I had often walked by the inconspicuous former church at 104 Powers St. near the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, yet I never noticed the sole sign that this was a Muslim house of worship. Then last week, I suddenly noticed the crescent moon protruding above the roof and I realized that the building was a mosque, hiding in plain sight. Growing curious, I did some digging and discovered that the building was not only a mosque, but also the first mosque founded in the United States. The Mosque’s faithful, though, are so unobtrusive and the services so infrequent that even longtime local residents are shocked to learn that 104 Powers St. has been a local Muslim house of worship for four generations.
The structure at 104 Powers St. shows that it was once a church. In the 188os Methodists built a house of worship, but like many Christian denominations, the congregation dwindled and the Methodists were forced to merge congregations, abandoning the Powers Street building. The building served as a Democratic Party clubhouse for a few years, but in 1931, the American Mohammedan Society, Inc., a group of Tatar immigrants from Lithuania, Poland and Belarus— bought the property from the 13th Assembly District Realty Company, for the purposes of converting the property into a mosque.
Who exactly are the Tatars you might ask? The Tatars were descendants of the feared Mongols who lived in the Crimea. About six hundred years ago a King of Poland and Lithuania brought a few hundred Tatar fighters to Eastern Europe to defend his kingdom because they were such fearsome warriors. The Tatars put down roots in Eastern Europe and integrated into society, but kept their Muslim faith.
Like many other Poles and Lithuanians, the Tatars immigrated to American and ended up in North Brooklyn, where they opened a house of worship. The New York Herald Tribune, on Sunday September 5, 1937 printed a Headline about the first-ever Brooklyn mosque:
“Mahometans Refurbish Only Mosque in City for Holy Month of Ramadan Starting Nov. 5
Brooklyn Edifice Soon Will Hear Praises of Allah Again, as in Tartar Home
Weekly Service on Friday
Up to 200 Faithful Attend Usual Evening Prayer.”
The legendary journalist for the New Yorker magazine Joseph Mitchell described the mosque for an article he wrote in the 1960s. Mitchell brilliantly described the minaret at the top of the building:
“The only outward sign of this a minaret that has been constructed on the roof, straddling the ridgepole. It is a dummy minaret; no muezzin ever climbed up in it and cried out the call to prayer; it is wholly symbolic. It is a wooden minaret, it is octangular, it is louvred, and it is surmounted by an iron rod holding aloft a wooden crescent painted gold.”
The Greenpoint Star also reported the shocking existence of the Mosque in its September 18, 1959 edition. Just like today, the Star reported that surprised locals had no idea that a mosque even functioned in their neighborhood. In 1959, however, the Star reported on the existence of a thriving Tatar community around the mosque, but like many ethnic communities in North Brooklyn, success, integration and the lure of the suburbs have all played a role in scattering the community. Today the Mosque’s spiritual leader is a part-time Imam of Bulgarian descent who leads the congregation in prayer on holy days.
The Powers Street mosque is living proof that Islam is no new phenomenon in America and the success of its congregation in adapting to American life is proof positive that people can be both American citizens and observant Muslims. Let us hope that the mosque serves as a reminder that Muslim Americans have a long tradition of peaceful worship in North Brooklyn.