It was a beautiful summer day during a holiday weekend, but that didn't stop more than 80 concerned residents of New York City, some coming from as far west as Manhattan and as far east as Bayside, from attending a rally sponsored by the Juniper Park Civic Association and Councilman Tony Avella.
The civic association has been battling developers and city hall since early 2006 to save the church, designed in 1847 by Richard Upjohn, and founded by early settlers in Maspeth, including Congressman James Maurice, author Garrit Furman, farmer John Van Cott and judge David S. Jones. Originally founded as an Episcopal Church, it was sold to a Korean Methodist congregation in 1997. That group sold the land to Maspeth Development, LLC in 2005. The developer has expressed interest in building 70+ units of housing on the site.
"Our councilman, Dennis Gallagher, was down here in December when workers were found violating a stop work order," said JPCA President Robert Holden. "He phoned the developer to ask him why he had workers down here, and he called him 'Tommy.' So we have a councilman who didn't send a representative to any of our rallies and who knows the developer on a first name basis. This makes you wonder whether Councilman Gallagher is representing the interests of his constituents or the developer," Holden said.
Councilman Tony Avella, who has attended all of the St. Saviour's rallies, recounted his year-old threat to the developer. "I told him, 'If you tear this church down, forget about coming to me for a zoning change'," Avella, who is Chair of the City Council's Zoning Subcommittee warned.
Councilman Avella also said it was incredible that the JPCA has been fighting to save the property for this long. "It's ridiculous that after more than a year and a half, you are still fighting to save this property. The city is not doing it's job."
Christabel Gough, Secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, based in Manhattan, said, "This is one of the most historic places in New York. It's shameful that the Landmarks Commission has backed away from you, I think it's a political decision and we're fighting it, but so far we have had to look to Juniper Civic to keep this place standing. So thank you all for what you've done and keep after it, because we will win, I believe." Gough donated the money to fund the lawsuit brought by the JPCA last year against the developer, based on the 1878 deed in which James Maurice donated land for a churchyard and said it must always be used for church purposes. The suit was dismissed by a judge last summer, who said that the restrictive covenant had been extinguished.
"I counted 185 trees on this property," said JPCA President Robert Holden. "The church was founded by Maspeth pioneers and many artifacts connected to the American Revolution, which was fought in the area, have been found on the land. This area has the worst air quality in the entire state. We can't afford to lose this green space," Holden said.
"We have a mayor who says he wants to green New York," said Tony Nunziato, Chair of the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force. "So why does he want to take an entire block of green and turn it gray? If he really wants to have a green environment, then St. Saviour's has to be saved."
"I come down here often, and what I frequently see are kids playing in a parking lot and on the railroad tracks," said Christina Wilkinson, Chair of JPCA's Committee to Save St. Saviour's. "The Parks Department tells people who live in this area that their closest park is Principe Park. Kids are forced to walk down a truck route, past an adult establishment and through an industrial area to get to that park, which is more than 10 minutes walking distance from here. This doesn't make any sense when there is a beautiful green space just crying out to be made into a park, community center and museum right across the street from where they live."
Wilkinson also pointed out that mayoral candidates Christine Quinn, Adolfo Carrion, William Thompson and Anthony Weiner were all contacted but none of them responded to pleas for help. "If you want to be mayor of the city, you have to represent all of the city, not just Manhattan," Wilkinson said. "We are taxpayers and we vote, and they should be here."
Wilkinson read a letter from Rego-Forest Preservation Council Chair, Michael Perlman, who could not attend the rally. He had this to say to Mayor Bloomberg:
"This is judgment day, so think twice about ridiculing & discarding 160 years of our architectural, cultural, & archaeological history, and our environmental attributes, into a landfill. Is this the ideal of progress? Leave something for this generation to cherish, pay tribute to our ancestors, and inform, inspire, & set an example for our children to come. Be a savior of St. Saviour's!"
Jim Driscol, President of the Queens Historical Society, explained that Maspeth is steeped in history and that former mayor and governor Dewitt Clinton had planned the Erie Canal from his summer house alongside Newtown Creek. The house burned down in 1933 and the creek is now the most polluted body of water in the country.
After the initial gathering, the attendees formed a procession and circled once around the property, holding signs and chanting "Save St. Saviour's" and "What do we want? A park! When do we want it? Now!"
Sumeet Sharma, representing State Senator Serphin Maltese, said at the conclusion of the event, "Senator Maltese supports saving St. Saviour's, and hopefully we can all team up and get this church saved, especially since it's such an important site in Queens. Save St. Saviour's!"