the co-op where he nested removed the hawks’ nest and the anti-pigeon spikes anchoring it, their action provoked an international outcry.  The Audubon Society and the Central Park birdwatching community protested; TV celebrity Mary Tyler Moore, a resident of the building, joined the protest; the media reported the outrage; and passing automobiles, taxis, and even police cars sounded their horns in solidarity.  A compromise was reached, a new cradle for the nest was installed, and the hawks began bringing twigs to the nesting site.

     The red-tailed hawk, the common resident broad-winged hawk of this area, is a thick-set bird with a wide, rounded tail; it is often seen soaring in circles high above the city.  Seen from below, the tail is dark gray, but if seen from above, it is red, giving the hawk its name.  I have seen Pale Male only in film, perched with his mate on his nest, where the scrawny young squirmed  and bustled, but I have spotted other red-tails perched in trees in Pelham Bay Park.  Red-tails have  been known to nest on other tall buildings in the city, though none can match Pale Male for persistence and longevity.  That the species nests at all in New York is an amazing feat of adaptation, given the numerous threats to it posed by the urban environment: poisoned prey, aggressively hostile crows, and when the hawks swoop low, risk of collision with passing vehicles.

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A red-tailed hawk.
Don DeBold 
     Pale Male is the only creature in this area I know of that has attained celebrity status; other denizens of New York habitats creep, skulk, or soar in anonymity.  All the big parks harbor a surprising number of species, and Central Park is second to none.  Prowling there by day in the spring, I have seen migrating birds by the score and even occasionally by the hundred in a single day, as well as hordes of termites hatching from decaying logs – a sight welcome to birdwatchers, since it brings hungry warblers down to eye level, as they feast on their teeming prey.

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Eastern screech owl.  The screech is
more of a mournful whinny or wail.

Wolfgang Wander
     But Central Park by night is another story.  Years ago, crossing it at night at 72nd Street to attend a poetry workshop on the Upper East Side, I treaded  with trepidation, for the city then was rife with crime, streetlamps along my way were few, and my footsteps clicked on the pavement, announcing my presence to any nearby malefactors; the one bit of reassurance was a squad car parked halfway cross the park,  Today, however, crime has declined, and venturing into the park at night has become the preferred pastime of a number of hardy and inquisitive souls.  A Russian lady in an electric cart comes there nightly to feed peanuts to a bunch of rambunctious raccoons (against park regulations, I’m sure).  Owl watchers have a only a precious half hour to spot screech owls, somnolent by day but on the hunt by night, before the gathering darkness renders them invisible.  And “mothers” (rhyming “authors”) gather at the Shakespeare Garden to attract moths with a special battery-powered light, so they can marvel at the weird and spectral beauty of these rarely seen nocturnal creatures.  (Once, on a tree trunk at High Rock Park on Staten Island, I was privileged to see a sleeping luna moth by day and marveled at its lime-green wings with eyespots and, yes,  its weird and spectral beauty.)  For all these visitors Central Park by night has a magic all its own, and they revel in its sounds: hoots and rasps of owls, yips of raccoons, and in dead leaves the rustle of white-footed mice.

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A luna moth.

     When not being fed by the Russian lady, Central Park raccoons – there are some 50 of them -- invade the trash cans by night to feed voraciously.  Black-masked with striped, bushy tails, they are tough customers that other animals prefer not to mess with.  I have seen them sleeping tranquilly by day in trees, but raccoons from Central Park have invaded West Harlem, prowling there by day, crawling over fences from one backyard to another, and even invading homes to the point where terrorized residents have pleaded with the city for help.  

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A raccoon, having a meal.
Hans Hillewaert
These guys also raided a henhouse in Brooklyn and killed all the hens, and even tried to do in the rooster as well.  And in September 2014 a raccoon broke into a Bronx beauty shop and ran rings around the cops trying to capture it, leading them a merry chase that onlookers outside watched with amusement, until the officers finally managed to lock the intruder in a cage.  These furry creatures thrive now in suburban and urban sites because they are amazingly adaptable and, like people, will eat almost anything.  They are not to be messed with casually since, if cornered, they fight viciously, have sharp teeth that bite, and can carry rabies.  Exterminators in the area, usually busy eliminating roaches, mice, and bedbugs, now advertise raccoon removal services as well.  Yes, right here in New York – aggressive raccoons!

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They do get around.
Carsten Volkwein

     Less pushy and obstreperous is another Central Park resident, the Virginia opossum, a cat-sized marsupial with a pointy white face that emerges at night to feed on slugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars, snakes, mice, bird eggs, acorns, berries, grass, and dead animals – just about anything smaller and slower than itself.  When threatened, this sly character “plays possum” by rolling over in a deathlike trance, eyes closed, tongue protruding, until the threat is gone, at which point the opossum revives miraculously and resumes its slow nocturnal hunt for food.

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Virginia opossum.

     Also seen in Central Park at night are at least five species of bats, one of which, the little brown bat, I once saw zoom low over the Loch, a winding watercourse in the North End of the Park.  I might have thought it a bird, but there was something weird about its lightning-fast flight over water, and another birdwatcher identified it for me.  Had I seen it clinging to a tree, I would have found it eerie, for this long-eared little creature has long, spiky fingers that support the wings, giving it a demonic appearance.  Few would call it – or any bat – beautiful, but we should be thankful for their presence, since one bat can eat 500 mosquitoes in an hour.

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Little indeed, but eerie.

     Other residents of the Park include the Eastern chipmunk, the gray squirrel, wasps, hornets, slugs, snails, frogs, clams, and – appropriately in the Turtle Pond – three species of turtles.  But that is hardly the whole story.  An intensive 24-hour “BioBlitz” by scientists and volunteers in the summer of 2008 recorded 836 species in the Park, including 393 species of plants, 102 invertebrates, 78 moths, 46 birds, 10 spiders, 9 dragonflies, 7 mammals, 3 turtles, 2 frogs.  Regarding the birds, 46 species is minimal; during spring and fall migrations they would have found hundreds more.  But some species found in the Park until recently have disappeared: the woodchuck and the Eastern cottontail, both of which I have seen elsewhere.

     Not reported in Central Park but seen in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and in Alley Pond Park in Queens, is the red fox.  I have heard of sightings in Van Cortlandt over the years, but on my many hikes there I have never seen one, and for good reason: they are nocturnal and, unlike the raccoon, very shy.  They too eat just about anything – mice, shrews, moles, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, even those obstreperous raccoons, as well as turtles, lizards, snakes, and insects, and for a vegetarian option, acorns, cherries, berries, grapes, and nuts.  When, rarely, they are sighted, it’s usually a quick flash of red and they are gone.

A red fox, photographed in the photographer's back yard.

     Also not seen as yet in Central Park but appearing elsewhere is another newcomer, the coyote.  Yes, we tend to associate the coyote with cowboys, Big Sky, and the shootout at the O.K. Corral, but the Eastern coyote, as its name implies, resides here in the East and has been extending its range southward to include the New York metropolitan area.  Sneaking in from Westchester County just north of the city, it has now made its home for several years in parks in the Bronx and Queens, where residents rarely see it, but hear its howls at night and find their trash cans raided.  And if they do see it, they often mistake it for a dog.

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Looks like a wolf, but it isn't.  Looks like a dog, but it isn't.

     When coyotes first arrived in New York State is hotly debated.  Some think they were here before European settlers arrived, and scattered to wilderness areas as woodlands were cleared for farms, then returned when farms reverted to forest.  But others think they are new to the state, moving in from central North America only after settlers eliminated the wolf.  They were first observed in northern New York in the 1930s, and by the 1980s had spread throughout the state.  In 1994 one appeared in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx – its modern New York City debut – and another was spotted a year later in Van Cortlandt Park. 

     That coyotes should appear in the northern outer boroughs was not altogether surprising, since those areas had large parks, and freestanding houses with yards and alleys with trash cans that could easily be raided.  But Manhattan, with its congestion, its busy streets, its noise, and its close-packed buildings, seemed an unlikely habitat for these skulking nocturnal scavengers.  Until, that is, one crossed into the borough in 1999, probably following a train line, and another was spotted in 2010 at the Manhattan entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel – events that provoked a great media brouhaha, with helicopters tracking the intruders and videos of their capture circulating on the Internet.  And the invasion continues.  Last January a coyote was captured by the police on a basketball court after midnight in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, and two weeks later another was captured in the residential complex known as Stuyvesant Town on the East Side of Manhattan.

     Recognizing that coyotes are here in the city to stay, the Parks Department has posted tips for coexisting with the creatures:

·      Don’t feed them
·      Store food and garbage in animal-proof containers.
·      Keep pets on a leash, since coyotes have been known to kill them .
·      If a coyote approaches you, “act big and make loud noises.”

     Wild coyotes are wary of humans, making sightings rare.  But 2015 has proven to be a breakout year for the species, with numerous sightings in the suburbs, and killings of cats and small dogs.  There are reports too of citizens fighting off coyotes with snow shovels, of pet dogs being snatched off front porches in broad daylight, and even – rarely – of a coyote biting a suburbanite who may then have to have a series of rabies shots.  These events are more common in wooded suburban areas than in the city, but  there have been plenty of sightings in the city too, including a coyote that got onto the roof of a bar in Queens.  But never fear, the cavalry are coming.  Well, maybe not cavalry, but the Police department’s Emergency Services Unit who, armed with tranquilizer guns and guided by a helicopter, chased a coyote through Riverside Park last April, only to have it escape, and who, days later, pursued a coyote through Battery Park City, cornered it in the outdoor seating area of a café, and stunned it with a dart.  A photo of the caged victim was then triumphantly posted on Twitter, and its fate announced: release “into an appropriate wilderness area.”  But first, one official announced, it would be interrogated … by a police dog, of course.  So it goes in urban New York.  Which suggests a new version of a time-honored rhyme:

Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust,
If raccoons don’t get you,
Coyotes must.

     Coyotes are relative newcomers to the city; by way of contrast, the city has always been besieged by rats.  While waiting for a subway train, if you glance down at the rubbish-strewn tracks, sooner or later you are bound to see their fat brown bodies skulking about, eating what New Yorkers – some of us – cast so cavalierly down on the tracks.  There are an estimated 2 million of them in the city (some would say more), averaging some 16 inches long and weighing 1 pound, though they have been known to measure up to 20 inches and weigh 2 pounds.  Fat as they are, they can squeeze through tiny holes, leap 4 feet sideways, fall 5 stories without injury, and tread water for 3 days.  Other accomplishments include the ability to chew through pipe, have a new litter every 2 months, carry pathogens that cause various illnesses, invade restaurants after hours, and crawl up sewer pipes to enter apartments through toilets.  They have bitten infants and the homeless and have eaten corpses in the city morgue.  Obviously, not the most desirable of neighbors.  Is it any wonder that all 109 of the city’s mayors, almost without exception, have announced plans to eradicate this scourge, or that the scourge persists?

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Just where you'd expect him: in the subway.
     At this point, this post has probably discouraged numerous potential visitors from setting foot in New York.  And yet, having lived here for decades, I myself have seen rats only on subway tracks.  Restaurants I have patronized have on occasion been closed temporarily because of infestations, and the parks I frequent often have signs posted, warning that rat poison has been spread there recently – a danger more to pets than to me.  My building’s garbage cans are usually tightly sealed, though on occasion the trash they contain overflows; but so far, no rats.  So I survive: in my personal experience, no raccoons, no coyotes, no rats.  (Just ten thousand roaches.)

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Paul Lowry

     But the war continues.  Our mayor, Bill de Blasio, has just included $2.9 million in the budget for rat control, rats being, in Hizzoner’s words, “one New York City institution that we’re happy to get rid of.”  Inspectors are stalking neighborhoods on the lookout for signs of rat behavior, teams are being assigned locations, solar compactors and other rat-proof bins are being supplied to the Sanitation Department, and relevant city bureaucracies are being told to “think like a rat.”  But the enemy is known to be diabolically clever, opportunistic, and not fussy when it comes to meals.  Good luck, Mr. de Blasio.  You’re up against yet another wild critter that has adjusted marvelously to urban ways and finds a feast in any trash pile, any garbage can whose lid is not securely fastened.  They prosper because, alas, we feed them.

     Finally, having just scrutinized the ground and the sewers, let’s have a look at the skies, where two more large raptors can be seen soaring overhead.  I have watched a pair of ospreys nesting in spring on a wooden platform built to accommodate them in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, sometimes both of them at the nest, with the scrawny young, beaks agape, just barely visible above the edge of the nest.  And at times I have seen an osprey soaring, white below, its great outstretched wings marked with dark wrist patches, its black cheek patch sometimes visible.  And once, hiking along the New Jersey side of the Hudson in November, I saw an osprey with a large fish in its beak, until, out of nowhere, a bald eagle appeared who grabbed the fish right out of the osprey’s break and made off with it – all this in a matter of seconds.  Ospreys are big, but eagles are even bigger, and in nature the big guys always win.

An osprey, extending its talons as it prepares to dive on its prey far below.

     The other large soaring raptor common to New York is the peregrine falcon, a crow-sized predator that, liking high cliffs, has adapted to the city, where it perches on ledges of skyscrapers and on bridges, and from there plummets at a speed of over 200 miles an hour – the fastest of any animal on earth – to seize a pigeon or mourning dove that it has spotted far below.  Observed when perched, it shows color ranging from blue-black to slate gray above, and from white to rusty below with dark markings, its white neck marked with black cheek patches, or “sideburns.”  And they do perch in the city, and not always at dizzying heights; my partner Bob’s doctor has shown us photographs he took of a peregrine sitting on top of a lamppost at Union Square.


Male and female peregrine falcons. 

     Long before seeing peregrines here in the city, I used to see them every autumn on Monhegan Island off midcoast Maine, where birders would come from great distances to watch them soaring or diving off the cliffs, perhaps feeding on the huge raft of eider ducks that always appeared there in the fall.  One windy day when there were few birds to see, I went to Blackhead, a headland towering some 150 feet above the sea, where I lay down to get out of the wind, and saw, soaring far above me, three, then four, then five, six, seven peregrines, riding the air currents high in the sky.  But there’s no need to go to Maine to see them, since there are more peregrines here in the city than in any other place in the world, though I can’t promise seven all at once.  To see them diving at lightning speed, even though it means the death of some smaller bird, is to witness one of the wonders of nature, sudden, dire, and thrilling.

     This post deals with wild animals in the city, but plenty of wildflowers grow here too, as I have mentioned in other posts.  If, at this time of year, I go out on errands or for a walk, within two or three blocks I can usually spot at least five wildflowers, often more.  They grow in vacant lots, in small bits of greenery, out of sidewalk cracks, even off the sides of old piers, some of them too tiny to be visible from a standing position; to find them, I squat.  Usually dismissed as weeds, they always excite me (no, not that way), for they are growth, exuberant life, Big Mama.  Along with the insects, they will inherit the earth if we humans ever die out.  On this happy note I’ll end.

     WNYC, Goldman Sachs, and Monsanto:  Viewers of this blog know the love I bear Goldman Sachs (expressed fondly in post #158, December 21, 2014) and Monsanto.  They may also recall that, as a loyal contributor to WNYC, I queried the station to find out if these two stellar entities were among their contributors.  Months of silence followed, but finally last April I received a courteous response from the Manager of Listener Services, informing me of the following:

·      Monsanto was once an underwriter of the program “Marketplace,” but WNYC is confident that Monsanto’s sponsorship of the show played no part in the news coverage.
·      Goldman Sachs is currently an underwriter of the program “Freakonomics,” but again, WNYC is confident that its coverage is not influenced by Goldman Sachs’s sponsorship.

I will let the viewers decide whether or not the station can be blithely indifferent to where its money comes from.  Monsanto and Goldman Sachs know how to play the game; they put their money where it counts.  WNYC’s intentions are no doubt fine, but it might come down to which stories are not covered, or covered only lightly, rather than deliberate distortions of the news.  The soundest policy would be to eschew (I love this word; it sounds like a sneeze) all donations from corporations whose activities are controversial.

     Coming soon:  Religion in New York.  How doughty old Peter Stuyvesant couldn’t stand Quakers because they quaked.  Today, High Church, Low Church, and No Church.  Who’s winning converts, who’s losing?  Worshipers speaking in tongues and raising their arms in rapture, and the parishioners who won’t let their church close their parish.  And yes, organized paganism and some atheist Satanists who want children to be allowed to pray in school … to Satan.  So who said New York is godless?  We’ve got gods and believers all over the place.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder