Seeing the Pope in the Park

September 25, 2015

Long before the pope’s plane touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Roman Catholic Church officials began meticulously planning every aspect of his two day trip to New York City. At the same time, law enforcement agencies—ranging from the local to federal levels—started coordinating what Police Commissioner Bill Bratton called the “largest security challenge ever.”

Pope Francis arrived late on the afternoon of the 24th and was immediately whisked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he led the evening prayer. The next morning he plunged into a whirlwind of activities around Manhattan, going to the East Side to address the United Nations General Assembly, heading downtown to hold a multi-religious service at 9/11 the Memorial and Museum, driving uptown for a visit with students at Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, traveling in a motorcade through Central Park and then down to a Mass at Madison Square Garden.

Admission to all of the events involving the pope was restricted; at no point could someone simply wander over to a school or church to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. Tickets to the religious services were distributed by politicians and priests, while city officials conducted a free lottery for those wishing to view the pope’s procession through Central Park.

On September 10, 40,000 area residents were notified by phone and email that they’d each won a pair of tickets to see the motorcade. The announcements were accompanied by detailed instructions, warnings and restrictions, including a lengthy list of prohibited items:

  • Alcohol
  • Aerosol containers
  • Amplified sound devices
  • Animals other than service and guide animals
  • Balloons
  • Bicycles, scooters and skateboards
  • Blankets
  • Backpacks
  • Chairs
  • Coolers
  • Drones and other unmanned aircraft systems
  • Flags
  • Glass, thermal and metal containers
  • Large bags
  • Laser pointers
  • Mace and pepper spray
  • Musical instruments
  • Posters
  • Selfie sticks
  • Signs and supports for signs and placards
  • Unlicensed vending
  • Umbrellas 
  • Weapons, explosives and ammunition

Those selected in the giveaway were assigned to color-coded park entrances (red, yellow, green) and told to arrive, bearing their tickets, before 3:00 p.m. to ensure that they’d pass through security in time to see the pontiff drive by at 5:30.

The southern end of the Park was enclosed behind high fences while security gates and tents were erected near Columbus Circle. The streets surrounding Central Park were closed to traffic. Thousands of law enforcement officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, were deployed throughout the area. Although the gates weren’t scheduled to open until 11:00, anxious ticket holders began arriving at the barricades before dawn and patiently waited for hours until they were able to move forward.

The crowd slowly passed through airport-style security checks conducted by Transportation Security Administration agents including X-rays, inspection of electronic devices and sniffs from dogs trained to detect explosives.  Upon entering the Park, the faithful sprinted towards the metal barriers lining the roadways.

People jockeyed for position, trying to get as close to the front as possible, then settled in for the day. At one point, someone in the crowd cried, “Look up!” All heads turned to see that, directly above the path that the pope would take, a tiny rainbow had appeared above.

As observers remarked on the fact that the day had been clear and almost cloudless (“Imagine, a rainbow without rain!”), the colored strip grew wider, longer and bent into an upside down arc. “It looks like a smile,” some said. Others thought that it was a sacred sign, a blessing, a miracle. After a few minutes, the rainbow faded away.

Finally, a rumble was heard in the distance and a fleet of slowly moving vehicles, all of them flashing lights, appeared. A convoy of motorcycles, armored trucks, NYPD vans, limousines rolled past as excitement in the crowd surged. An open bed truck, its rear filled with photographers and camera operators clamoring for shots, was directly in front of the sight all were awaiting: the famed white Popemobile.

Inside stood the pontiff, smiling and waving his hand to the faithful. The vehicle drove slowly through the Park without pausing. Pope Francis and his guards moved up the roadway and drove out of sight, headed south to Madison Square Garden, where he celebrated Mass and delivered a homily that included references to urban life.

Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.

But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly.

These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.

Mural overlooking Penn Station

Sign at Pizza Parlor

Banner on deli

Pope marshmallows

Selling vatican flags

Vendor with football pope t-shirts

Pope Ticket
Ticket to the green zone

Posted instructions for ticket holders

Warning sign on the fence

Reminder about banned items

Notice about Secret Service dogs

First arrivals at the barriers

TSA checkpoint tents

Waiting for security inspection

Standing against the barricades

Officer reminding the crowd to be patient

A tiny spectator

Visitors displaying flags and banners

A tiny strip of rainbow appeared directly overhead

The rainbow grew into an upside-down arc bisected by a strip of cloud

He arrived, waved, and drove on

New York City: Pope Francis Visits New York City
Archdiocese of Washington: Walk With FrancisPope Francis Visit
NBC 4: Officials: Upcoming Papal Visit to NYC ‘Largest Security Challenge Ever’ for NYPD
NY Times: Pope Francis, ‘People’s Pope,’ Is Security Teams’ Headache
NY Times: Pope Francis in America
NY Times: After Lottery in New York to See Pope Francis, Some Winners Scalp Tickets Online
Catholic to the Max: Madison Square Garden Mass
National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Madison Square Garden
Our Lady Queen of Angels School

Thanks, But What Kind of Prayer Books Were Those?

September 23, 2014

The holiest days in the Jewish year are fast approaching.

This sign, hanging in the window of a day care center on Brooklyn’s Montague Street, advertises services available to the observant during the next two weeks.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Hebrew used in their prayer books, but they might want to double-check the Engligh.


Chabad of Brooklyn Heights
Congregation B’nai Avraham

The Land Where St. Patrick Walked

March 17, 2011

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue is the world’s biggest, noisiest, happiest celebration of Ireland and its patron saint. Between the dancing, drinking and green hair, it is easy for an observer to think that those who hail from “the land with 40 shades of green” have always been welcome and accepted here.

But the story of the Irish in New York has many a tragic side. Most terrible is the reason that so many Irish citizens arrived on our shores 150 years ago; they were fleeing the disaster known as An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). The devestation began in the late 1840s, when a virus attacked the potatoes planted in the fields of the land where St. Patrick had walked.

Cheap, filling, and easy to grow, potatoes were an essential source of nutrition for poor, rural Irish families. When the virus caused the potato plants to wither and their crops to fail, it wasn’t long before starvation set in.

The Great Hunger, also known as the Great Potato Famine, lasted from 1845 to 1852. During that period approximately one million Irish people died and two million more emigrated, many of them landing in New York Harbor. Now, in a quiet corner of Battery Park, near the spot where those desperate survivors arrived, stands the Irish Hunger Memorial.

Created by New York artist Brian Tolle, the memorial opened in 2002 on a quarter-acre of land shaped to resemble a burial mound cut from an Irish hillside. The base of the memorial is made of slabs of concrete interlaced with bands of plexiglass-covered metal bearing excerpts from reports, poems, songs, sermons and letters describing the desperation and destitution of the victims of the famine. These are intermingled with information about world hunger today.

After walking around the base, visitors walk through a short, dark corridor where recorded voices recite facts about the Hunger and emerge into a small atrium lined with stone walls. A dirt path winds up the hill past thirty-two massive stones, each marked with the name the Irish county that donated it, a roofless stone cottage, wildflowers and grasses, all imported from Ireland.

Every aspect of this small patch of land is significant and symbolic; even the size of the space reflects the Irish Poor Law of 1847, which denied relief to those living on land larger than a quarter of acre. Small, subtle and enormously moving, the Irish Hunger Memorial helps illuminate the wonderful, terrible history of the Irish in New York City.

Approaching the memorial from West Street

Closer to the entrance

Plantings overhanging the concrete

Through the entry corridor

Words on the walls

More quotations on the walls

The words stretch on

Climbing the hill

The view from the top of the hill

CRG Gallery: Brian Tolle
The New York Times: A Memorial Remembers The Hungry
New York Magazine: Irish Hunger Memorial
NYC: Battery Park
Battery Park Conservancy

Good Friday on Court Street

April 2, 2010

Friday evening, and nearly everyone was in a hurry to get home. But on Brooklyn’s busy Court Street, traffic was at a standstill. Horns were honking. Angry drivers were leaning out their windows, shaking their fists, demanding to know what was going on — was it an accident? A disaster? A drill? What could possibly be so important that it caused the police to close the roadway at rush hour?

I walked past the stalled cars and trucks, beyond the police vehicles and uniformed officers that blocked the street, and saw the center of the commotion: a Good Friday procession assembling outside the oddly named Saints Peter & Paul & Our Lady of Pilar Church at Congress and Court Streets.

I didn’t have time to pause and hear a full explanation, and the only camera I had with me was in my phone. If you know more about this event, or this church, please share the story.

The street was blocked off, but no one was directing traffic

A crowd gathered

Police officers stood around the center of attraction

A priest recited a blessing

Local Catholic Church and Family History & Genealogical Research Guide

Father’s Kingdom Plates

October 15, 2009

These memorable dishes are for sale in a discount store on Harlem’s 125th Street. Only $9.99 for a set of four. According to the package, they are called Father’s Kingdom plates and they come complete with wall hooks.

No, I didn’t buy them.

Leaning right and left

Assorted designs

Greek Festival in Downtown Brooklyn

June 5, 2009

The metal signs were propped up on the sidewalk. The flags and banners were hung from the awning. The street was closed, the carnival attractions arrived and the tables and chairs were assembled outside the front door. Most importantly, the yayas (grandmothers) were cooking. And cooking. And cooking.

It was time once again for the festival run in Downtown Brooklyn by Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Now in its 32nd year, the annual week-long event is one of the biggest fund raisers for the church that has stood here since 1916.

The cathedral is more than just a place of worship; for nearly 100 years, it has served as the center of Greek life in Brooklyn. Many parishioners cheerfully put their business affairs aside for the week and devote their labors to ensure the festival’s success. The attractions include a “white elephant” sale and gift shop, music, kiddie rides and, of course, the food. The barbeques for gyros, souvlaki and grilled octopus were set up in the street, the trays filled with moussaka, pasticio, dolmades, spanakopita, keftedes and pastries — all based on old family recipes — were on the tables under the tent.

The music played, the kids giggled and ran, the younger people manned the grills, the yayas kept an eye on the money box while serving heaping helpings of everything and the men, just as they do in Greece, sat together swapping stories, making plans and watching the passing scene. Oopa!

A sign on Court Street

Tables set up on the asphalt

Cooking the meat for gyros

Grilled souvlaki

Assembling a gyro

Yayas inside the tent

A tray of desserts

The carnival attractions help raise money

The neighborhood kids love winning prizes

The Greek Orthodox of Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen
Recipe: Moussaka
Recipe: Pasticio
Recipe: Dolmades
Recipe: Spanakopita
Recipe: Cat Cora’s Keftedes

Birkat Hachamah: Blessing the Sun

April 8, 2009

God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night . . . And it was evening and it was morning, a fourth day.
—Genesis 1:16, 19

One who sees the sun at its turning point should say, “Blessed is He who reenacts the works of Creation.” And when is this? Abaya said: every 28th year.
—Talmud, Tractate Berachot 59b

It happens once in a generation: The moment when, according to Talmudic tradition, the sun returns to the same position, at the same time and day, that it appeared at the beginning of all creation. Observant Jews mark the occasion, which occurs every 28 years, with a special blessing called Birkat Hachamah, the sun blessing.

Today, Birkat Hachamah ceremonies large and small were held around the world. This one, organized by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin of Congregation Bnai Avraham and Chabad of Brooklyn Heights, took place on the steps of Borough Hall.

The crowd began to gather early

Copies of the blessing were distributed

Children read aloud

A brother and sister reading

This kid reminds me of Kenny from South Park

This girl wasn’t camera-shy

The wind blew, but she didn’t lose her place

Among those reciting the blessing was Borough President Marty Markowitz (right)

After the blessing, singing …

.. and dancing

The women danced together

The men formed a circle

Friends laughed together

The rabbi kicked up his heels

Congregation Bnai Avraham
Chabad of Brooklyn Heights
Birkat HaChamah, The Blessing of the Sun, 2009
NY Times: For Jews, Another 28 Years, Another Blessing of the Sun
Bless The Sun
Chabad: Thank G-d for the Sun
Kenny from South Park


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