Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich’

A staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights and a patron of the avant-garde arts, an anti-war, anti-censorship, and civil rights activist, an outspoken advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution and marijuana and…. a Baptist minister? A brief sketch of Howard Moody’s activities reads like an episode of the 1980s quiz show “Odd One Out.” But for nearly thirty-five years parishioners flocked to Judson Memorial Church on 55 Washington Square South to join the Reverend in his sometimes shocking, often provocative, and always stimulating call to social activism.

Reverend Moody’s passing this September has left a profound void in the Greenwich community, one quickly filled with critical recognition and creative reflection. In the recent flood of obituaries and editorials, Moody has emerged as a foundational figure in Greenwich’s history of social and cultural resistance. A self-proclaimed “Christian agnostic,” his radical ministry spanned three American conflicts abroad, a social and sexual revolution, landmark legal decisions, and the ongoing tragedy of the AIDS epidemic (Gold 1). A quick scan through a list of sermons in the Judson Archives sketches an expansive outline of the Reverend’s radical activities. His explosive 1978 lecture “Humanizing the Hooker” and the somewhat esoteric “Symbols and Fetishes: A Left Handed Salute to the Flag” suggest only a few of Moody’s many engagements with controversial issues (Guide to the Judson Archive). As the Reverend himself reflects in a recent interview, “I’ve been swimming upstream a lot of my ministerial life” (Moody, “Voices of Choice”).

Not surprisingly, anecdotes abound. Moody was known for handing out cookies (and medical supplies) to prostitutes working the streets. In the swinging 60s he reportedly invited Yoko Ono and other crazy cats into his sanctuary to perform – a sanctuary he had “renovated” by discarding his pulpit and all the pews! Perhaps one of the most iconoclastic Moody-sponsored acts, “Meat Joy,” is rumored to have involved scantily clad female performers and a deceased fish (Martin A25).

Moody’s religious roots certainly don’t suggest a social radical in the making. Born April 13, 1921 into a traditional southern Baptist family in Dallas Texas, Moody set aside his ministerial aspirations after a two-year stint at Baylor University. He enlisted in the Marines in June of 1941, a mere six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Quickly rising to the rank of sergeant, Moody was assigned to the Solomon Islands as an aerial photographer and side gunner. Upon his return to the United States he enrolled in Yale Divinity School, and by 1956 had accepted the post of senior minister at the Judson Memorial Church (Martin A25). Founded by Edward Judson in the late 19th century, the church developed its reputation for community activism early on with outreach programs aimed at poor Italian immigrants (Gold 1).

Although Moody gave voice to three decades worth of liberal causes during his ministry, his most prominent legacy remains as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights to reproductive determination. Dubbed the “Harriet Tubman of abortion rights movement” by the PRCH, Moody worked tirelessly in the years prior to Roe vs. Wade to secure women safe and affordable abortions (Moody, “Voices of Choice”). As the primary architect in the construction of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion – an extensive network of nearly 1400 pro-choice clergy members and rabbis nationwide – Moody was integral in guiding countless women to safe and successful medical procedures (Martin A25). Moody reflected, “as soon as we opened that door, women came from all over the country. They came by plane and train and bus and car and we were deluged” (Moody, “Voices of Choice”). Rather than obscure this technically “illegal” operation, Moody boldly chose to go public. In May of 1967 the radical reverend approached the New York Times himself. Shockingly, the subsequent article resulted in no legal action against Moody (Martin A25).

In Moody’s passing we have lost a formidable voice for change in Greenwich’s history of resistance. But quite fittingly this loss has opened up a vital space for community reflection and recognition – a rediscovery of one man’s lifetime of freedom fighting. It couldn’t have come at a better time. In a contemporary political climate where buzz of “eroding family values” is used to justify restricted access to contraception (Abdullah 1), Moody’s early campaign for self-determination leaves us with a crucial legacy of strength and political action. Where the Reverend himself once mobilized his own diverse congregation on behalf of controversial issues, his memory and writings continue to remind us that the right to control one’s own body is an essential freedom. No amount of time, fear, or political moralizing can obscure that truth.

Works Cited

Abdullah, Halimah. “Why Birth Control is Pushing Political Buttons.” MSNBC Today. NBC News, 23 February 2012. Web. 28 September 2012. < http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/46500633/ns/today-today_news/t/why-birth-control-pushing-political-buttons/#.UGnpK1FgPzI>

Gold, Ed. “Rev. Howard Moody Reflects on 50 Years of Activism.” The Villager 73.34 (2003). Community Media LLC. Web. 27 September 2012. < http://www.thevillager.com/villager_34/reverendhoward.html>

“Guide to the Judson Memorial Church Archive 1838-1995 MSS 094.” Fales Library & Special Collections. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. Web. 28 September 2012.  < http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/judson/judson.html>

Martin, Douglas. “Howard Moody, Who Led a Historic Church, Dies at 91.” New York Times 13 September 2012: A25. Web. September 28 2012. < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/14/nyregion/howard-moody-minister-of-judson-memorial-church-dead-at-91.html?_r=0>

Moody, Howard. Transcript from Voices of Choice. 1 January 2003. Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. Web. 28 September 2012. <http://www.prch.org/reverend-howard-moody>


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I recall the first time when I first traversed from the rugged and rowdy street life of MacDougal onto Minetta Street, it was as if I entered a different time and place. Despite being sandwiched between the traffic frenzied Sixth Avenue of Americas and the bohemian (or hipster) line of stores on MacDougal, Minetta Street offers a pocket of serene-ness. It was not until I researched further did I realize that there are two streets perpendicular to one another –  Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, which are commonly referred to as the “Minettas.”

Perhaps this transport to a different time has historical ties to its past of bucolic charm. From the firmly paved roadways, one would never guess that beneath it was a running, fresh stream, called Manetta. In the 1640’s, the plot of land which the Minettas resided on had no formal, paved streets. The ruling Dutch and “partially freed” slaves were permitted to purchase plots of land there, under the requirement that an annual fee was paid. This land came to be known as “the Negroe’s Farms.”

Image by Glenn O Coleman, Minetta Street in 1928

“What happened of this stream?” This query lead me to dig up research conducted by the Mannahatta Project, a collaborative effort of scholars, researchers, scientists to reconstruct and understand the natural ecology that vastly populated the space and was particular to Manhattan Island. Researchers of the Mannahatta Project were able to discover hundreds of ponds, streams, wetlands, valleys that were leveled out for the Commissioner’s plan in 1811 to redevelop the city streets to the grid system. Due to the increasing industrialization in the city, many of these water sources were re-zoned for development. The Collect Pond, which provided one of the freshest water resources in Manhattan for 200 years, was polluted with chemicals from nearby tanneries and the overpopulation from the neighboring Five Points area.

Manetta stream in the 1820’s went into subterranean existence, and the Minetta’s in the coming decade came to increase in population. In 1830, three years after slavery had been abolished in New York City, 14,083 freed African-Americans lived in the area. Old dirt paths that branched off from farms were quickly converted to Minetta Street and Minetta Lane. This area came to be known as “Little Africa.” For several decades, the area lived peacefully as if they were in a suburb within a city. In the late 1870’s with the rise of pubs checkering adjacent streets near the Minettas, this invited various types of intermingling – bringing in crowds as diverse as Irish youth gangs and writers. One of the most infamous pubs towards Sixth Avenue and West Fourth, the Hell Hole, where Irish writer Eugene O’ Neill would frequent, was a rumbling house of violence due to the heavy alcoholic intoxication of pub visitors. Violence would often break out and Minetta’s reputation became tainted by its adjacent streets. In 1896, Stephen Crane called the Minetta’s, “until a few years ago, two of the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city.” Minetta’s came to be dotted with speakeasies and brothels, oftentimes knifings and violence would erupt. At one point, the Minetta’s had the most active prostitution area in the Village. By 1912, the brothels were shut down and in 1917, Minetta’s reputation was known in guidebooks as “village bohemia.”

The quick transition from this violent history to the peaceful stabilization of Minetta still remains a wonder to me. I question whether part of turn around had anything to do with the city bombing of the Sixth Avenue end, close to the Minetta’s. I wonder if this was the City government’s effort to demolish the areas deemed “degenerative” as part of a city-wide effort to establish and beautify more public spaces.

I do believe though, that much of the tranquil charm of both Minetta Lane and Street can be attributed to Vincent Pepe, who  in the 1910’s decided to contribute to the city redevelopment plan as a Greenwich Village developer. A young Italian immigrant who followed his father into the real estate industry of New York City, Pepe was able to leverage his connections to purchase several building, lots on the Minettas, including houses and tenement buildings.  Pepe was able to combine 13 buildings to the west of Minetta Street and transformed the backyards into a common garden with a back entrance. To the east of Minetta Street, Pepe and his business partners were able to aquire 1,3 and 5 Minetta Lane and 17 Minetta Street. With a large stake in property ownership, Pepe was able to execute his vision in continuing to build spaces to support and enrich the growing community. Pepe stated in a promotional brochere “The artist, the writer, the creator of beauty in any medium – these are the men for whom the Minettas should be preserved.” The street zoning, with its unique angling and narrowness, was meant to provide a sense of enclosure from the rest of the city. In an article written in 1923 for the New York Times, the Minetta’s were said to be “As free from noise and as peaceful as though miles away.” Although indeed, Pepe’s vision materialized into reality, the area was home to a diverse population of residents beyond the artists and bohemian crowd.


Callahan, Jennifer. “City Lore; Minetta Moments.” New York Times, January 30 2005.

Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes / Minetta Lane and Minetta Street; Vestiges of a Develop’s Greenwich Village Enclave.” New York Times, August 29, 1999.

Sanderson, Eric W., and Marianne Brown. “Mannahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson.” Northeastern Naturalist 14 (4):545-570.

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