Inside, over 80 staff members work hard on finalizing community service programs for the Church’s most recent real estate purchase: a 50,000-square-foot property on 125th St. in East Harlem.
Valued at more than $13 million, the new property is intended to restore Harlem as a center for African-American culture and provide drug and literacy programs to a population in dire need of these services, said Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church in New York.
“Some churches invest in real estate and so on; we don’t,” he said. “We buy buildings, and congregations buy buildings, to deliver more and better services to people.”
Area residents and business owners, however, said they are skeptical that the Church’s programs will have any effect. They feel that the Church, which derives its revenue from course offerings and book sales, is just as predatory as other corporations that have recently expanded into Harlem.
The Church of Scientology is a body of rehabilitation beliefs and techniques created by American author Ron L. Hubbard in 1952. The Church engages its members in “auditing” tests, which helps determine one’s spiritual and emotional weaknesses. These results allow a Scientology auditor to specify to the subject an applied program of texts and lectures towards a path of spiritual health with oneself and all other forms of life.
The Church states that the number of people coming to their first Scientology service increased by a factor of four in the past year alone and that the Church expanded more in the past five years than it has in the previous 50-now totalling 7,500 missions and centers in 163 countries.
The “cultural movement” of Scientology in Harlem, Carmichael said, is more a response to the interest that resident Harlemites have shown to the Church’s “mental health” teachings.
“We aren’t the Catholic Church, you know,” he said. “We don’t start churches independent of interest and demand.”
The present Scientology complex in Harlem, a 5,000-square-foot building located at 2250 3rd Ave., boasts a 70-member staff and a 200-member congregation comprised of residents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem.
The three Harlem buildings involved in the recent purchase -228 through 232 E. 125th St. – will house a new Scientology complex and a state-of-the-art community center that will offer the Church’s programs in drug counselling and literacy, Carmichael said. The drug therapy program derives from Hubbard’s book, “The Fundamentals of Thought,” which advocates two stages: “detoxification” and “rehabilitation,” combining a daily regimen of specific vitamins and minerals, and exercise followed by long sauna sessions.
“There are communities elsewhere where we have been able to apply these programs and really change the statistics markedly,” he added, citing examples in Atlanta, Georgia and San Diego, California.
Near the grounds of the future building, however, the Church’s promise of new social assistance programs was met with skepticism by business owners and local residents.
John Patane, the owner of a printing shop that has operated in Harlem since 1956, is among the last of a dying breed of small business owners on the block. He, too, has been courted for the purchase of his property by the Church of Scientology.
“Yes, I’m being pressured to leave,” he said, “But that doesn’t mean I’m prevented from negotiating with the highest bidder.”
“I want to stay in Harlem,” said Patane, who has not yet reached a deal with the Church of Scientology. He is confronted with the dilemma of having to choose between remaining loyal to a committed local clientele and making a prudent business decision.
If he does accept an offer by the Church, Patane said, it would still be difficult to find a reasonably priced property in Harlem-which means he would have to relocate the business elsewhere in New York City.
For Domingo Rexach, 43, a lifetime Harlem resident and community activist, the changes in his neighborhood are consistent with the kind of corporate land-grabs that have taken place over the past few years, which he feels is a threat to small businesses.
He pointed to the lot directly across the future Scientology complex, and said that small businesses had been thriving in that area only a few years back.
“They were all bought out to make way for a big K-Mart, which we haven’t seen yet, either,” Rexach said. “This same neighborhood industrialization happened in Williamsburg in about three years, and, in Soho, it took about six years. Same thing is happening up here in Harlem, except it’s a little slower.”
Back at the Church of Scientology’s offices on 46th Street, Carmichael disagreed. “This gentrification thing; this is not where we’re at,” he said.
Two of the properties purchased were formerly occupied by St. Samuel Church of God in Christ, he said. “We made sure the Christian congregation had a better place, and we helped them buy a better Church.”
Unaware of the changing face of Harlem in recent decades, including the recent rise in white and Hispanic populations, Carmichael was vague in describing the role that the Church would play in the development of African-American identity and culture.
“Look at the number of black people in prison,” he said. “Is that helpful to the expression of people’s cultural desires?”
“People want something practical, something that works, and Scientology delivers it,” Carmichael said.