Seeking a Song’s Meaning (continued)

The nineteenth-century critics of Trinity Church’s real estate practices had become quiet. That changed in 1908 when Charles Edward Russell published an impassioned, eloquent, muckraking article, “The Tenements of Trinity Church,” in Everybody’s Magazine. Russell had walked and studied the blocks north of Trinity Church and had gained access to many of the buildings on the narrow streets. He reported that Trinity leased its vacant lots, and tenants built on them. The leases were not the 99-year kind but for short terms, and, as a result, construction was often makeshift. Trinity generally did not renew the leases when their terms ended and would not buy the erected buildings. The owners could tear them down for the materials or walk away from them, as most did. Trinity, then, basically, inherited the buildings.

As a result, the church owned hundreds of tenements, which originally were single family homes but, Russell wrote, now housed five or six families. He branded them the worst tenements in New York: “Of all the tenement-houses that there are on Trinity land I have not found one that is not a disgrace to civilization and to the city of New York. . . . Whenever I saw a house that looked as if it were about to fall down, one that looked in every way rotten and weary and dirty and disreputable, I found that it was owned by Trinity or stood upon Trinity ground.”

He wrote about the crushed lives of the people he found: “She had lived in tenement-houses all her life, and not being the kind that finds refuge in drink, the utter dreariness of her surroundings had shriveled away the soul of humanity in her until nothing was left but this shape of perpetual fear. . . . She was dressed in rags, she was gaunt and bent, and in her eyes was an unspeakable terror of you and of me and of all the world that had brought her down to this.”

He recognized that Trinity was not entirely responsible for the conditions he observed and that the church did many good things, but still: “Ah, yes, blessings on the Sunday-school excursions, blessings on the trade-schools, blessings on the parochial schools, blessings on the fruit and flower missions, blessings on the organ music, blessings on the chapel guilds, blessings on the contributions for the poor of St. John’s. Beautiful, indeed, are all these things. But while they keep their wonted way, the mill of the tenement-house goes on crushing, and the products of the crushing stare us in the face with ugly questions, not to be answered with Sunday-school excursions.”

Russell discussed some “strange features” to “this extraordinary story,” but he concluded “The Tenements of Trinity Church” simply: “But stranger than all is this: that a Christian church should be willing to take money from such tenements as Trinity owns in the old Eighth Ward.”

This devastating article had its effect. Shortly after its 1908 publication, Trinity Church tore down the tenements and built office buildings and warehouses in their places. I do not know what happened to the residents of the Trinity tenements, many of whom, as even Russell conceded, paid only small rents.

Today the church owns little or none of this land and of the rest of the original Queen Anne grant. I doubt that it was surveyed back in 1706. Different sources report slightly different sizes, but it was between 200 and 300 acres. A report a few years ago said that Trinity had retained only fourteen acres of the original grants.

The church gave away about two-thirds of its land, primarily to religious institutions of various faiths and to schools. For example, Trinity gave the land for the original Kings College, which later became Columbia University. It sold or gave land to the city for parks and other public purposes. But other lands were sold to business enterprises, and Trinity commercially developed lands it retains. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Trinity constructed what was probably the first Manhattan building exclusively for offices just north of the church — the Trinity Building, which has since been torn down.

Trinity has been and remains a rich institution. A recent estimate is that its assets are worth close to $10 billion. A news report of a few years ago said that the church had a tax exempt “diversified portfolio” of $6 billion.

Not surprisingly, complaints are made that the church does not do enough good with its largesse. I don’t know if that is right, but from what I can tell, the church does do at least a lot of good with its money. It has many different fellowship programs for its parishioners, but it also helps many outside its own membership. For example, it has outreach programs for prisoners and the homeless. It serves 35,000 lunches to those in need. It has an affordable 325-unit residence for elderly and disabled people. It helps with housing for needy graduate students. Trinity has helped other churches experiencing financial difficulties. The church has a formal grant program for other worthwhile organizations, which in 2022 disbursed over $23 million. And they do much more good, I suppose. I don’t know if they do “enough,” but I do know that many have benefited from Trinity Church’s largesse.

Although not a member of Trinity, I have been a beneficiary of the church. Trinity not only has music at its services; it has frequent free concerts for the community at large including a regular series of performances at midday. When I retired, I started attending ten or more Trinity concerts a year at two different venues. Varied musicians performed at the church itself—a brass ensemble, jazz trios, a bass and cellist. Perhaps the most remarkable performer I heard was the renowned Moses Josiah. Renowned, I say, but in very small circles. Josiah played the musical saw. His repertoire included some classical pieces, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a hymn I associate with my Sunday School days.

The brief program notes said that Josiah was recognized as a Master Sawyer by the Sawyer Association Worldwide. I did not know that one who played the saw was a sawyer (some not-in-depth research also found the term “sawist” and “sawplayer”), and I had never heard of SAW. (My research revealed other striking factoids, including that a member of The Pogues as well as Marlene Dietrich played the musical saw, sometimes referred to as the “singing saw.” Don’t you wish you had seen Marlene, bent blade clasped between her knees, bow a saw?)

At the performance, Josiah was briefly interviewed and said that he had learned the instrument in his native Guyana, had been a winner on “The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour”, and had played for England’s Queen Elizabeth. Josiah then went on to thank the Lord, referring to his musical ability as a gift from God. I was happy that Trinity had given me the chance to see and hear his remarkable performance.

(continued January 25)