New York, Nu York: A Tale of Real Estate and History

I've become entangled in a battle between a New York City Jewish congregation (not my own) and their angry, alarmed neighbors. It's not a comfortable thing and frankly, I do recognize the viewpoints of both sides. But at this point I have sided with one camp. And it's a sad, modern tale of real estate versus history, feelings of desperation versus architectural preservation.
On one side there is Congregation Shaare Zedek, an Upper West Side Manhattan congregation with an almost-100 year old home on West 93rd Street, just east of Broadway. From the outside the synagogue building is handsome and certainly speaks of a certain style and time long gone. "SZ" is one of the oldest congregations of NYC: they are either the third or fourth oldest (depending upon whom you ask). SZ began in Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1830s, then built a lower Harlem shul, and later moved to the Upper West Side. Their old Lower Manhattan home is gone, a parking lot in its place. Their former Harlem home is now used by a Christian Church, which has retained some of its Judaica although overall the building is in shabby condition.
And I offer data and description on their former homes to offer context to the issue now facing SZ: their congregants wish to have their West Side home knocked down, so that a developer can build a new apartment building, and offer a floor or two to the congregation for their use. Shaare Zedek is a Conservative shul that is not large, and they claim that their building (which is not wheelchair accessible) is a financial burden. Not only that but they maintain Bayside Cemetery, an old burial ground located in a quiet section of Queens, New York.
However, a number of people are protesting the SZ plans, and they fall into two general camps. First there are local residents of the Upper West Side who are alarmed by the prospect of a large new building that could possibly dwarf others in the immediate vicinity. These people also see their local area being strained by further large-scale development, particularly the public services. Second there are the historians and preservationists who are alarmed by the prospect of a well-regarded older house of worship being torn down. I fall into the latter group.
I was contacted by a few women who live in the West 90s, who were familiar with my work as the researcher, writer and photographer of the Lost Synagogues of New York City. They wanted me to write a letter to our local landmarks group, to voice my unhappiness over this situation. And I had already heard rumors from my old friend C, who had told me certain things about the possible loss of the old synagogue building. Turns out that a grade-school classmate of ours attends Shaare Zedek so I sent him a Facebook message, asking him about his take on SZ's future. He never responded to me.
In mid-July I led a series of walking tours showcasing lost synagogues, and one of the tours was on the Upper West Side. I led a group around to see both former and active synagogues. We concluded the tour at Shaare Zedek and I told the participants that the future of SZ's building was up in the air. And one July Friday I attended the Erev Shabbat service at SZ, with C. Although the service was conducted in the basement because the group was small, the rabbi did show us the sanctuary when C asked.
I was quite impressed with the grand sanctuary-- beautiful stained glass windows, a lovely Aron Kodesh, wooden pews and lots of other nice details. But I also knew it was perhaps going to be in limbo.
Fast forward to Tuesday evening, September 6. I was asked to speak at a monthly meeting of Community Board 7, held at a Fordham University building just south of Lincoln Center. I spoke briefly about why the SZ building should not be torn down, especially because another beloved West Side synagogue building, Unity Synagogue, had been demolished even with a lot of public protest. And nervous as I was, speaking to a few hundred people, I was even more so because I had followed (and was followed by) speakers from the Shaare Zedek congregation whose opinions were vastly different than mine.
In fact, one of the SZ congregants had been eyeing me suspiciously; no doubt he recognized me from my attendance at that Erev Shabbat service back in July.
As of this writing, the situation is on hold. The Community Board is looking into the specifics of the plans and the SZ shul stands.
And even though I was thanked for speaking on behalf of the non-demolition side (and I had been one of the few people who did not go over time and didn't get shushed), I realize that this is a very sticky, bittersweet situation. The Shaare Zedek congregation does not have good finances. They have a big building which, while beautiful, is also a burden in many ways. It needs major repairs. They see their situation quite differently than the preservationists and the neighborhood activists who don't want any demolition or new construction on the lot.
What will happen to the congregation? to the street and neighborhood? to the cemetery? I will post again.