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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Unlikely Anchors Along 'Hot Fifth Avenue'
By TESS TAYLOR
January 18, 2004
STEVEN SANABRIA'S family has been attending the Park Slope Christian Tabernacle on Fifth Avenue and Warren Street in Brooklyn for three generations.
His grandparents made the church the center of their new community after moving from Puerto Rico in the 1950's. His mother took her First Communion there in the 1970's, wearing a lacy white dress. His brother, Abraham Jonathan, was married there three years ago in a ceremony attended by 150 people. And last year the Rev. Eliseo Aponte dedicated Mr. Sanabria's infant nephew, Caleb, at the altar.
"I used to wake up on Sundays and walk to church with my brothers," Mr. Sanabria said after services the other day, waving to an elderly couple as they headed out the door. "Now we all moved to different boroughs."
Mr. Sanabria, a 22-year-old who washes cars for a living, drives each week from his home in Grasmere, Staten Island, to attend services at his childhood church. Housed on the bottom floors of two neighboring brownstones, it is one of a handful of old storefront churches on Fifth Avenue, the spine of a neighborhood that has recently been anointed the borough's new epicenter of hipness.
In the past decade, the 10-block swath of Fifth Avenue between Flatbush Avenue and Union Street that eager real estate agents are calling the North Slope or "hot Fifth Avenue'' has become almost unrecognizable to former residents. Down the block from the church, a long-empty hair salon has new life as Harold and Mod, a boutique specializing in 80's retro gear. Across the street, the shiny red Gorilla coffee shop has replaced a barbershop. The bodega across the street just reopened as a yoga studio, and a nearby fish store has become a spa.
The changes seem poised to continue: A "going out of business" sign hangs in the discount clothing store next door to the church. In one former storefront church, empty for several years, the Red Cafe now serves shaved fennel salad and horseradish-encrusted salmon. Nevertheless, the Tabernacle and four other storefront churches along this stretch of Fifth Avenue, "almost the only old landmarks," as Mr. Sanabria describes them, are holding fast, for now.
The Tabernacle, a small family church with 85 full members, 65 of whom show up on Sundays, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Next door, the Assemblée Pentecostiste de la Foi Apostolique offers Sunday services in Haitian French to its small congregation. Across the street from the cappuccino-drinking crowd in the Blue Sky Bakery, the Brooklyn Word Church still gathers a few weekly faithful.
For the Sanabrias and a dozen families like them, the history of the church is the history of their family's time in America, and in the neighborhood. Mr. Sanabria estimates that half the parishioners moved from Puerto Rico around the same time and settled on the same streets; once, eight of them lived in a single railroad apartment on St. Mark's Avenue near Fourth Avenue, where the church was first located.
If the neighborhood outside is changing rapidly, the church itself has remained much as it was for the last decade. A worn sign announces that worship starts at 11, but on two recent Sundays, services began at 11:15 with 45 minutes of singing accompanied by synthesizer and tambourines.
As worshipers trickled in and greeted one another, Diane Vellon, a third-generation church member who teaches third grade in Public School 282 in the neighborhood, stood near the altar and led the hymn singing. Baby Caleb was passed around among aunts, uncles and cousins, and during communion, a few restless children crawled under the pews.
"This is our place," Mr. Sanabria said. "We grew up here. We have become a commuter church, but we are still a community."
After services, in the newly renovated Sunday school room, Mr. Sanabria's father, Abraham, 52, reminisced about growing up in the neighborhood in the 1950's. "It was rough," said the elder Mr. Sanabria, who now lives with his son on Staten Island. "There were the Italians, the Irish, the blacks; the Golden Guineas, the Mau Maus, the Beltone Bishops, the Medallion Lords. They were old-style gangs. They used to fistfight over their territory. Sometimes they used chains."
In the early 1960's, Tabernacle moved to its current location, formerly the site of a shoe store. Church members bought a used station wagon and drove it around the neighborhood, delivering parishioners to their homes after services and trying to attract new members. "We didn't even have a pulpit," Mrs. Sanabria said. "Just a lectern and a microphone."
THE first pastor, Bernabe Medina, stayed for 25 years before returning to Puerto Rico, helping to establish the congregation and make the church strong. Standing in the room where Sunday school is now held, Ms. Vellon pointed to a grainy Sunday school picture from the mid-50's that showed rows of serious, bare-kneed children sitting on folding chairs in a spare, high-ceilinged room. "That was what we had," she said.
Looking at a display of five decades of yellowing pictures of weddings and family reunions, Ms. Vellon pointed out her parents' wedding picture, along with younger versions of herself. She recalled the work of laying carpet, installing the altar, and fund-raising for new lighting and pews in the 80's. "We made a haven the neighborhood," she said. "Little by little, God has provided."
The work goes on. Two summers ago, Mr. Sanabria and Ms. Vellon helped organize church youth to dig six feet of dirt out of the basement to build a recreation room. "Before it had been a shoe store, it had been a bar," Ms. Vellon said. "We found a lot of stuff. Some of us saved the old bottles."
For now, the church, which is supported entirely by tithes and offerings, has no plans to sell its property. "We talk about expanding sometimes, but we never talk about moving," Ms. Vellon said. "It's too much a part of our history."
Yet gradually, Tabernacle is changing. A few years ago, the congregation decided to hold bilingual services, and Ms. Vellon now leads Sunday hymns in Spanish and English. Last month, when Mr. Aponte moved to a church in Connecticut, a search began for a pastor who would preach mostly in English. "It's a big change, but it is time," Mr. Sanabria said. "Some of us don't even speak Spanish that well anymore."