Consumerism will cross any cultural boundary in search of the everlasting coin.
There’s a church at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in the Flatiron District. The solid brick edifice rises impressively into the open air like so many ancient cathedrals in New York, but it is no longer a church. It is a marketplace. A festival of commerce where worshippers once kneeled. They still come, the worshippers, but they no longer bend a knee. They have swapped the Book of Common Prayer for the Pocketbook of Common Plastic. Now they come for the brand buzz. The church is now a consumer marketplace, full of mini brand stalls hawking all manner of goods. Personal transformation has replaced mass transubstantiation. The means of transformation are myriad: Swedish cosmetics, footwear laboratories, milliner boutiques with newsboy caps and hip fedoras, FCUK, signature chocolates, skincare emporiums, small-batch gelato, vintage gemstones, and a “jeansmith” on the upper floor. When the revelers are finished flinging the plastic around, they can settle in at Grimaldi’s pizzeria on the first floor for an artery-clogging meat-lovers pie. Properly carbo-loaded, they will stagger into the sun-drenched glory of New York, its island avenues shimmering north and south in vanishing horizons. How the city teems with consumer life.
Of course, repurposing sacred ground is nothing new. For twenty-five years the church was the Limelight nightclub. Andy Warhol hosted its opening party in 1983. But before that, in a past consigned to our quintessential American amnesia, it was the Church of the Holy Communion. Its cornerstone was laid in 1844 and its notched tower designed by Richard Upjohn, architect of Trinity Church. It served an Episcopal congregation that included John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. What would these progenitors of capitalism think today if they could see the church’s holy altars and pews replaced by our gleeful hedonism? Sacred no more.
Seeing skinny females in giant, insect-eyed sunglasses cruise into this capitalist cathedral reminds me of the strange Biblical passage where Jesus, coming upon a band of venal moneychangers in the Temple, paused for a moment and then, “when he had made a scourge of small cords, drove them all out of the temple…and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables.” (KJV, Cambridge Ed.)
Today Jesus would be in Cell Block D if he charged into the Limelight Marketplace brandishing a whip of cords, a “domestic extremist” brought to heel by Homeland Security. Imagine the indignant looks on the faces of those bone-thin models and uptown wives and flouncy river-crossers. Imagine the media coverage: “Wild man with whips charges register in Limelight,” “Rasputin-incarnate flays foodies in Chelsea boutique.” “Anti-globalization extremist threatens profit margins.” Even the local priesthood would probably emit chortles of good humor and suggest the man had taken the Gospels a tad too literally. Then they’d craft a clever sermon on the perils of fundamentalism for their flock of latter-day Astors and Vanderbilts.
You can hear the spirited thump and wail of shop-friendly electronica a block away. Nobody seems to mind that our cathedrals, once a sacred space, now ply down and dirty retail. The point is not that we need a return to religion. God no. But maybe another kind of Great Awakening wouldn’t hurt. Something to remind us that there were once denominations other than tens and twenties.