Culture wars are not new. New York City's Fifth Avenue had an in-your-face one in the 1870s. Another commenced in the 1930s. A third, now underway, was in evidence on Easter this year.
In the mid-19th century New York's leading abortionist, Madame Restell, built a five-story mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. She relished her grand hall lined with marble and mirrors, immense dining rooms and parlors furnished in bronze and gold, numerous guest bedrooms and servants' quarters, and a billiards room and dancing hall complete with piano.
Meanwhile, 2 million immigrants from Ireland were flowing into America from 1845 to 1860, mostly through New York. Many became upwardly mobile, but perhaps 50,000 Irish prostitutes worked the streets and sometimes had abortions. As babies died priests urged life, and one block south of Restell's home the neo-Gothic cathedral known as St. Patrick's (seating capacity: 2,200) rose.
In 1878 Madame Restell committed suicide. In 1879 St. Patrick's held its first official service. The cathedral dominated its stretch of midtown Manhattan until the 1930s, which is when John D. Rockefeller Jr. undertook the largest private building project in modern times: 14 buildings (8 million square feet!) spread over 22 acres directly across Fifth Avenue from St. Pat's.
Ever since then the tallest building, 70 floors high, has cast an afternoon shadow over the cathedral. Rockefeller Center has housed media giants like NBC and Time-Life, industrial giants like General Electric and Exxon, and financial giants like Bank of America and Lehman Brothers.
At ground level the face-off has also been apparent: A two-ton statue of Atlas, the god in Greek mythology who carries the heavens upon his shoulders, faces the doors of St. Patrick. What holds up the world—the economic and technological power housed in the skyscraper, or the faith of the cross?
Most people don't contemplate such questions, and here's where Fifth Avenue itself comes in. Through much of the 20th century the Avenue every Easter was where the well-to-do strolled in fashionable clothes and elaborate bonnets. The informal parades garnered criticism—Was Easter extravagance trumping frugality?—but Irving Berlin included a song, "Easter Parade," in a Broadway revue, and Bing Crosby crooned it into a standard.
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