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Uncertainty may be a fact of life, but it is also a tool with which to shape the city. Just as markets rise and fall by measures of confidence in the future, calculated risk informs decisions that profoundly impact the social and physical urban fabric — including choices about who, exactly, must bear the brunt of potential peril. From the siting of pipelines to the closing of rent gaps, from investments in shiny new towers to brownfield megadevelopments: the built environment is always something of a gamble, where bets are most often placed by those who can afford a loss. Prediction implies power, and there is tangible power in predicting, especially in New York City.
But that power has seemed to wane. “Unprecedented times” have blurred even the boldest visions of the future; risk management has drilled down into everyday life on an individual scale. Uncertainty is less a simple fact and more a grim threat, with a collective emotional toll on the city. To ease the burden of ambivalence, many people have turned to a familiar, yet often maligned, type of expertise: fortune-telling. Psychic mediums are everywhere in New York City, their enigmatic vocation broadcast to the street in the form of neon signs and enigmatic window displays. Psychic services are also accessible via phone and television screen, tailored to customers by both real human beings and algorithms. Here, too, there is power in prediction, but often a kind that accrues to some of society’s most powerless. Below, Paula Vilaplana de Miguel takes us on a spatial, material, and metaphysical journey through the psychic industry in New York, a trade driven by women and immigrants — citymakers in their own right who have made a future for themselves through divining the future itself.
“Let’s tell the future, let’s see how it’s been done,” Suzanne Vega sings in the first lines of her song “Predictions,” before listing off a number of divination techniques. From dice to ice, nails, or smoke, the idea of doing the future parallels its practice as a craft. In New York, the future is a craft practiced predominantly by women who have reshaped it intensely for over two centuries, beginning in 1848 with the Fox Sisters — siblings who claimed they could communicate with spirits through “raps” (a series of audible bangs) in their Hydesville farmhouse. Mediumship eventually spread across the state, along with an ever-evolving set of psychic rituals and spaces. A residue of this period persists in the distinct psychic storefronts that still line the streets of New York City.
Easily distinguishable by their exuberant windows and neon lights, psychic businesses are ubiquitous and resilient. In March 2020, as the CDC started issuing guidance on Covid-19, Google reported an increase in searches for the word “psychic.” So many months later, we continue to plunge into forecasts: polls, statistics, job growth patterns, public health metrics, stocks, real estate trends, or even spiritual guidance in the form of astral readings and horoscopes. From secular to spiritual forecasts, we are eager to know what is yet to come.
The psychic industry in the US continues to flourish at a steady pace, growing 52% since 2005 and amassing an annual revenue surpassing $2.2 billion in 2020. In New York State, there are more registered psychics (13,621) than licensed architects (11,580). In New York City, psychics have offices in every borough, offering services that range from spiritual healing to life coaching, dream analysis, chromotherapy, palmistry, aura reading and tarot, to name just a few. They perform either on-site — displaying themselves as portraits vivants within their ornate storefronts — or remotely, delivering services via phone, Zoom, or Instagram direct message. Psychics also leverage one of the many apps that now host fortune-telling services, such as Kasamba, Keen, or Intro. In most cases, psychics’ domestic and professional spaces are superimposed. With a long history of remote work, they have been transforming their households into spiritual offices for years, predating the blurred lines between professional and personal life that the pandemic has accelerated.
The prevalence of psychics in the city is surprising given the fact that their practice is technically illegal. According to Section 165.35 of New York State law, fortune-telling is a Class B Misdemeanor, and any individual who claims psychic abilities other than for purpose of entertainment, is allegedly breaking the law. This apparent contradiction exemplifies New York’s complicated relationship with an industry that is largely made up of women or immigrants (if not both), and which persists despite many legal, political, and socioeconomic obstacles that would undermine it. The abundance of psychic businesses is neither anecdotal or novel: it is the tip of the iceberg of an only partially-visible social infrastructure, deeply entangled with the city’s history, and connecting spectacle and show business with networks of women workers, informal economies, and subversive domesticities.
Sites illustrating the history of marginalization and persecution of psychic mediums in Manhattan are labelled with an eye symbol on the map above. Their stories appear in the article below.
The origins of contemporary mediumship can be found in 19th-century Spiritualism, modeled after an ancient form of Christian rite based on communication with the dead. Spiritualism placed women at its center: they are ideal channels for spirits. This long-held assumption gave psychic mediums a stage to voice claims for voting rights, dress reform, divorce, or property rights for women. Spiritualists were linked ideologically and geographically to the women’s suffrage movement. As historian Ann Braude notes in Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights, the Fox Sisters’ first raps took place just months before, and a few miles from, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Spiritualist figures such as Victoria Woodhull had active careers as women’s right advocates, public roles which often put them in vulnerable positions. Woodhull also holds the distinction of being the first female Wall Street broker and the first woman to run for president in the US. She also inspired the first obscenity law in New York City, the Comstock Act of 1873, after being arrested for publishing pornographic literature. The case against Woodhull would be the first of an ongoing persecution and banning of Spiritualism from the public realm, especially through censorship of the media that helped spread the movement.
The density of psychic businesses in New York is also the result of infrastructural developments dating back to this time. The Erie Canal is especially significant to the industry’s history. Popularly known as the “Psychic Highway,” the Canal helped facilitate the circulation of not just goods and people, but radical ideas as well. The Fox Sisters toured the state by boat, travelling by waterways from Rochester until finally docking in Manhattan in 1850. Following their model, a psychic craze unfolded. The Psychic Highway gave rise to a network of hundreds of mediums, most often women who travelled along the Hudson River channeling radical spirits and messages of change — to hierarchies, beliefs, and norms. To this body of psychics joined a wave of Romani clairvoyants, who arrived to the US following the abolition of Romani slavery and the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s.
West 42nd Street Pier
The Hudson River remains a hallowed site for mediums and their demands for women’s suffrage and better labor conditions. In July 1936, the National Association of Fortune Tellers organized a day cruise along the Hudson in an effort to syndicate their practice. Eleven members of the newly formed organization gathered at the West 42nd Street Pier to board the Peter Stuyvesant steamer. Their plan was to sail the Hudson River and voice their claims to legal rights. The ship would never leave the pier due to inclement weather, a foreboding sign for fortune-tellers, who still struggle to see their work legally recognized and protected to this day.
11 East 32nd Street
A green sign reading “PSYCHIC” crowns the storefront of Sarah’s Visions, also known as the Times Square Psychic. Her window is packed with slabs of amethysts, quartz, and selenite; candles, a phrenology bust, a crystal ball; an ornate lamp with fringes and glass incrustations, artificial flowers and plants, and two neon lights. Another sign flashes the word “OPEN” intermittently. Behind this busy display, one can make out a seemingly domestic setup: a table, two armchairs, and a number of curtains. One of these fabrics is used to compartmentalize the room, creating what mediums call a “cabinet.” Another separates the tiny public room from what is, presumably, a more private space not open to visitors. On the wall hangs a poster with the drawing of a gypsy fortune-teller, a visual trope of the business. Perhaps it is an allusion to the psychic’s mother, the renowned Asbury Park, New Jersey medium Madam Marie (a subject of several Bruce Springsteen songs), whom locals called “the gypsy queen of the boardwalk.” Madam Marie was, in fact, not actually a gypsy, but the matriarch in a family of American-born female spiritual workers based between Asbury Park and Manhattan.
Nothing in the contemporary psychic storefront is arbitrary. Its props make calculated references to witchcraft and mediumistic practices, portraying the friction between legally allowed spectacle and spiritual communion. The rise of modern Spiritualism placed psychic mediums at the center of a public debate: Was their practice legitimate or fraudulent? As their abilities began to be publicly challenged at the turn of the century, mediums started performing “test séances.” Skeptical investigators were allowed to examine the medium’s house, where she usually performed her work. Her props, clothes, and furniture — especially the “cabinet,” a fabric compartment in the parlor from which she communicated with spirit guides — were all subject to investigator’s scrutiny. The medium also offered her body for inspection, a provocative move that allowed for intimate interactions trespassing the moral boundaries of the time.
If we carefully read the contemporary psychic window, we can find most of the elements of the erstwhile séance room. And the more the window conveys the image of a stage show, the more protected the psychic is. This imagery has been gradually regulated through laws and ordinances that determine the morality of what is exhibited, the veracity of the experience, and the economic realities of the psychic’s labor conditions. Although they provide services as spiritual guides, healers, or counselors, psychics are considered performers — a classification which dissociates them from the clergy of other religions.
Metaphysical businesses in New York have evolved in response to constant surveillance — mechanisms and technologies put in place to inspect, control, and ultimately eradicate psychic practice. Yet these are also spaces of opportunity, crafted by mediums in search of distinctive spatial and visual languages for asserting themselves as part of a community.
286 West 70th Street
This seemingly ordinary residential building was the site of the 1922 arrest of Reverend William Reilly Thompson and his wife, members of the First Spiritualist church who rented a room on the upper floor. They were charged for conducting fraudulent séances.
The Victorian-era séance room stands as the archetypal space for Spiritualist practice. These rooms seemed to contain nothing particularly eerie: a table, chairs, a piano. In the light, only the fabric cabinet stood out as unusual. Once inside the cabinet, a medium would enter a trance and begin to channel spirits, all under the glow of a red light — allegedly the best hue suited for welcoming back the dead. Initially conceived as private gatherings, séances progressively turned into public demonstrations of a medium’s abilities, altering the perception of her house as a protected and safe environment for believers.
Lincoln Square Arcade
As part of a trip arranged by the American psychic investigator Hereward Carrington, in 1909, the Neapolitan medium Eusapia Paladino arrived in New York City to partake in various public tests of her abilities inside an empty office at the Lincoln Square Arcade. Seven volunteers participated in each exam, holding hands with the medium and witnessing her work. They first inspected the medium’s body, garment, and props. The volunteers were then asked to immobilize Paladino’s hands and feet to prevent her from tricking the process.
By the turn of the 20th century, psychic mediums had become so popular that scientists and investigators began to take them as a subject of serious study. Could these women really reach the dead? In 1922, Scientific American launched a quest for objective proof of ghosts. Researchers — including a group at Harvard University — prepared their own séance rooms, carefully placing each participant within a technologized “laboratory” where the medium was surveilled and measured by a spring balance, a chronograph and other instruments attached to the her hands and feet (some borrowed from the military) to record movement and time. The medium and her props, meanwhile, were marked with fluorescent paint to allow the researchers to follow their movements in the dark.
A New York Times article published in 1923 describes the thorough preparation of the psychic laboratory before a test séance, noting the careful examination of the medium’s props and clothes, and the use of various devices, from spectroscopes to mechanisms for registering movement, vapors, light, sound, and even changes in gravitational weight. The light in the room was controlled at all times.
144 / 146 / 156 West 34th Street
On April 30, 1934, 13 fortune-tellers were arrested following a raid on three gypsy tea rooms along 34th Street in Manhattan.
A more immediate precursor to contemporary psychic shops, so-called “gypsy tea rooms” boomed during the 1920s and 1930s in New York City. These were vibrant social spaces for artists and bohemians to enjoy a sandwich and tip extra to get their future read in tea leaves (a practice also known as tasseomancy, popularized by the Romani in the mid-1800s). The Romany Marie Tavern counted personalities such as Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi among its regulars (Fuller even sketched a Dymaxion tearoom for the tavern’s owner and namesake). According to historian Jan Whitaker, tea rooms were also the first businesses in New York to be primarily operated by women. They offered the domestic solace of a cup of tea, as well as the allure of transporting customers to exotic and eerie settings. With fortune-telling’s unlawful status in New York, however, the mediums operating them soon start being prosecuted and fined for their services.
301 Bleecker Street
In 2013, the medium Sylvia Mitchell, also known as Zena Clairvoyant, was sentenced to five to ten years imprisonment for alleged fraud and grand larceny relating to her fortune-telling practice.
The contemporary psychic shop stands as the result of decades of elaborate spatial fixes to bypass regulations and legal limitations imposed on mediumship. Often, these shops have very limited dimensions. Some are refurbished, small portions of residential apartments, falling within the threshold of the 25 percent of a private residence legally allowed to be used for commercial purposes by the State of New York.
30th Street and Lexington Avenue
From a recent Craigslist listing: “$2,000 Ground floor – Private gated entrance! OFFICE ONLY * No Psychic*”
In a recent series of photographs of New York mediums, Thomas Freteur portrays psychics in a variety of workspaces: from coworking offices in Midtown towers to their own living rooms. Not all psychics are announced to the street by a luminous neon sign. Many of them perform quietly amidst other workers. Nikenya rents an office on 23rd Street. As a psychic and woman of color, she prefers a professional environment to distance herself from the popular, demeaning tropes of the medium. Emily rents the attic in a yellow Victorian on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn. She is the fourth generation in a family of psychics to perform in that house.
In 1984, the deregulation of the television industry and the opening up of commercial air space set the stage for companies such as the Psychic Friends Network (PFN). The company’s structure benefited from psychics operating as a delocalized workforce of independent contractors. The network boomed throughout the 1990s, broadcasting TV infomercials and sponsored content on talk shows, while offering direct service for customers via telephone. Celebrities Dionne Warwick and Cynthia Brooks championed a platform that connected households around the world to an army of work-from-home psychic operators, available 24/7. “Answers are just a phone call away. You just need a telephone, and an open mind.” At least according to one 1992 infomercial.
The telematic model that the PFN put in place brought both psychics and clients back into a domestic setting, albeit through a completely different route. With households on each end of the telephone line, the company created an expanded network of psychic-counseling operations. That network is today multiplied by various digital products. Kasamba, available as a web service and an app, provides psychic readings via live chat, email, and text chat. Intro offers video calls with an array of experts — including astrologists. Co-Star, a popular astrology app with a minimal black and white design, markets itself as a “key for decoding the cosmos . . . powered by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers.” The app delivers daily horoscopes which can be synched to your contacts. Meanwhile, on Instagram, one can follow celebrity mediums such as Sarah Potter, a “tarot reader, psychic medium, pro witch, curator and conjurer” who performs from a brown couch, often in the company of her cat, Polyester. Sarah Potter is one of many mediums who have made social media their natural milieu.
Months ago, as many struggled to adapt to pandemic-related work-from-home scenarios, most psychic workers were already organized and set up. Ready to absorb questions about the future and coach us towards new forms of hybrid domesticities. It would seem that in the end, they did see it coming . . .
All images by Paula Vilaplana de Miguel
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.