What if 3,000 people left a neighborhood of 22,000 all at once and nobody noticed?
Ask any longtime resident of Brooklyn Heights how often they laid eyes on a Jehovah’s Witness, they would most certainly answer, “Every day.”
However if you were to ask that very same person if, by dint of the cliché, how often Jehovah’s Witnesses had appeared at their door to offer them a copy of the Watchtower newsletter and recruit them into the religion, that person would likely smile benignly and say “Oh, never. Of course not.”
In Brooklyn Heights, sightings of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been more than commonplace for over a century and no one living in the neighborhood now can remember a time when those encounters have ever involved a recruitment pitch of any kind—which is odd considering Brooklyn Heights is not just home to a large number of Watchtower readers, it is actually the church’s World Headquarters.
When one thinks of Brooklyn Heights, images of The Promenade, brownstones, well-to-do families come to mind along with the visages of famous residents like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. One might even think of the neighborhood’s two tony private schools or the fictional home of the Huxtable clan on the beloved The Cosby Show.
This is America’s first suburb.
So then how did Brooklyn Heights become the Vatican to one of the fastest-growing and best-known (if annoyingly so) in the world? Particularly as this largely white and endemically preppy neighborhood has managed to avoid the hipster transformation of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Borough Park, its neighbors to the north and south and the famous home of religious people living outside society’s norms. Just because an estimated 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses (or “JW’s” in local parlance) live and work in service to the church within the Heights, doesn’t mean that they stand out like their black-hatted brethren.
“You wouldn’t know someone is a Jehovah’s Witness just to look at them,” admits Jane McGroarty, president of The Brooklyn Heights Association. “Well, a native to The Heights might be able to if they see their belts are a little high,” she adds with a chuckle, referring to nerd-chic style favored my most Watchtower adherents
But what might the impact be when this community disappears in a few years or decades? What if it’s nothing at all?
While the notoriously cloistered JWs will not, like so many other things they are mum about, say when they are leaving, it is a fact that eventually, the estimated 3,000 followers currently residing in church properties throughout the neighborhood will soon be moving to new facilities, which cost the organization an estimated $11.5 million, in the Upstate town of Warwick, just next door to Walkill where, in addition to the internal agricultural and manufacturing industries, much of the printing operation is already re-based.
Just last week, The Watchtower put five properties in the Heights on the market, a collection of townhouses and apartments that neighbors knew would be coming to market for some time. The church began its great sell-off three years ago, reversing just over a century of history in the Heights, dating back to when Pittsburgh preacher Charles Taze Russell first arrived on the shores of Brooklyn. (He determined the Heights, with its easy access to the East River, to be the perfect distribution point for his life’s work, The Watchtower newsletter.) Over the years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have come into possession of real estate in the range of $600 million to $1 billion. What will become of it after they leave will shape the neighborhood at the heart of Brooklyn far more than the church ever did.
I can personally attest to the veracity of this unique, and admittedly bizarre arrangement as I grew up in The Heights, directly across from the Promenade (where my parents still live), around the corner from ur-social/racquet club The Heights Casino (where my family remain members), and three short blocks away from Saint Ann’s School on Clinton and Pierrepont Streets, which I attended for 12 years. I have never been solicited by a member of the church or even approached for directions, despite the fact that I am almost subconsciously aware that walking down Columbia Heights at any time directly before or after 4pm on weekdays will put me in the direct path of the polite stampede of JWs that is caused by the afternoon commute for a shift change at The Watchtower printing plant down Squibb Hill, commonly referred to by the neighborhood kids as “Jehovah’s Green.”
It is extremely rare to see Jehovah’s Witnesses going door-to-door proselytizing their faith in Brooklyn Heights, an activity for which they have become a clichéd annoyance the world over. And while an unofficial agreement with locals is the cause for this particular phenomenon that keeps a mutually appreciated distance between the two, that distance also comes at a cost to the neighborhood as JWs almost never interact with local businesses and purposefully do not foster a socio-economic bond with the community.
This reality is largely a function of the belief system adhered to by The Watchtower, which sees itself and its members outside of the authority of governmental power and, in addition to being tax exempt, therefore chooses not to interact with neighborhood or its businesses and residents. In turn, the Heights and its stereotypically stuffy inhabitants happily ignore their religious neighbors, so long as they do not intrude on them.The church even goes so far as to get all of its clothes and food from The Watchtower’s enormous property in Walkill. This symbiotic, yet non-symbiotic relationship leaves an observer with the impression that Watchtower’s presence on the Heights is almost more spiritual than physical.
“They just don’t spend money here,” says Chris Calfa, the co-owner of Lassen & Hennig’s Delicatessen, a neighborhood landmark that has been doing business at the same Montague Street location since 1939. “I don’t see how [The Watchtower] leaving could be bad for us. Bringing in new people who will spend money, that’s a good deal for us.”
“In the long run, it will be good for the neighborhood,” says a local real estate broker who has worked with Brooklyn Heights residential properties for over 20 years. “They don’t pay city taxes and their people don’t spend money in the community, so this change will definitely bring good things in that regard.”
Ms. McGroarty agrees with that sentiment theorizing “all of their properties are going to become something else, and while we don’t know for sure what that will be, you would think most of it would become residential. The neighborhood is going to feel more crowded without question.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses, she said, “lived light.”
However, while it may not have been on clothes or deli cold cuts, the Watchtower has spent a good deal of money in the community, buying up a staggeringly diverse and valuable portfolio of properties within the neighborhood, consisting of Promenade adjacent townhouses, two famed old hotels, and an impressive amount of acreage on which the church built enormous warehouses and factory where The Watchtower was produced, printed and shipped from for many years.
The value of the total holdings were estimated to be in the range of $600 million when The Watchtower first announced its intention to move in 2003, selling off its former shipping warehouse at the foot of Atlantic Avenue that very year for a reported $120 million.That property is now “One Brooklyn Bridge Park,” a luxury condo development built in anticipation of anchoring the new park project of the same name growing up over former commercial docks spanning from the bridge to Atlantic Avenue. With no small amount of irony, the warehouse-turned-condos is helping to fund the park with the very tax revenues that the church has denied the city for years.
The same scheme will be used to further fund the park when the rest of the warehouses are sold off. For years, locals have fought condo development in the park, fearing the sanctity of their Promenade views. The JW’s may have come to the rescue yet again, after State Senator Dan Squadron hammered out a deal with the mayor for the redeveloped properties to contribute their taxes to the park, a deal that has the potential to traumatize the community in another way, as it could well mean thousands of much louder and more demanding residents than JWs becoming a part of the Heights.
Yet it is the townhouses that actually have many homeowners more worried. Local fears about real estate prices being affected were assuaged when the church decided to sell its property in stages, keeping the market churning, but not playing against the Watchtower’s financial interests.
While almost all of the reasoning behind the Watchtower’s decision-making is historically inscrutable at best (the organization is notoriously media-shy and did not respond to comment on this article), the idea to sell off the portfolio in stages has been met with admiring approval (“They didn’t need a fire sale” offers Ms. McGroarty), while the timing of their sale, during the economic implosion of 2008, does raise some eyebrows.
But The Watchtower has also earned the respect of Heights residents enough to keep those eyebrows heightened in private, as many of its residential and smaller properties were acquired during the economic downturn of the late 1980’s and early 90’s, when Brooklyn Heights property costs were at their nadir and many of the beautiful old homes were falling into disrepair. The Watchtower’s impressive organization and industry is a staple of their religion and it is manifested physically in the properties that they bought and restored over the past 20 years, making the church an incongruous leader in local preservation.
Take the Bossert Hotel on Montague Street, a historic touchstone for 20th Century Brooklyn. It was most famously home to many Brooklyn Dodgers during the baseball season, putting the players only two blocks away from the team’s offices on Court and Montague, and a short trolley ride to Ebbets Field. The Watchtower bought the hotel in 1988 after leasing it for five years. By the time of the purchase, the building had fallen on hard times, its famed “Marine Roof” collapsed and the once intricately ornamented lobby in sorry disrepair. The Watchtower replaced the roof and the lobby is once again a spectacular showpiece, factors that helped the church attract buyers three years ago.
“The Watchtower has been a very decent neighbor to Brooklyn Heights in general,” Ms. McGroarty said. “They’re not participatory in almost any way, but they have done a fantastic job maintaining needy properties, The Bossert is an in incredible testimony to that fact.
Unfortunately, the Witnesses picked a poor time to sell, and the $98 million sale of The Bossert fell through in October 2008 after potential buyer RAL Companies was reportedly scared off (ironically) by slow sales figures at One Brooklyn Bridge Park. With housing still on shaky ground, observers are wary of what will happen with the newest roster of listings announced last week that includes mostly smaller brownstones and townhouses that would be best marketed and sold as single-family homes.
“On one hand it’s five all at once,” local broker said, “but on the other hand they’ve all been subdivided to better fit their housing needs. They’re in beautiful shape but they need work to be one family homes again, so they’re not really in competition with brownstones in our portfolio.”
While the tax revenues and theoretical retail spending that will be inevitable parts of new, non-observant residents is a trade off that almost everyone in the neighborhood can get behind—with the possible exception of more competition for on-street parking. The potential for problems is there, though. Just look at all the overcrowding on the L after the new condos were built.
As for the actual departure of The Watchtower and its followers, that is being met with a certain amount of ambivalence.
“It’s not a typical community of families with children, it’s a situation where adults run the show,” Ms. McGroarty said of the largely service-based, quasi-intern population of Watchtower headquarters. “So it’s hard to see what will be missed or what to expect in exchange.”
One has to wonder what the response would be if roughly one in every eight residents of The Upper East Side picked up and left all at once. It would not be outside the box to think that a certain panic would settle in over the neighborhood. The response in Brooklyn Heights to seeing 3,000 out of 22,000 residents departing is best described as ‘blasé.’
“I don’t see it having much of an effect really,” says the real estate broker.
“It could go a few ways,” says Mr. Calfa of Lassen & Hennig’s with a shrug.
Even Brooklyn Heights’ City Councilman Steve Levin offered a rather vanilla statement that seemed obtuse in its prediction, saying in part that “[The Watchtower's] departure from the neighborhood will certainly leave a lasting impact. The Witnesses’ move, along with the continued development of Brooklyn Bridge Park, will drastically change the atmosphere in the neighborhood.”
At once invisible and omnipresent, the Watchtower’s disappearance will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark on the future of America’s First Suburb. But whether that mark will be positive or negative is nearly impossible to adequately predict.
Perhaps only Jehovah himself knows for sure.