Places | Invisible Cities

Love Your Crooked Neighbour / With Your Crooked Heart

How Flushing’s settlers planted seeds for our religious freedom.

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:

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.