Volume 78 - Number 36 / February 4 - 10 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Free St. Mark’s flea market may have to hop elsewhere

By Mary Reinholz

A Brooklyn anarchist network that has long held “really really free” flea markets at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery got an unexpected lesson in pay-to-play capitalism late last month: Leaders at the iconic Episcopal house of worship — which is known for its embrace of counterculture gurus and goblins — reportedly told the group to cough up $100 or forget about holding a scheduled Sunday evening market in the church’s parish hall on E. 10th St. and Second Ave.

“We were told by the vestry that the church was going to take a hiatus on events like this because they don’t bring in any money,” said Thadeaus Davidson a.k.a. Thadeaus Umpster, 28.

Davidson is a coordinator for In Our Hearts, a group of autonomous collectives based in Bedford-Stuyvesant that includes the Freegans, anti-capitalist vegans who forage for food discarded in garbage bags by supermarkets.

“They threatened to cancel it — and then they said to go ahead if we paid $100,” Davidson said.

Davidson said In Our Hearts has been holding free markets at St. Mark’s since 2004, and usually “passes a hat” for $2-per-person donations, giving back to the East Village church some $20 to $30 for use of its space. He said he spoke on the phone to Cynthia Copeland, of the church’s vestry, two nights before the Jan. 25 event and agreed to pay the $100 — $50 of which he contributed himself. But Davidson doubts In Our Hearts Can come up with that kind of money again, and noted the group doesn’t have an alternative space, making the program’s demise a distinct possibility.

“A lot of it seems to do with church politics that I don’t know anything about,” he said shortly after the free market began at 6 p.m. on schedule. Within 15 minutes, about 100 people showed up to contribute and pick up free, used clothing, cosmetics, books and varied electronic appliances, like tape recorders and books, at least one by the late Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. The crowd also drank fruit juices free of charge and snacked on donuts, dried dates, fresh fruits and salad, much of it provided from “dumpster diving” by the Freegans. Several people who came to the market for various reasons, including free haircuts, said they believed this could be the last of its kind at St. Mark’s in the foreseeable future.

“We’re really sad,” said Barbara Waas, an older woman who traveled from the Bronx with a shopping cart filled with her collection of old portable radios, apparel and shoes. “I like giving away things that I can’t use and getting things I can use.” 

Cindy Rofin, who is active in freegan.info, a partner in the free market, sautéed zucchini in the parish hall’s kitchen and claimed the free events answered a community need during “hard economic times. People from the neighborhood come here,” she said. “We’re affording them a free festival, and now we have to pay to get in? It’s unfortunate, but hopefully we’ll be back in the summer.”

Copeland, who directs the church’s 12-member governing vestry, did not respond to requests for clarification. But James Benn, a church administrator, said activists in the “really really free” markets showed up at the church vestry’s annual business meeting, held the same day as their event.

“The Freegans spoke their piece,” Benn said. “Cynthia told them this wasn’t the end of their association. We’re just waiting to get a new priest in charge,” he claimed. “They’re not ousted. They’re welcome.”

However, a church employee who requested anonymity made it plain that St. Mark’s is worried about money and “can’t afford” to let groups like In Our Hearts use space for little or no cash.

“We’re trying to get rid of these groups because we’re going broke,” he said. “No more freebies.”

Benn said the “commercial rate” was about $200 an hour for groups to use space at St. Mark’s, adding: “But it’s different for every artist and every event. We’re doing some evaluation of events we can support.” He noted that the church has a “strong candidate” for a new head priest to establish direction. But whomever the vestry chooses, Benn added, is also subject to approval by the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

St. Mark’s has been without a priest in charge since April 2008, when Reverend John Denaro left after a year as a part-time senior minister. He was succeeded in late August by Reverend John Merz, who resigned after two weeks.

Reverend Frank Morales, St. Mark’s former longtime, unpaid, associate pastor and a so-called “squatter priest” known for his advocacy of radical causes, resigned early last year. In a November 2008 interview with The Villager, Morales said he received a letter last summer from the Right Reverend Mark Sisk, Episcopal bishop of New York, telling him to have no further involvement with church. Sources close to the vestry say St. Mark’s leaders seem to believe Sisk doesn’t want the church to host any groups associated with Morales.

However, Tina Donovan, a diocese spokesperson, said, “That’s just not true. The bishop doesn’t have an enemies list.” Donovan said decisions for church events are made on a local parish level.

Morales is a leader in the controversial New York City 9/11 Truth movement and the NYC 9/11 Ballot Initiative. Sunday evening meetings for the ballot initiative have also been put on hold by the St. Mark’s vestry, said Les Jamieson, the effort’s coordinator.

“They said, ‘Give us some time to get clarity and a stable footing with a new minister,’” said Jamieson, who attended the vestry’s business meeting. “Like any institution, they’re concerned about their financial solvency.” 

Jamieson, however, claimed the vestry was “receptive” to the work of his group, which gives about 25 percent of donations from its events at the church back to St. Mark’s. He noted parish leaders also green-lighted his group’s screening of the documentary film “The End of America,” based on Naomi Wolf’s book on the erosion of civil rights, at St. Mark’s Feb. 22.

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