A Walk Down Mulberry Street with Monsignor Sakano

On Tuesday, February 28th, we are hosting our Urban Omnibus BlockParty 2012, a party, art auction and dinner on the campus of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, a collection of church buildings on Mulberry, Prince and Mott Streets in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. Tickets are still available, so buy yours today. Obviously, part of the point is to help support what we do here on Urban Omnibus, but equally important to us is the chance to bring some of our local readers together to celebrate the culture of citymaking through informal gathering; through presenting creative, visual interpretations of the built environment; and through exposing ourselves to our city’s layers of history and the individuals whose perspectives on urbanism give those layers voice. Monsignor Donald Sakano is one of those urbanists who certainly possesses a singular perspective, forged from his work at the intersection of ministry, social work and affordable housing development and policy.

For the past four years, as Pastor of the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, he has presided over the restoration and transformation of Old Saint Patrick’s buildings — which include The Old Cathedral, the school, the Parish House, St. Michael’s Chapel, the Youth Center and the iconic wall — into a series of community facilities available for outreach, assembly and cultural events, such as our benefit event, which will begin at the St. Patrick’s Youth Center at 268 Mulberry Street. In the interview below, Monsignor Sakano explains how changes to some of the buildings’ uses are reflective of a necessary shift in how the church responds to the contemporary population around it. His analysis of current urban dynamics is informed by his deep understanding of  the neighborhood’s history as well as the insights gained from decades of work on housing and neighborhood issues throughout New York City. –C.S.

Cassim Shepard (CS):

Tell me a little bit about the history of this church and its premises.

Monsignor Sakano (MS):

Throughout most of the 18th century, the Roman Catholic Church was very primitive in the United States. The Church of England was obviously dominant in the 13 colonies. But New York was always an international city. Even when New York was a small village at the southern edge of Manhattan, you can read narratives about how cosmopolitan it was. Nonetheless, the number of Catholics was small and mostly comprised of Irish, German and French communities. And the celebration of Catholic sacraments was illegal. So there wasn’t a lot of above ground activity.

When the United States emerged from its colonial history, there was a single diocese for the newly constituted United States, located in Baltimore. But by the beginning of the 19th century, there were enough Catholics throughout the country that four dioceses were created, one of which was the Diocese of New York in 1808. Every diocese has its own bishop and its own cathedral (the word cathedral is derived from the Greek word for chair, and its literal meaning is “the location of the bishop’s chair”). So it was decided that New York would have its first cathedral. The cornerstone was laid here on June 7th, 1809, and when it opened in 1815, it was the largest public space in the city.

The church was designed by Joseph Francois Mangin and dedicated on May 14th, 1815. From left to right: from the corner of Mott and Prince Streets; from the Mott Street entrance; from the corner of Mulberry and Prince Streets. Images courtesy of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral
The church was designed by Joseph Francois Mangin and dedicated on May 14th, 1815. From left to right: from the corner of Mott and Prince Streets; from the Mott Street entrance; from the corner of Mulberry and Prince Streets. Images courtesy of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral

At that time, this was certainly the northern fringe of the city. There was a cemetery already here (and the crypt beneath the church was a part of original cemetery), but there was virtually nothing else around it. And remember in 1800, this was still a backwater city; the nation was struggling to find its feet in those early days. By 1900, in the short span of 100 years, the city of New York was a burgeoning world-class city of five boroughs, the nation was an emerging world power, and the church was bursting at its seams with immigrants and with new institutions and churches to serve them. Most of that history occurred while this was the headquarters of the church. It was the city’s cathedral for 70 years, presiding over a period of rapid urban development.

In the 1850s, the Diocese became an archdiocese with an archbishop, John Hughes, to whom it became quite clear that we needed another, much larger cathedral that would make a sociological statement about the power of the incoming immigrant population. The cathedral that was built, St. Patrick’s, was also located at the fringes of the inhabited city at the time, on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. But the archbishop had the vision to understand that the city would grow to envelop the new church.


What happened to Old Saint Patrick’s and its environs after it was no longer New York’s cathedral?


Its status was reduced to that of a parish church, retaining the name Old Cathedral, and it continued to serve a number of different populations. At that point, in the late 19th century, the population was beginning to shift and larger numbers of Italian immigrants were settling in the neighborhood. Prior to that, the local parishioners were mostly Irish. In the early 20th century, they were predominantly Italian. After the Korean War, the Italian population began to dissipate. There were all sorts of causes for that, not the least of which is the condition of the housing: walk-ups in various states of disrepair. As residents’ incomes and prospects improved, they would move to neighborhoods with other kinds of amenities. And then the era of disinvestment that overcame New York in the ’60s and ’70s was evident here as well. The word “ghetto” was used, so was the word “slum.” Mulberry Street was so associated with deterioration and crime and poverty that people would be ashamed to admit that they lived here.

So that’s very different from today’s picture. Like a lot of New York neighborhoods, this area has experienced a complete turnaround. Maybe too much of a turnaround: the rents now make it impossible for a lot of families to live here.


Tell me about the school.


The school was established in the 1830s in conjunction with Sisters of Charity, a religious community founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. The convent was in the middle and the school developed around it over the course of a century.

The neighborhood was so full of families that old timers remember when it was accommodating 500, 600, 700 kids. When I came here four years ago, the student population was barely 100, most of whom did not live in the borough, which says a lot about the changing demographics of the neighborhood.

There are a lot of young families that live around here and then move out when their first child reaches school age or they have a second child. The population here is full of young, talented people. So we feel that our outreach should prioritize them: we like to think of ourselves as an oasis in a spiritual desert. So, since we closed the school, we use its spaces for a variety of functions and make it available for cultural groups.

In terms of ministry, our mission is to respond to what’s here. The church doesn’t need as much of the space as we once did. So we are in the process of studying the spaces we have and trying to come up with some solutions that will bring the church some revenue while doing the kinds of things that we need to do to address a new population of young people, service programs, spiritual opportunities, and also to renovate and restore a church that’s now over two hundred years old.


Integrating the arts is definitely part of the way I see this campus being used. The Archdiocese is working on another plan just north of us on the corner of Bleecker and Elizabeth. It’s going to be called the Sheen Center, in honor of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and will have a performing arts facility and will work to promote the interconnections between the Catholic Church and the arts. Here, we continue the mission of being a parish and struggling with what that means in the 21st century, in a location such as this. And part of that means being open to the arts, so we have a lot of plans that collaborate with our neighbors like NYU or my friends downs the street, the New Museum. We loved participating in the Festival of Ideas for the New City and look forward to the next one.

Another project I think about is transforming the streetscape of Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston in a way that promotes a better pedestrian experience with less vehicular traffic. My preference would be to make the whole block a pedestrianized greenway of sorts.


This wall is pretty famous.


The wall has always been the object of a lot of interest. You can see how much it curves in. We went to a great deal of effort and expense to maintain the way the wall looks now.

It was built in the 1830s to defend the church and the cemetery against desecration. Despite the advances in freedom of religion brought on by the American Revolution, there was still a lot of hostility to immigrant populations. The Nativists, who later evolved into a political party called the Know-Nothings, formed virulently anti-Catholic mobs that broke windows and burned down Saint Mary’s on Grand Street. There is a scene in the film The Gangs of New York that depicts Archbishop Hughes defending the church from a mob armed with torches and pitchforks.


I understand that in the 1980s you ran the Archdiocese’s Office of Neighborhood Preservation. Can you tell me about that office and what you did there?


I’m still involved with it, but not to the extent that I was in the 1980s. At that time I was based in vicinity of East 33rd Street, a neighborhood whose urban profile had also experienced a transformation. It too had a large Italian population that was shifting by the time I got there in 1971. Urban renewal, gentrification and eventually “luxurification” were changing the neighborhood dramatically. Especially at risk were residents who lived in SROs, or single room occupancy hotels. That type of housing, primarily for single men, had been very popular since World War I. The population that made use of SROs was a troubled one: low-income, a lot of mental illness and alcoholism, associations with prostitution. And developers were buying up these properties and converting them into higher-profit properties, displacing the resident population. I became interested in defending the rights of the tenants. Through a contract with HPD, the New York City Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, we were able to deliver legal services and community organizing services to the SROs of our area. I linked up with the efforts on West Side and a coalition was formed to defend the SRO tenants.

That type of housing was implicitly substandard: small SRO living units were often carved out of pre-exisiting bedrooms, living rooms, even kitchens. But a number of us believed that it was an appropriate type of accommodation for a specific population that didn’t need to be institutionalized, so we tried to find ways to preserve those housing options.

As I was becoming involved in this housing advocacy work, in the early 1970s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development was initiating the Section 8 program of federal rental subsidies. Section 8 was popular because it gave us a lot of tools to work with. I got a coalition of people together to sponsor one of the first Section 8 projects in the city, in the Bellevue South Urban Renewal Area.

My work on these projects only increased my interest in affordable housing and neighborhoods. I was then assigned to Catholic Charities and attended Columbia University’s School of Social Work for two years. That was a life-changing experience for me. When I graduated and went back to work for the Archdiocese, I established the Office of Neighborhood Preservation. In the early years, the office mainly worked on public policy issues. 1981 was a devastating year for the social service world. The Reagan-era cuts affected everything, including housing. All the housing production programs that existed, including the Section 8 program, were terminated in 1981. All of a sudden, we had no tools.

A residential Building on Jerome Avenue and East 177th Street, before and after redevelopment | Photo courtesy of the Citizens' Housing and Planning Council
A residential Building on Jerome Avenue and East 177th Street, before and after redevelopment | Photo courtesy of the Citizens' Housing and Planning Council

So a lot of my work was in Albany, at City Hall, or in Washington, developing advocate and church networks that would try to influence legislation in order to bring us tools for development once again. By the middle of the 1980s, New York State under Governor Cuomo launched a couple of programs, including the Housing Trust Fund, and introduced tools to be used for the development of low- and moderate-income housing. When Archbishop O’Connor (later Cardinal O’Connor) came to New York, he expressed interest in the work I was doing. Cardinal O’Connor and Mayor Koch became great friends – they were actually very similar in personality, and they even wrote a book together – and under Cardinal O’Connor I became very involved in housing development just as the City, with Mayor Koch as the catalyst, launched the largest housing program in the nation. I think the numbers of dollars and the units produced by the City of New York in the 1980s surpassed all of the states combined, including the federal government.

It was truly amazing: if you were here in the 1970s you would have seen a city dying. It probably would never have gotten to the level of Detroit, because we have always had the economic base of Manhattan’s inner city, but New York City did have a metastatic condition called disinvestment. The outer boroughs were suffering; the South Bronx was notorious. It was under the Koch administration, in about 1985, that the City started to invest in housing again.

I believe affordable housing should be more than safe and decent. … I hope people wake up in the morning and are actually
encouraged by their environment.
There was a lot of resistance. The cost of housing is huge for low-income people. Not only is it an enormous capital investment just to rehabilitate existing or to construct new housing, the real dollars are in the ongoing operating subsidies needed for a low-income household, especially for families already receiving some sort of public assistance, to address quality of life issues, to amortize debt, and to pay for the operating costs of housing. So the City was very reluctant to get involved in this, but by 1985, with some very talented people at City Hall and at HPD, a lot of factors coalesced to create a housing effort that worked. Another ingredient of that success – apart from the regulators, public officials and the availability of money – was the network of non-profit housing organizations in the city, which is absolutely unique in the nation.

So you had a network of local developers that were sensitive to the needs of their neighborhoods that weren’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past – the towers-in-the-park built in Chicago or the famous Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis – because those lessons were already learned. The benefits of mixed-income housing were already understood. The precedent of relying on local non-profits to ensure ongoing stewardship was already established. The components that enabled success were forming, and I was in the right place at the right time. So the City came to the Archdiocese and asked me if I was interested in developing 23 buildings in Highbridge, a Bronx neighborhood just north of Yankee Stadium that was devastated by disinvestment.

They put us in the driver’s seat. I assembled a development team, architects, contractors, financing and, for the next two years, I did nothing else but planning and design for these 23 vacant buildings. And as we were doing so, we looked around the neighborhood and identified opportunities for new construction and in the rehabilitation of privately-owned as well as city-owned buildings, and occupied buildings as well as vacant ones. The housing we produced serves a range of income levels: there’s low to middle working class families, one third of the units are reserved for formerly homeless individuals, and in the years since the project began we’ve added housing for seniors as well.

Housing, of course, is more than bricks and mortar. It’s about creating viable environments for people that go far beyond simply being “safe, decent and affordable.” Those are the creedal words of the US Housing Act of 1937. But I believe affordable housing should be more than safe and decent. It should be inspiring. By dint of its design, location and proximity to services, it needs to be an economic ladder for residents; it needs to provide an alternative to moving out of a community; it needs to help people become productive members of society. I hope we are doing that. I hope people wake up in the morning and are actually encouraged by their environment.

To that end, we spent a lot of time in the design period ensuring amenities like community rooms and recreation centers. And we established a program I’m very proud of called Highbridge Voices, which inspires excellence in children’s lives through their active participation in the performing arts.


How do you think the work that you’ve described — in neighborhood preservation, in community organizing, in public policy, in housing development and in programming for youth in disinvested urban areas — informs your role here at Old St Patrick’s?


I think it comes down to values. The opportunity here is to affect the way young, talented people,  who are in a position to influence others through their wealth or their talent, see the world. Our ministry should encourage them to be productive members of society, rather than grabbing for instant gratification. Through the preaching that takes place here, the counseling, through preparing couples for marriage, we want to provide spiritual and emotional relief for young people, many of whom are in very tense, stressful and competitive environments in which they are expected to do amoral or even immoral things to get ahead. Providing the liturgy is one way to do that, and certainly that should be seen as the apex of one’s week, coming together with the community. But there need to be other opportunities, and we call them “faith formation opportunities,” other ways to convene around the value base.


Where do most of your parishioners come from these days?


All over the place, but most of these young folks I’m referring to are from Manhattan. We also have services in Spanish and Chinese languages. We have a very charismatic Chinese priest who is something of a patriarch to a population of young Chinese immigrants. I assumed when I came here that the Chinese congregation was primarily from Chinatown, but in fact they are coming from all over the country. I’ve been introduced to Chinese immigrants from as far away as Kentucky or Georgia, who travel great lengths to be with the community. They won’t come every single week, of course, but the need to connect, to be comfortable, to be refreshed in who you are, is very strong.

My mother spoke Italian, my father German. My surname is Japanese. I understand how the first generation of immigrants tends to concentrate in enclaves where language and traditions are familiar. But then it dissipates. I’m hoping that for these young Chinese immigrants, we can be a doorway to another part of their lives, reinforcing feelings of identity and confidence as they acclimate to other aspects of their lives in America as Americans. That’s something we’ve done here for a very long time, but our mission goes forward. I mean, I love nostalgia. I’m committed to stories about how the neighborhood looked and felt in the past, and how it has changed, but in terms of ministry and what our function and mission is, we have to reorient ourselves to who’s here now.

Monsignor Sakano is Pastor of the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Leni Schwendinger February 16, 2012

It was a pleasure working with Monsignor Sakano on a “Light-Mapping” exercise, around the clock in 2010, and then a Light Planning Charrette for the Chinatown Little Italy Historic District. He is an extraordinary man with a mission! http://ow.ly/96JOd

Jim Maleady February 16, 2012

What a wonderful article, my mothers’ neighborhood (she always stressed “neighborhood”) and parish. I wish I were there for the weekend. Jim Maleady

Pete Armstrong March 1, 2012

Monsignor Sakano is a great advocate for our neighborhood. I love his heart for the community and learned a great deal about the history from this article. Thanks!