When their buildings were unconnected, Bethelites might walk sidewalks six-abreast at "shift changes," sweeping passerby into the street. So Watchtower connected buildings via underground tunnel, but this made them a "secretive cult," attempting to isolate their folk from the real world.
Watchtower owns 30 buildings in the Brooklyn Heights vicinity. They’ve been there since 1909. Brooklyn Heights was then, and remains, world headquarters for the organization. Over the years, and especially in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, as neighboring properties became available, Jehovah’s Witnesses snapped them up to accommodate growth. Of course, they didn't buy indiscriminately...they looked them over closely. When the Hotel Margaret went up for sale, Watchtower kept their distance. With its all wood interior, surely it was a fire trap. A few years later the building burned to the ground! Our people, directly across the street, had to evacuate. The June 22, 1980 Awake! magazine relates the fire, and a subsequent issue highlights an excerpt from With New York Firefighters, the firefighters' house magazine:
“And, we would be remiss, indeed, if we neglected to mention those members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who, from their headquarters across the street from the Hotel Margaret, provided food and shelter for our firefighters during the entire operation. On behalf of the entire fire-fighting force, warm and sincere appreciation is extended to these kind and dedicated people.”
It's a challenge for any neighborhood to bear that much tax-exempt property, even if the tax-exempt organization was responsible for keeping the area respectable during harsher times. So it’s probably a win-win that Jehovah’s Witnesses are lessening their presence….selling off a few buildings….so as to consolidate all U.S. printing in rural upstate New York. Some of the printing presses they use…newfangled jobs….require straight-line paths greater than the Brooklyn properties can physically accommodate. So the buildings have sort of become obsolete. And if the printing operations move, then you don’t need the residential buildings to house the workers, do you? Last year (2007) the Watchtower put six of it’s eighteen Brooklyn Heights properties up for sale. (the other twelve properties are in the nearby DUMBO (whatever that stands for) neighborhood)
These six aren’t the first to go. The year before, the Sliver building was sold. I have fond memories of the Sliver building, since Tom and Pam Oxgoad, Bethelites for many years, used to live there.
Tom Oxgoad hails from near Rochester. He’s a pal, and many years ago he was accepted as a Bethel volunteer. He met Pam while at Bethel. We‘ve been down to visit a few times over the years. Once we spent the whole day roaming Manhattan, which is easy to do when you have a native guide. Many hours we spent at the Metropolitan Art Museum. (or was that on another visit?) Come evening, we bought some wine and cheese and holed up in their tiny Sliver building apartment. Didn’t it have a bed that folded down from the wall, or have I just embellished its compactness in my head? What I positively do remember was their view of the Manhattan skyline…absolutely breathtaking!
The Oxgoads had had their eye on the Sliver building for some time, waiting for a vacancy. At Bethel, there is a seniority system when it comes to housing, but you have to be alert to new openings as well. Pam had been on the ball. She'd learned of an opening at the Sliver, the couple had applied and slipped in before anyone else knew which end was up.
The Oxgoads adjusted well to city living. Visiting speakers from the hills would show up for the Sunday public talk, Tom once told me. They’d rail against wicked big cities and how Nimrod founded Babylon and how Jehovah would flatten them all and so forth. Tom and Pam would wince….New York City, after all, was their home, and most of us grow fond of our homes, same as I've grown attached to Rochester and even see fit to write nice thingsabout it. Alas, their Manhattan view was not to last. No sooner had they settled in, when they were reassigned to rural Patterson NY. One day their window view took in Manhattan; the next day it was grazing cows.
The timing is favorable for selling off some buildings. Brooklyn Heights is hot right now and properties command top dollar. "[Jehovah’s Witnesses] bought their buildings for their own use, not looking to cash out, at a time when the market was dead and you couldn't give real estate away in this area," said Andy Gerringer, managing director of Prudential Douglas Elliman Developments. "I don't know if it was savvy investing, luck or divine intervention."
Nor do I.
Everyone says the Witnesses have been good neighbors, though they’ve not mixed much with the greater community. “If families start moving in, it’ll probably get a bit livelier around here,” said one man. “They didn’t really interact with everyone around them.”
Like I say, it’s probably a win-win. But if we’ve been good neighbors to Brooklyn Heights, they also have been to us. The Oxgoads miss it a lot.
[update] Jehovah’s Witnesses have been headquartered in Brooklyn Heights for over 100 years, but in 2016, they moved to new facilities in Warwick, New York. The neighbors were glad to see them go, but not all. Some remembered how they had kept their properties spotless in a most rundown area, preserving a core for later gentrification. But theirs was a huge chunk of land to be tax-exempt, and the new gentry grew weary that Witnesses were self-contained and didn’t maintain retail space on the first floors of their buildings. So it’s a win-win. The now upscale neighborhood has new property to develop and the brothers have moved out in the country. The internet mode of communication has made possible what waterway shipping could not. Brothers will remember Brooklyn Heights fondly, but it’s time to move on.
My Bethel friend used to tell me how visiting speakers from the hills would rail on about the wickedness of the big city. It made him squirm - ‘New York City is our home,’ he’d say. He and his wife maneuvered forever to land a magnificent, if stamp-sized, apartment in the Sliver Building – housing is on a seniority basis. We joined them there for wine and cheese after a day sightseeing. Unwinding with a breathtaking view of Manhattan beneath them – ah, what a life! But they were soon transferred to Patterson where they would look out their window and see cows.
Neighbor relations in Brooklyn Heights ebbed and flowed. ‘How are they now?’ I asked during one visit. “Better,” he said. It turned out that Bethel had bought the dilapidated Tower Hotel and restored it to its former glory. The building had once been home to the Brooklyn Dodgers whenever they were in town. That team won the National League pennant six times in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and partied each time in the top floor ballroom. The brothers polished up the ballroom and invited the neighborhood. ‘Don’t witness – let the building witness,’ they were advised. Everyone who showed up claimed to have been there in the glory days, far more people than would have been physically possible. It’s cherished history, but it’s time to move on.