Out my window, I can make out the red-brick spires of an enormous Catholic church. Built for a parish of more than 10,000, it now draws only a few hundred to Christmas mass. Its outlying buildings have been repurposed. One houses a community center, another offices, and a third a nursing home. A century ago, its fiery rector denied communion to parents who dared to send their children to the public schools. But today, the old parochial campus houses a charter academy.
A few blocks in the other direction sits an attractive building, two towers framing a large arched doorway. Today it is a condominium; it was built as a synagogue. Nearby, the old Hebrew School has been converted to a men's club. The kosher butcher and baker in the adjacent strip are long gone. Only a deli remains—its popular brunch menu offering bacon and Bloody Marys, and touting its historic authenticity.
But on Sunday mornings, even before the restaurants open, parking is scarce. There is the AME church, an undistinguished clapboard structure inadequate to hold its throngs, who split between two services, and still spill into the adjacent auditorium. The Episcopalians, naturally, gather beneath a more elegant roof, but their service is also full. The Pentecostals actually have a parking lot, but its spaces are reserved for the clergy and the aged. Only those who come early find spots nearby. Then there are the tabernacles and gospel rooms, the converted storefronts and the baptist chapels.
During the week, other buildings are lit after dark. Lodge halls for the Black Elks and the Prince Hall Masons. A rehearsal space for African dance. Bars and bodegas, with old timers smoking on their stoops. Basketball courts, filled with young men. There is no mistaking the vibrancy or vitality of this community. But its pure density is equally striking. These are families raising their children together, sending them to the same schools, praying in the same rooms, socializing in the same halls, and then watching their kids pair off and repeat the process. Just as the Irish did. Just as the Jews did.
And so, I wonder. The Irish were seen as unassimilable; savages; apostles of popery and drink. Scorned and rejected, they turned inward, fashioning for themselves a parallel world with a distinctive culture. For two, three, four generations, they dominated the city and its politics, and their institutions thrived. They insistently pried open the doors of opportunity, tore down the barriers of discrimination, and entered the mainstream of American society. The Jews were seen as unassimilable; hook-nosed and beady-eyed; greedy and grasping. They turned inward, to their synagogues and schools, taking the religion of the Old World and adapting it to the New. For two, three, four generations, they ran their stores, passed on their faith, and their institutions thrived. And they, too, forced their way into the mainstream. And now the nunnery is a nursing home, and the synagogue is a condominium.
I think about this on Sunday mornings, floating down the sidewalks in a sea of fabulous hats.
This is the American story, enacted over and over again, but long denied to blacks. But now, the walls are starting to crack. What will it mean if being black actually becomes a matter of cultural identity, of voluntary affiliation?
The well-trod path to equality offers some clues. Many of the old institutions will shutter their doors, or hand over the keys to newer groups, still stuck on the margins. Some will shrink, but simultaneously become more vibrant, more creative and engaging, as their members embrace their identity with the renewed enthusiasm of choice. The gains will be paired with loss. It's the price, I suppose, of becoming virtually normal.