Get off the end of the 7 line—nicknamed “The International Express” because of the diverse ethnic neighborhoods this train traverses—and marvel at the bouquet that is Flushing, Queens. Step onto Main Street and see the poetry of movement on the sidewalks: the rapid passing of bodies that never bump, mimicking the choreography of industrious ants; person after person who walk from below the knees rather than from under the hips; and the shuffling pedestrian whose to-hell-with-you rhythm cuts through the flow of foot traffic as if protected by an invisible force field. Walk two blocks east past the bustle of Korean and Chinese and Indian and Bangladeshi shoppers, past the gourmands in from Manhattan on their culinary pilgrimages, struggling to orient themselves in the path of swift-moving passersby, past the bottlenecks that develop when customers spill out of restaurants and reflexology shops and reduce sidewalk traffic to little more than a single moving lane, until you reach placid Bowne Street. Here the wide sidewalks are sprinkled with unhurried residents. Walk north on Bowne Street another block and a half until you see a beige wood-framed house, with a sign on its lawn announcing:
bowne house. built in 1661. a national shrine to religious freedom
Stand for a while in front of this simple Anglo-Dutch house. You’ll notice that hardly anyone cuts pace to look at, much more take in, this building or the historical marker on the sidewalk that spells out its significance: “This house, built by John Bowne in 1661, featured prominently in the early struggle for religious freedom in America.”
Shortly after it was built, this house became a place of worship for Quakers, and therefore a place of refuge for them. Yes, spiritual refuge—“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” as the Psalmist declared and the Quakers would wholeheartedly affirm—but also a shelter from harassment and persecution in the anti-Quaker climate of Flushing. Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of what was then New Netherland—of which Flushing was a part—was not a fan of religions that weren’t his own Dutch Reformed. Observers of other faiths might pray and preach in private homes, but public homage was reserved for the national church of the Netherlands and New Netherland. Such was Stuyvesant’s preference, and such was the law: “No other religion shall be publicly admitted in New Netherland except the Reformed.”
His religious intolerance brought him into conflict with various newcomers to New Netherland who weren’t part of his tribe: Lutherans, Jews, Baptists, and others. But he had a special revulsion for Quakers, whose theological populism—their insistence that uneducated men and women could preach, for instance—and egalitarian style—their refusal to be deferential to ecclesiastical and political authority—he detested. Stuyvesant not only forbade Quakers public worship, he also forbade their meeting privately. And in the fall of 1657, the same year the Quakers arrived in New Netherland and made themselves unwelcome by preaching in the streets, Stuyvesant issued a proclamation that ships bringing Quakers to New Netherland would be seized. Anyone attending a Quaker meeting or receiving Quakers would be fined. To help smoke out offenders, he offered snitches a commission.
In response to Stuyvesant’s ordinance, a group of thirty-one Flushing residents (only one of whom was a Quaker) got together and drew up a statement of protest. The Flushing Remonstrance called upon Stuyvesant to live up to New Netherland’s founding principles. Flushing was supposed to be tolerant of racial, ethnic, and religious differences. Like the colony’s namesake, the Netherlands, which recognized that “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion,” Flushing by its very charter was to allow residents “to have and enjoy the liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate.” The signers of the Remonstrance not only stood up for other Christians, “whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker,” but they also insisted that “the law of love, peace and libertie” extended to “Jews, Turks and Egyptians.”
They took their stand at great risk—Stuyvesant had an appetite for torture—but they made their case with respect and eloquence. The document pulsates with openness and generosity and humility. “If any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them,” the signers protested, “but give them free egresse and regresse unto our towne and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences . . . for wee are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men, and evil to noe men.”
Thin-skinned and thick-headed, Stuyvesant was unswayed. He called the Remonstrance a “mutinous and detestable letter of defiance” and had the town officials who had signed and delivered it arrested.
In 1662, the year after he built his house, John Bowne and his wife, Hannah, began holding Quaker meetings there. Stuyvesant got word of the gatherings and arrested a defiant Bowne and had him deported to Holland. When Bowne arrived in Amsterdam in early 1663, he argued his case before the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch West India Company, reminding the Dutch of the principle of liberty of conscience that Flushing’s charter should have guaranteed. He was later allowed to return to Flushing, mainly out of a fear of “diminishing the population and stopping immigration, which must be favored at so tender a stage of the country’s existence.” The Dutch West India Company told Stuyvesant to “shut your eyes” to nonconformists and “allow every one to have his own belief.” They wanted a “maxim of moderation” in order to create “a considerable influx of people”—they valued free trade much more than freedom of religion—and so they rebuked Stuyvesant and restored Bowne. In spite of the mixed motives that drove it, it was a triumph for liberty of conscience.
On the street in front of John Bowne’s house stands a signboard that lists other significant locations in Flushing. There are directions to Freedom Mile, a pair of self-directed walking tours within a mile’s radius of the marker; listed are places of historical significance (sites that might have been active in the Underground Railroad) and clues to a diverse present (the word Welcome in multiple languages). The sign also notes that in 1664—the year that the British took control of New Netherland, renaming it New York—“Bowne returned to his house, where Quaker meetings were held for another 30 years, until the Friends Meeting House was built.” The Friends Meeting House, a modest wooden building around the corner, which Bowne helped build, is the oldest place of worship in continuous use in New York. It’s on a street—Northern Boulevard—that’s one of the city’s “God’s Rows” (to borrow the term coined by journalist Tony Carnes, who has spent decades trying to map every religious site in New York City and has counted 372 in Flushing). Places of worship dot the street, as if sprinkled freehandedly from above. Walk on Northern Boulevard past the many spaces where Buddhists, Jews, and Christians of an array of denominations worship, and it’s easy to believe that this multifaith world is a creation of the Flushing Remonstrance. You’ll feel this even more when you walk a few blocks south of Bowne House past a Church of Christ, a Church of Oversea Chinese Mission, a synagogue, a Sikh Gurdwara, and a Hindu temple.
But the remarkable fact that Flushing is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York and the United States is not a result of the Remonstrance. (Occasionally there’s boosterish talk of that little-known document influencing the drafting of the Bill of Rights more than a century later, but no compelling evidence supports that claim.) The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which threw open the gates that immigrants walked through, is more responsible for Flushing’s vibrant pluralism. Nonetheless, one Sunday morning, my good friend Joshua, a Jewish American, and I, a Protestant Jamaican, took a walk around Flushing with Emmy Catedral, a Filipino-American artist who grew up in Queens and whose work has, on occasion, engaged with Flushing’s ethnic and horticultural diversity. We wanted to see how the neighborhood’s past influenced its present. We wanted to know what people thought of the Flushing Remonstrance and whether it shaped their ideas of pluralism. Was it in their blind spot, the way the Bowne House seemed to be, or had it been dusted off and set before them?
It seemed fitting to plan a route along the locations listed on the Freedom Mile. We met on Main Street in front of St. George’s Church, the second-oldest religious organization in Flushing. Out front was a sign announcing services in English, Chinese, and Spanish. As we hovered in the entrance, shortly after a service began, we were greeted by a charming elderly woman, who invited us to join the congregants. We demurred, explaining we had a lot of ground to cover, and she responded reassuringly, “We welcome everybody.”
Onward we went, asking people everywhere we stopped about the Flushing Remonstrance. None of them knew anything about it. We ended up at the Macedonia AME Church, the third-oldest religious organization in Flushing, a block west of Bowne House, on Union Street, another “God’s Row.” Partway through the service, we managed to wrest ourselves from the centripetal pull of the funky organ. On our way out we encountered a deacon who not only knew about the Remonstrance, but regaled us with reminiscences about growing up in Flushing with close friends whose surnames included Lum, Vargas, O’Neal, and DiVecchio. He saw in himself—part African American, part Native American—the story of the place. He told us that John Bowne had been an abolitionist, as were many of his descendants. For the deacon, the significance of the Remonstrance wasn’t whether it had bequeathed the diversity he celebrated. It was in providing a model for how that diversity could be preserved: A group of men stood up to defend the religious freedom of people with whom they disagreed, refusing to demonize them. They stood up for unity as well as diversity, just like the Chinese and Italian friends who’d come to his defense as a kid, when they would travel together to parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island where his skin color wasn’t welcome.
We left the church, more awakened to the faces of many shades that we passed, the multiple languages being spoken, the warm exchanges between Sikhs and Jews who parked beside each other in a synagogue’s lot. As we walked south, Emmy pointed out emblems of Flushing’s horticultural past in the names of the streets. The nation’s first commercial nurseries began in Flushing, and some of the streets in the neighborhood celebrate this—Parsons Boulevard, for example, one block east of Bowne Street, was named for Samuel Parsons, Jr., a descendant of John Bowne who was head landscape architect for New York City and supplied Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with many plants for their design of Central Park. Parsons learned about horticulture at his family’s nursery, which was one of the most important commercial nurseries in the United States in the nineteenth century. The Parsons nursery searched the world for exotic specimens and brought trees and plants from all over to Flushing, which it then supplied to estates and parks in the United States and beyond.
A bit north of the Bowne House, Weeping Beech Park honors Samuel Bowne Parsons and the weeping beech tree that he planted. That tree, which was transported from Belgium, lived there from 1847 until 1998, and is rumored to have produced generations of weeping beeches all over America. As we strolled along, we saw this tree, along with other rare specimens, in yards and on sidewalks. Not much farther south of Bowne House, we crossed Ash, Beech, and Cherry Avenues—and onward they grew alphabetically until Rose Avenue. At Rose Avenue and Parsons Boulevard lies the Kissena Park Historic Grove, a fourteen-acre plot that was part of the original Parsons nursery. It contains over a hundred varieties of trees, including rare ones that originate from Japan, China, and Iran. In that grove remain a few dozen saplings that Parsons planted, which have grown to provide a beautiful canopy for walkers underneath. Looking at Flushing’s horticultural heritage in rich display, it was hard for us not to think of nature as corroboration of the diversity the deacon praised.
Our walk ended in front of the Queens Public Library, which carries books in dozens of the languages that could be heard outside on Main Street, where we stood in wonderment, fascinated by the diverse mix flooding our senses. Monks, street preachers, and believers on their way from the neighborhood’s many places of worship zipped past us, some disappearing into a few of the restaurants that make Flushing smell like the crossroads of many nations, others heading off into the cultural vastness beyond.
In the face of such resplendent variety, it’s impossible not to be enamored of the beauty of difference. Enchantment, however, can slide into naiveté—you gaze at the manifold offerings and ignore the rough textures that chafe. The danger is to forget that diversity often produces conflict. Pluralism, we ought not forget, brings together people with deep convictions and alienating differences. It’s not enough that we live alongside each other—we have to learn to live with our differences. Indeed, we must go beyond just tolerating those with whom we disagree, and perhaps even dislike, and insist on—yes, fight for—their right to disagree with us. The Flushing Remonstrance is not only a moment of historical significance in New York. It is a reminder to New Yorkers today of the intellectual and moral resources we have to combat the challenges brought on by pluralism—particularly the temptation to harass and persecute people who think or look differently than we do. It reminds us that respect ought to be wed to tolerance. Most important, it reminds us of our responsibility to one another. After all, the authorities who attack the Quakers are really attacking us all.
Before us in Flushing were hurrying immigrant crowds, some of them from groups that are enemies in their home countries but have learned to coexist without rancor in these packed streets. There was none of the fear-born intemperance one saw, for example, in 2010, when Muslims wanted to build a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, where terrorists had left a scar in the city’s psyche. Some New Yorkers objected, stating that because the terrorists who committed that despicable act were Muslim, a mosque so close to Ground Zero was “insensitive.” Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech that rejected those claims, saying, “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than everyone else.” He invoked the Flushing Remonstrance, and declared: “Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish.” That document’s signers still summon us to stand up for others when we disagree with them; to recognize that our city thrives not only despite our differences but because of them; and to affirm, with W. H. Auden, that “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” It calls us, above all, to “doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law of both Church and State.”
This essay is taken from Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, forthcoming from University of California Press, October 2016.