City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2016)
F panel from the 33rd Street station location of the work Q is for Queens (1999) © Yumi Heo, 7 subway line stations at 46th Street-Bliss Street/40th Street-Lowery Street/33rd Street-Rawson Street. Commissioned by MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design.
City of Gods is a history and ethnography of Flushing, Queens in New York City. An important site in colonial America for its place in the history of religious freedom, Flushing is now perhaps the most extreme case of religious and ethnic pluralism in the world—and an ideal place to explore how America’s long experiment with religious freedom and religious pluralism began and continues. There are two equally important parts to the project: the history of Flushing from the colonial period through the nineteenth century, and the continuation of the story through the twentieth century to the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The book begins in 1945 during a celebration marking the 300th anniversary of the founding of Flushing, but I then use that symbolic moment to flashback to 1645 and trace the often overlooked colonial history of Flushing from the Dutch period up through pre-Revolutionary New York to the end of the nineteenth century. This research is a significant contribution to scholarship as it builds on recent work that stresses the importance of shifting attention from the standard New England Puritan narrative of British colonial America to the brief but arguably more important Dutch period of New Netherland as well as the history of the Middle Atlantic region in general. The second half of the project addresses the legacy of Flushing’s colonial heritage amidst great demographic change in the twentieth century due to waves of immigration from the 1880s-1920s and from 1965-present. Flushing, Queens is perhaps the most extreme case of religious pluralism in the world. In a residential neighborhood and commercial district about 2.5 square miles, there are half a dozen Hindu temples, two Sikh gurdwaras, several mosques, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Buddhist temples, a Taoist temple, over 100 Korean churches, Latin American evangelical churches, Falun Gong practitioners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons… as well as some of the oldest churches and synagogues in the city—overall, nearly 200 different places of worship densely concentrated in a heavily populated and busy urban neighborhood.
Most people (including many New Yorkers) do not know about modern Flushing or even Queens for that matter. Some may remember an earlier time when Queens basked in the international spotlight when two Worlds Fairs (1939-40 and 1964-65) were held in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the area was the first home of United Nations General Assembly. Many more are familiar with Shea Stadium, the U.S. Open, and La Guardia and JFK airports. But Queens does not usually conjure up the most flattering image in the popular imagination in the recent past: it is the outer borough where Archie Bunker lived in the 1970s TV sitcom “All in the Family,” and it has a similar look even in more recent shows like “The Nanny” or the “King of Queens.” But such images do not accurately represent Queens and how it began to change dramatically after the Immigration Act of 1965. Queens is now the most ethnically diverse county in the country according to Census statistics—”the Lower East Side of the late twentieth century” in terms of immigration—but only recently has it become known for this major demographic shift.
Local residents of Flushing often proudly claim Flushing is the birthplace of religious freedom, which is a little misleading-but it did play a very important but often overlooked part in colonial history. Flushing is actually the anglicized form of the Dutch name Vlissingen. Its town charter of 1645 was one of the first in colonial America to grant religious freedom, or “liberty of conscience” as it was called then, which was important to the local Quakers, or Friends, who settled there. When this right was jeopardized by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who was bent on persecuting anyone who was not a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, the people of Flushing came together to defend their town charter. In 1657, they drafted a document that has become known as the Flushing Remonstrance, which American religious historian Martin E. Marty has called a “pioneering plea for religious freedom.” Stuyvesant was not moved, however, and it was not until 1663, when John Bowne was banished from Flushing for holding Quaker meetings in his house and then successfully appealed his case to the Dutch West India Company, that the town and the rest of the colony would more fully enjoy this liberty. Bowne House, on Bowne Street in Flushing, is the oldest house in Queens (1661), and it has been operating as a historical society and museum since 1945, when it was declared “a national shrine to religious freedom.” Today in Flushing there are now ten different places of worship just down the road from Bowne House on Bowne Street, and over 150 other places of worship on nearby streets. For residents of modern Flushing, everyday encounters with “the Other” are commonplace.
Forty years ago, when the U.S. was still largely Protestant-Catholic-Jewish, Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray asked a question that has far greater urgency now: “How much pluralism and what kinds of pluralism can a pluralist society stand?” The extreme case of Flushing is an ideal place to explore how America’s long experiment with religious pluralism continues today. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the absence of widespread religious conflict (with the exception of occasional but rare bias-related crimes and hostility) in a small urban neighborhood that is home to an extremely diverse population and densely concentrated microcosm of world religions seems to suggest that there is no limit to how much pluralism a pluralist society can stand. This demonstrates the remarkable possibilities of pluralism for civil society in a democracy—that a pluralistic society committed to democracy and religious freedom can accommodate an enormous amount of diversity. But there are in fact some limits of religious pluralism too. There are practical limits: parking problems and overcrowding on days of worship when the faithful flock to Flushing. There are social limits: residents of Flushing (and perhaps New Yorkers in general) are somewhat conditioned to accept diversity because they encounter such a wide range of different people in public and are generally forced to do so more than other areas that are not as densely populated and more spread out, but the interaction is often superficial. They are city people who value their privacy, and while they may live, work, and worship near each other, overall there is not much meaningful, lasting interaction among different ethnic/racial/religious groups—in large apartment buildings, next-door neighbors of different faiths and cultures sometimes never get to know each other, while interfaith meetings and other kinds of mixing tend to happen only at the leadership level. Finally, there are also theological limits: religious difference also affects why some people do not interact and would not want to participate in any dialogue or interaction—because they believe “the Other” is wrong and/or evil, or some kind of threat to be avoided. The question for the 21st century is will Flushing come together in new and lasting ways to build bridges of dialogue, or will it further fragment into a Tower of Babel? Interfaith groups point the way toward more meaningful possibilities of civil society and community, and if they are able to organize and maintain an effective network of dialogue at the local level, Flushing really would be a new “city on a hill.” On the other hand, the limits of pluralism may prohibit the many from wanting to interact as one, and that also has implications.
If historian Arthur M. Schlesinger was right about the importance of the city in American history—that the experiences and problems of American society are those of an urban society—then we stand to learn a lot from Flushing. New York City is different from many other areas in the U.S., but there is a saying that whatever happens in New York happens everywhere else ten years later. Flushing is an extreme case, but other cities, towns, and neighborhoods all across the country are becoming more diverse too, and each will have to learn to live with pluralism. Indeed, we may be able to glimpse the future of American religion in Flushing not only because the striking exaggeration of its diversity sharply defines the issues, but also because the story of Flushing mirrors that of the nation in microcosm.