I recently stumbled upon a passage from an unpublished memoir in The New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell, a former writer for the magazine. Mitchell’s imagery and encounters in the city were fascinating, especially his musings on a Mosque in Brooklyn in the 1960s.
The following quote prefaces the article.
Joseph Mitchell was on the staff of this magazine from 1938 until his death, in 1996. Born in 1908 into a prosperous family of North Carolina cotton and tobacco growers, he came to New York City at the age of twenty-one, to pursue a career as a writer. Arriving jut as the Depression set in, he heeded the advice of one of his first editors, at the Herald Tribune: walk the city; get to know every side street and quirk and character. He did this, obsessively, for the rest of his life. Mitchell profiled the Mohawk steelworkers who erected many of Manhattan’s skyscrapers; and McSorley’s old Ale House, the city’s most venerable tavern; and George Hunter, the caretaker of a ramshackle African-American cemetery on Staten Island; and Lady Olga, the bearded lady in countless circus sideshows. What follows here is in the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, with other writings after 1964, never completed.
Mitchell writes of being drawn towards places of worship, “specifically to old churches that have undergone a metamorphosis…” He goes on to write about two such buildings in which he would often find himself.
The other building is about a dozen blocks away, on Powers Street. It is much plainer. It is a steep-roofed, clapboard-sided, two-story building with tall wooden doors and tall, colored-glass windows. Except for one appendage, it closely resembles a New England town hall. It was built in 1885, and for many years it was in fact a public hall. Its first story was the clubhouse of the Democratic club of the Thirteenth Assembly District and its second story was a hall that was rented out for dances, parties, and wedding receptions, and for lodge and labor-union meetings. In the early thirties, a group of Muslims from all over the city got together and bought the building and turned it into a mosque. The only outward sign of this a minaret that has been constructed on the roof, straddling the ridgepole. It is a dummy minaret; no muezzin ever climbed up in it and cried out the call to prayer; it is wholly symbolic. It is a wooden minaret, it is octangular, it is louvred, and it is surmounted by an iron rod holding aloft a wooden crescent painted gold. In front of the building, in a narrow little dooryard, is a glass-fronted signbox containing a faded sign in which lines in Arabic and lines in English alternate. The lines in English read: “God is the Master of All. Muslim Mosque, Inc. There is No Other God But God. Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” The Muslims are Russians who came here from several parts of Russia and from Poland and Lithuania. Some are Tatars. Among themselves, they speak Russian, they use Arabic in their Services. People in the neighborhood call them “The Turks.” Just as the three-barred cross casts a Slavic aura over South Fifth Place, the golden crescent on the minaret up on the ridgepole of the mosque casts an Islamic aura, a Baghdadian aura, over the factories and wooden tenements and one-and two family houses and vacant lots of Powers Street. One spring day several years ago, during Lent, I was on the Driggs Avenue bus riding through Williamsburg and I remembered reading in a newspaper that in this particular year, Lent, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, and Ramadan as well would all come around the same time, I got off the bus and walked over a couple blocks and looked in Holy Trinity and, just as I had hoped, a Lenten Mass or Liturgy was going on and I went in and attended it, and then I walked over to the mosque on Powers Street and looked in there, and just as I had hoped, a Ramadan service of some kind was going on and I took off my shoes and went in and attended it.
We first heard mention of the origins of this mosque in New York Panorama (1938) – part of the WPA guide series. Our post on the Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan highlights passages from the guide. Here is a snippet on the Brooklyn mosque:
The Turks are exclusively Mohammedans. The only real mosque in the city, at 108 Powers Street in Brooklyn, claims most of the devout. Some belong to the Mohammedan Unity Society at 67 West 125th Street. (p. 117)
In our search for more details we were able to find a newspaper clipping from 1923 that announces the intention to build a mosque in New York City – we think it might be this very Brooklyn mosque. A transcription of the clipping follows the image.
N.Y. To Have Mohammedan Mosque
New York. July 28 – Mohammedans living in this city, led by Dr. Abdul Suleiman, native of Arabia, have started a drive to win Negroes [t]o their Mohammedan faith by stressing the fact of the absolute equality of races and genuine brotherhood under Mohammedanism, as in opposition to the well-known attitude of white Christians. A mosque is to be built in this city soon.
Upon visiting the mosque we found the doors closed and the gates locked. A kind neighbor, likely suspicious of our curious behavior, told us that the building only opens occasionally for funerals. Additionally, he informed us that the caretaker lives next door. Unfortunately, the caretaker was away (or ignoring us) on the day of our visit. Muslim Mosque Inc. is located at 104 Powers St., Brooklyn, NY 11211. Additional images can be found in the Gallery.
While this site may indeed be the first formally registered mosque in New York City (the Harlem address remains to be investigated as well) it is probable that more informal musallas and prayer spaces were established by the earlier Muslim inhabitants of New York. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that this Brooklyn mosque has endured down through the decades.
It should be noted, that though they share the same name, this mosque in Brooklyn is different from the Muslim Mosque Inc. established by Malcolm X in 1964.
We’re interested in learning more about this mosque’s history and the history of its congregants. If anyone has information on this mosque, please share it with us.
Mitchell, Joseph. 2013. “Street Life: Becoming part of the city.” The New Yorker, February 11 & 18. p. 66.
New York Panorama. 1938. New York: Ramdom House.
“N.Y. to Have Mohammedan Mosque.” The Afro American. 27 July 1923. http://www.afro.com/afroblackhistoryarchives/google.htm. (accessed 12 March 2013)