Gothamist has posted a great interview with Mitch Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Tarcher — the mind/body/spirit publisher of the Penguin Group — and author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation…
Well the remarkable thing is that we go through some of the most ordinary neighborhoods in the city. A lot of what we do traces a beeline through the Flatiron district, Murray Hill, the Grand Central neighborhood, Midtown and the West Side. The truth is, those were areas of Manhattan that didn’t really get developed until the mid-to-late 19th century. When you had some sort of metaphysical church or mystical lodge or organization that was looking to buy land — or somebody who was willing to give them land — very frequently it was not downtown in Greenwich Village, which was very well-developed early on. It was in Midtown Manhattan, which was considered “Nowheres Ville.” In the 1850s there were patches of Midtown that were garbage dumps and cow pastures. In fact, the gate around Norman Vincent Peale’s church is the original one, which was put up to keep cows from wandering around and pooping in the church yard! So people tended to think of Midtown as the boondocks.
It’s so hard to imagine!
Yeah, it is so hard to imagine! And when it changed, it changed really, really rapidly. To some extent, it was even the construction of Grand Central Station in 1913 that started the full on building boom in Midtown. It was certainly developed, but it isn’t anything like the behemoth we know today. So the weird thing is that in some very, very ordinary neighborhoods — some very quiet streets in Murray Hill and some very commercially oriented districts of Midtown — you find some of our richest occult history.
For example, on East 35th street there is a church called the New York New Church, which was built in 1859. That place was a hotbed of spiritualist and mystical activity when it went up. Its first pastor was a man named the Reverend George Bush, who was an ancestor of the Bush Presidential clan. The Reverend Bush, who was a very well-known guy at the time, was a big defender of spiritualists and mediums and mesmerists and he believed that these people had an authentic vision to offer. Some of the most full-hearted and articulate defense of supernatural spirituality in America in the mid-19th century — which was really the age where spiritualism was growing popular in this country — came from the pulpit of that church from an ancestor of the former Presidents Bush. That place is still standing; the original building is still there, the courtyard is still there. It’s beautiful! It’s home today to a Swedenborgian congregation and a spiritualist congregation. A place like that is a piece of history that’s been preserved, it’s still this up and running place.