for ISKCON News on Nov. 11, 2011
ISKCON could be in danger of losing its 26 2nd Avenue Center on New York’s Lower East Side—the place where Srila Prabhupada started his worldwide movement—due to financial difficulties. And its caretakers are extending a plea for help.
As Mukunda Goswami recounts in his recent book Miracle on 2nd Avenue, he first rented the storefront with an adjoining apartment in May 1966 for Srila Prabhupada, who had traveled to America from Vrindavana, India less than a year earlier to spread his message of Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada converted the little storefront, then a novelty gift shop with the marvelously prophetic name “Matchless Gifts,” into ISKCON’s first ever temple.
There, he established the society’s headquarters, held his famous Bhagavad-gita classes three times a week, and watched his followers grow until 1968, when the little storefront became too small to accommodate them all. The New York temple moved on to larger premises, ISKCON grew into a huge worldwide movement, and 26 2nd Avenue was left behind.
When Srila Prabhupada passed away in 1977, however, devotees began to look back at it as a pilgrimage site—the perfect place to remember their spiritual teacher. By the time ISKCON reached its 20th anniversary in 1986, the storefront, now an antique store, was surrounded by devotees peering in, getting guided tours, and even prostrating themselves on the sidewalk.
In 1991, Brooklyn devotees led by temple president Ramabhadra Dasa re-leased the storefront, renovated it and used old photos to repaint the famous “Matchless Gifts” sign. In July that year, they re-opened the center to the public in commemoration of ISKCON’s 25th anniversary.
The little temple became honored as the sacred pilgrimage site it was, visited by devotees all over the ISKCON world who wanted to see the place where Srila Prabhupada had begun his dynamic expansion of Krishna consciousness in New York, and from there, throughout the world.
It was a portal back to those early days of ISKCON, a place where where you could still talk to locals who said, “I met your Swami.” The son of Mr. Chutey, Srila Prabhupada’s landlord, still owned the apartment block behind 26 2nd Ave. And the retired news reporter who replaced Prabhupada as a tenant when he left back in 1968 still lived there, and recalled interviewing Prabhupada. What’s more, Tompkins Square Park, where Prabhupada held the first public kirtan, lay only a few blocks away.
26 2nd Avenue’s congregation began to grow. In 1998, the Bhaktivedanta Ashram was established just around the corner, to accommodate more full-time students. By 2005, the community had once again outgrown the little 26 2nd Avenue storefront, just as it had back in 1968. All programs and outreach moved into a brand new six-floor building, known as the Bhakti Center. And today, the important pilgrimage site of 26 2nd Avenue is in danger of once again slipping out of ISKCON’s hands.
“A few years ago, the storefront’s main donor withdrew his support, and now the place is being primarily supported by the Bhakti Center, as well as by a small amount of other steady donors,” explains 26 2nd Avenue treasurer Yadhunath Dasa. “The problem is that these donors are spread very thin, with no fewer than six temples in the New York area.”
There’s the historically significant 26 2nd Avenue. Then, in Manhattan, there’s Bhaktivedanta Ashram, which houses fourteen celibate students, and the Bhakti Center, which is presenting Krishna consciousness within a relevant, cultural context. There’s also the Radha-Govinda Mandir in Brooklyn—New York City’s main temple—another temple in Queens, and not one but two temples in New Jersey.
So Yadunath is imploring ISKCON devotees around the world to give monthly pledges towards paying 26 2nd Avenue’s expenses, so that the historic pilgrimage spot is not lost again.
“None of New York’s other temples would make a national, let alone worldwide, appeal for sponsorship,” he says. “But we feel it is appropriate to do so for 26 2nd Avenue, in which the entire international community has a stake.”
The storefront’s expenses are minimal—less than $2,000 per month. “If twenty devotees are able to accommodate a $100 pledge to 2nd Avenue each month, it’s a done deal,” Yadunath says. “People can give less than that too, of course, and if they do more than that, then we get to actually build some sort of reserve we can use to improve the place and work toward our long term vision.”
This long term vision is an exciting plan to make 26 2nd Avenue self-sustainable—the monthly pledges are a means to an end, not a thoughtless quick fix.
“We want to turn it into a proper museum honoring Srila Prabhupada and his contribution to the world,” Yadunath says. “We’d love to restore the place to the way it looked when Prabhupada was there.”
He adds: “Also, at some point, buying the whole building—the storefront as well as the apartments it is connected to—makes a lot of sense. Prabhupada lived in one of those apartments and that would be part of the museum. Owning the whole building would take care of old challenges and create new, albeit better ones. But when the building belongs to ISKCON, at least eventually it can become a self-sufficient enterprise.”
To save the historic storefront so that future generations can continue to go on pilgrimage to the exact spot where Prabhupada started his Movement, please visit http://krishnanyc.com/giving.html and simply click on the amount you wish to give. Or, to make an alternative arrangement, write to Yadunath Dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org.