The 26 Second Avenue Story
Epilogue: What Happened to 26 Second Avenue
Srila Prabhupada lived at 26 Second Avenue from July 1966 to January 1967. During that time he transformed a storefront into the first Krsna conscious temple in the West, attracted a number of young followers, incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and initiated 19 students. From these modest beginnings, the Hare Krsna movement spread throughout the world.
One of Srila Prabhupada's first initiates in New York, Mukunda Dasa, went to San Francisco. In early January 1967 he invited Srila Prabhupada to bring the message of Krsna consciousness to the throngs of young people gathering in the Haight-Ashbury district. Mukunda dasa had located the storefront and apartment at 26 Second Avenue for Srila Prabhupada, and now he wrote that he and several others had rented a storefront on Frederick Street in the Haight-Ashbury and were converting it into a temple. Because Srila Prabhupada had come to the West on the order of his spiritual master to preach bhakti-yoga, devotion to Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he was prepared to go wherever Krsna led him.
The Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta, the official biography of Srila Prabhupada, recounts his departure from 26 Second Avenue on January 17: "Prabhupada looked at his watch. He put on his tweed winter coat and his hat and shoes, put his right hand in his bead bag, and continued chanting. He walked out of the apartment, down the stairs and through the courtyard, which was now frozen and still, its trees starkly bare without a single leaf remaining. And he left the storefront behind." Although Srila Prabhupada returned several months later, 26 Second Avenue was no longer his main residence.
In Srila Prabhupada's absence his followers maintained his programs, holding Srimad-Bhagavatam classes every morning and Bhagavad-gita classes three times a week. The transcendental sound of chanting continued to attract young people, just as Srila Prabhupada said it would. By 1968 the storefront at 26 Second Avenue could no longer accommodate the growing number of devotees who had joined. The landlord, Mr. Chutey, had respected Srila Prabhupada and had tolerated the rousing kirtanas and the comings and goings of young people while Srila Prabhupada was present. But without Srila Prabhupada's presence to smooth out relations, Mr. Chutey became less cooperative. When the lease expired, Mr. Chutey abruptly raised the rent. The devotees began searching for a new location. After several months they found a place some blocks north, at 61 Second Avenue. In December, Srila Prabhupada wrote Brahmananda dasa, the temple president, from Los Angeles, "You tried so hard to find a new temple but Krsna did not approve so there was no temple. But now Krsna wills it with simply a flick of the eye a temple has come to us better than we were hoping for." The new facility was large enough to accommodate fifteen to twenty devotees to live there, besides providing ample space for temple programs.
After the devotees vacated 26 Second Avenue at the end of December 1968, it became a second-hand furniture shop. By this time devotees had opened centers in San Francisco, Montreal, Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo, and Santa Fe and on Srila Prabhupada's instructions were intent upon extending the Hare Krsna movement to England, Europe, and beyond. Twenty-six Second Avenue had no part to play in their plans. Brahmananda dasa says, "In 1970, when we moved to Brooklyn (to the Henry Street temple), we forgot about Second Avenue."
Bohdan Porytko purchased the 26 Second Avenue buildings from Mr. Chutey in 1973. The storefront was converted into a storage place and remained as such for twelve years. However, even in its derelict state, the storefront soon became an honored place. New York devotees would drive visitors by 26 Second Avenue to point out the old temple. Nestor Porytko, who took over the management of 26 Second Avenue from his father, remembers, as a teenager in the mid-Seventies, seeing devotees bowing down their heads on the sidewalk in front of 26 Second Avenue.
In 1977 Srila Prabhupada passed away, leaving his many followers with a poignant final lesson: to love and serve him in separation. Deprived of his presence, devotees sought Srila Prabhupada in his books and recorded lectures along with their remembrances. Every moment spent in Srila Prabhupada's association became more precious; each object and place associated with him took on greater significance. Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta describes the earliest days with Srila Prabhupada at 26 Second Avenue as being simple and sweet. The storefront in which these pastimes occurred now became a place of special focus.
As the Hare Krsna movement approached its twentieth anniversary in 1986, New York devotees grew to esteem the places associated with Srila Prabhupada's pastimes in New York. Soon whenever visiting devotees would come to town, the local devotees would give them a tour of the Prabhupada sites: the dock in Brooklyn where Srila Prabhupada had disembarked from the Jaladuta, 94 Bowery, 26 Second Avenue, and Tompkins Square Park. Sometimes when visiting 26 Second Avenue, they would stand on the trash dumpster of the gas station and look over the wall (into the courtyard of 26 Second Avenue). Sometimes they would sneak in.
The notion arose among some devotees that 26 Second Avenue must be retrieved and preserved. Devotees were already treating it like a place of pilgrimage, so why not obtain it and convert it into a shrine? Because of Srila Prabhupada's activities there, 26 Second Avenue qualified as a tirtha, a holy place. It is in the Vaisnava tradition that a place where a pure devotee lives is more important than the place where he was born. Tradition favored the effort, but recovering 26 Second Avenue was motivated by sentiment. In this place Srila Prabhupada had tutored his young spiritual children, showing them how to wear their dhotis and saris, how to dance, and how to worship the Deity of Krsna. The devotees felt compelled to reclaim it.
By 1985, 26 Second Avenue was again being used as an antique store. The sign above the door read "Rescued Estates." Sometimes devotees would visit the store, look about the narrow room cluttered with bric-a-brac and try to discern something of what it was like when Srila Prabhupada had taught Bhagavad-gita there.
In May 1990, an art dealer happened to visit the Brooklyn ISKCON temple. He was eyeing a display of photographs of the beginnings of the movement and noticed one of 26 Second Avenue. "I know the people who currently rent that place," he commented to the devotees. The devotees asked the art dealer to approach the current tenants to see whether they would be willing to relinquish the storefront.
The New York devotees became excited at the prospect of regaining 26 Second Avenue, but the art dealer did not immediately contact the owners of Rescued Estates. Some nine months later the owners of Rescued Estates called the New York temple. At first the owner of the building was not enthusiastic to rent the storefront to the devotees, but one of the partners from Rescued Estates persuaded him to allow ISKCON to take over their lease.
It was in April 1991 that 26 Second Avenue was secured. Years of neglect had left the storefront in poor condition. The floor had big holes and pits. The plaster was coming off the walls and the bricks showed through. Sheets of tin hung down from the pressed tin ceiling. Boards were screwed to the ceiling and wires hung down everywhere. The devotees raised $20,000 in donations to renovate the storefront. A devotee who was a professional carpenter was contracted to complete the renovation within two months.
The devotees pulled out the warped floorboards and laid a polished wood floor. They replaced the crumbling plaster walls with smooth sheet rock, built a drop ceiling, ripped out the tangled wiring and installed a new electrical system. Italian lighting fixtures were substituted for the bare light bulbs. They renewed the bathroom wall at the rear of the storefront, and arranged a new sink and toilet, tore out the rear windows of the temple room, constructed new ones, and set up an air conditioner.
The construction activity caused passersby to stop and peer inside. More than once the workers stopped their work to answer inquiries. "Who bought this place? The Krsnas are back? Far out."
The grand opening was on July 11, 1991, because it marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the incorporation of ISKCON, which had taken place at 26 Second Avenue in 1966. A hari-nama procession of more than one hundred devotees paraded from the Brooklyn temple across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan's Lower East Side. It took more than an hour to reach Second Avenue.
Around mid-morning the hari-nama party arrived and the sidewalk outside 26 Second Avenue was crowded with jubilant, chanting devotees. After years of only offering obeisances from the sidewalk and peering from the street into a darkened warehouse, devotees were once again sitting cross-legged on the temple room floor and chanting. Everyone within the temple squeezed closer to the walls to make room. After speeches by some of the older devotees who had been at the center in 1966, the devotees formed a hari-nama procession to Tompkins Square Park.
The devotees were back-back in the neighborhood, back at the first Hare Krsna temple in the West, back in the mood of being Swamiji's boys and girls. The storefront was once again resounding with the chanting of Hare Krsna. Something hard to define had been regained. But devotees were not the only ones pleased to have the Hare Krsnas back on the Lower East Side. Neighbors, shopkeepers and fellow tenants in the building welcomed the devotees' return. A policeman said it was good to have the Hare Krsnas reappear in the neighborhood and promised to watch the storefront when devotees were not there.
The grand opening went very smoothly but setting up regular activities at the storefront was a challenge. At first the devotees scheduled programs on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which were the nights on which Srila Prabhupada had held programs. In the beginning not many people would attend but gradually the attendance increased. Some older devotees began to attend the programs.
In 1993 activities at the storefront increased considerably when some devotee musicians involved in local bands began to congregate at the storefront. On program nights the quiet space would fill with young people. Young men and women with hair dyed primary colors, their bodies covered in elaborate tattoos, would become blissful through the chanting of Hare Krsna. Just as Srila Prabhupada's message had attracted musicians and the avant-garde in the Sixties, young people were being attracted by that same message almost thirty years later.
People began stepping forward to support 26 Second Avenue. The programs were attracting larger and more diverse crowds. Thursday was Prabhupada Appreciation Night. On these nights young devotees, first-time visitors, senior Prabhupada disciples, and mature devotees who were rekindling their attraction for Krsna would sit together and glorify Srila Prabhupada. A small but enthusiastic band of devotees was bringing Srila Prabhupada's teachings to the neighborhood where his movement began.
Outside New York City only a few devotees were aware of the preaching activities once again animating Srila Prabhupada's first temple. In May 1994 the Brooklyn temple was compelled to cancel a reunion of Prabhupada's followers because of lack of funds. The event was to have corresponded with the twenty-eighth anniversary of the incorporation of ISKCON and would have been a natural time for large numbers of devotees to visit 26 Second Avenue. After a Friday program at 26 Second Avenue, several of the regulars voiced disappointment that the reunion had been canceled. Someone suggested, why don't we host the reunion? However, there were only six weeks to plan the event and send out announcements, the center had barely enough income to stay in operation, and who would prepare the prasadam feast?
Notwithstanding these problems, within two weeks invitations had been printed and sent to Prabhupada disciples across the country. Flyers were sent to all East Coast temples. A professional caterer and senior Prabhupada disciple, agreed to prepare a prasadam banquet for the untold numbers of expected guests. Tables and chairs were rented. Brightly colored tents were borrowed from the Brooklyn temple. On July 13 devotees came from Philadelphia, Boston, and as far away as Florida. The staff was overjoyed to host nearly a hundred Vaisnavas. Many of the guests shared their personal experiences of Srila Prabhupada's association. Late in the afternoon one of the building's long-time tenants stopped by the storefront and spoke briefly to the devotees. He described living at 26 Second Avenue in the Sixties. The musical Hair and the Filmore East were transforming the East Village. "So it was during this ferment when this whole neighborhood was changing that you all arrived. At first, it was very confusing, very noisy, the incense and the whole bit. So everybody was very upset, including me-because I lived above the incense. It was strange to everybody in the beginning, but gradually most of the tenants began to settle down. The nice part about it was that my bedroom faces the apartment where he [Prabhupada] lived, and I would see him reading in the courtyard at a little table or quietly walking by himself, I assume saying prayers. I remember him as a very kind, very gentle man, a very sweet person. I remember you all very fondly. You're an asset to the neighborhood and to the building itself. I'm glad you're here and hope you remember me as part of today's celebration." Srila Prabhupada's qualities of purity and compassion were evident to anyone who came in contact with him.
The reunion and its coverage in ISKCON World Review brought 26 Second Avenue to the attention of a wider audience of well-wishers. Letters of congratulations and inquiry began to arrive. Some of them contained donations. Attendance at the programs was at an all-time high. In 1995 the small center hosted its second Prabhupada Reunion, and two hundred devotees. At present attendance at Friday programs regularly numbers as many as sixty devotees and visitors. Book distribution, home visits, and Bhagavad-gita study groups have been added to the center's weekly activities. In 1995 the first wedding and initiation ceremonies since the Sixties were held at the center.
As part of the 1996 Centennial Celebrations, the center hosted another reunion the day after the New York Ratha-yatra festival. Four hundred devotees attended the reunion and over one hundred took part in the hari-nama through the Lower East Side to Tompkins Square Park.
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