Thursday, November 28, 2013

Scientology, Philadelphia, and one astounding New Yorker who had enough

Six years after the Church of Scientology bought the Cunningham Piano building near 12th and Chestnut promising to restore the fifteen story building as Scientology's tallest location, it remains empty.

The church has a reputation for restoring historic properties, and then submitting visitors to tedious propaganda in exchange for a tour.

Currently, L&I is planning to take the church to Blight Court over the property. While much of Chestnut Street could certainly qualify as blight, the church's tax exemption leaves the empty building contributing absolutely nothing to the neighborhood.

Of course the Church of Scientology is no stranger to the courtroom, but often as a plaintiff. Funded by some extremely wealthy people, the church certainly has access to more money than L&I is willing to spend on a blight case. It's not hard to imagine a counter suit backfiring against the city.

That's not to say the church shouldn't be challenged. Counter suing L&I won't win the church any favors when it comes time to apply for permits either on Chestnut Street or their current Race Street site.

The controversial denomination has always been a source of conversation, and being charged by L&I is by far the most benign.

The church's founder L. Ron Hubbard who died in the 80s, lived his last years in exile, largely on a cruise ship owned by the church. Throughout the 70s and 80s the church received significant criticism from major politicians and media outlets denouncing their tactics, beliefs, and secrecy.

Three decades removed from its prophet's death with support from hundreds of famous celebrities, both members and not, has managed to improve the church's reputation. Once popularly considered a dangerous cult, few today know enough about the church to regard it as anything more than strange.

Protests are still common and one would certainly follow a renovation at the Chestnut Street site. Their rigid stance against psychology and psychopharmacology has inadvertently led to many depression related suicides. 

Despite the fact that its current leader, David Miscavige grew up near Philadelphia, the church's local presence has never been profound. Funding their day to day operations comes from performing "free stress tests" at Market East Station and their Race Street site.

These stress tests typically yield negative results which the church then claims can be resolved by paying for more "auditing."

Membership in the church is not free, and their dues are not comprised of donations but required, a common source of criticism.

King of Queen's star Leah Remini recently caused a media stir by leaving Scientology. Leaving Scientology is purportedly difficult but not unheard of, and members who leave, leave quietly. However Remini, being a Brooklyn native, left with a bang.

When Remini left the church she didn't leave a D on Miscavige's desk, she took it several steps further, indirectly accusing him of murder. Miscavige's wife hasn't been seen in public for years and Remini filed a missing persons claim.

Miscavige wishes.

Miscavige and Scientology's golden boy, Tom Cruise, attempted to diffuse public outrage by claiming Remini was a low ranking member, which did more to make the church look like a bunch of weirdos than end speculation.

Los Angeles Police Chief Christopher Dorner originally dismissed Remini's claim. Following public pressure the LAPD ultimately claimed that Michele was in fact alive and well, however the Hollywood rumor circuit is still whispering. It's not surprising considering Dorner's speculated ties to Scientology.

To date, Michele Miscavige hasn't been seen in public.

Meanwhile Remini is working on her memoirs which will likely focus largely on her experience in Scientology. She might not seem like the candidate for an autobiography. Like most Dancing with the Stars contestants, her fame has waxed and waned. But considering her stint in Scientology and her grit as an opinionated and true Northeaster, the book will undoubtedly be an interesting read, one that could potentially bring popular criticism to Scientology's front door.

For us, the Cunningham Piano building is just another Chestnut Street lady in wait. If the church was ready to build, they'd build. L&I's charge likely won't do more than force the Miscavige to relinquish the property, leaving it as it is, another vacant storefront on Chestnut Street.

Perhaps in the long run that outcome is the best. With Chestnut Street slowing following in Walnut's footsteps, a blank storefront capped with a church and fronted with free pamphlets campaigning against our city's own pharmaceutical industry might not quite be what Chestnut Street is becoming.

It all remains to be seen. As someone who loves architecture, the Cunningham Piano building, and native New Yorkers railing against Hollywood nonsense, I want a front row seat to the show.

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