If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing. Eight years ago — eight years — the Church of Scientology finished purchasing two buildings on 125th Street in East Harlem as part of its “Ideal Org” program. (They had actually started buying the lots in 2003, 13 years ago, for a total of about $8.5 million). One of the buildings would be the org — Scientology’s version of a church — and the other would be a community center.
But besides the millions spent to buy the buildings, there was millions more to spend on renovating them. And then tens or hundreds of thousands more spent just on the grand opening event itself, with an elaborate but temporary event space set up on a parking lot across the street. And who knows how much spent on scores of security guards, police presence, and other costs.
But even with all of that work and all of that money spent, Scientology wanted no media or any outsiders at its event.
Just think about that. Any other organization that had spent millions of dollars and eight years putting together gleaming new facilities, especially in a place like East Harlem, would be begging for coverage in local and national media.
But Scientology is a bizarre world, and we kept that in mind as we walked down 125th Street yesterday a little before noon, carrying a couple of cameras and looking for a vantage point to see what we could of the ceremony.
As we approached 3rd Avenue from the east, we could see the big red ribbons on the buildings, and we could also see that Scientologists were being told to go north, to 126th Street. We had a feeling we’d be told to move along as well. So, we just picked up speed and walked past the corner and down 125th street until we were opposite the new Scientology org.
Between it and the community center there was a shorter building, and we could see that it was a branch of the New York City public library. But it too sported Scientology decorations — a giant banner with the word “HARLEM” on it overlayed on the symbol for Scientology. We snapped a few photos of it, wondering how the city had gone along with that bit of Scientology advertising, when we were approached by a Scientology Sea Org worker who asked us what we were doing there. We said we were there to observe the event. The woman asked us for our name, and we said we didn’t have to give her that. But then, she was joined by a member of the NYPD, who began asking us similar questions.
We told the officer that we had wanted to watch the buildings, and that we were standing on a public sidewalk and we weren’t blocking anyone’s access. She told us that Scientology had arranged to close the sidewalks to public traffic. We asked to see the permit. She didn’t seem to like that, and asked what business we had there. We said we were with the press, and had a right to stand on the public sidewalk. So she asked for our press ID.
Gosh, we must have left it in our fedora. Again, we pointed out that we were on a public sidewalk and were blocking no one’s access to the event, which was actually taking place behind a fence on the north side of the street, across from the buildings. But she insisted that the sidewalk was private property, owned by the businesses that it fronted. “If you slip, do you sue the city, or this business?” she asked me.
It was becoming hopeless, and before our temper got up any further, we turned to walk away. But then, just a few feet away, we realized that there was an auto shop open right there on the street.
Usually, we’d be two blocks away before a thought like this popped into our heads, but for once we were on the ball and we ducked into the shop. The first thing we noticed was how nicely air conditioned it was. There was a light rain falling on 125th Street, but it was still very warm and muggy. Enjoying the cool air, we could see that the auto shop was very busy. But the lobby was completely empty, and it took a few minutes before the store manager came to see what we wanted. We quickly laid out the situation.
The lobby of the auto shop had a large window that allowed for a great view of both Scientology buildings. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see what was going on with Miscavige at the event space itself down the block, but a good view of the buildings was better than nothing. Could we just stay here in the lobby and watch the event through the window?
The store manager had no problem with it, and he even muttered something about Scientology taking so long to open its buildings.
Score! Here’s the view we had from inside the auto shop…
To give you a better idea of the geography, we’ve put together this map. We’ve outlined the two Scientology buildings in yellow, with the library between them. The truck lot on the north side of the street we’ve outlined in red is the area that had been cleared out and converted to an elaborate stage and seating for David Miscavige’s speech. Attendees, in that space, could see over a fence to the buildings across the street with their ribbons. We’ve marked our spot with a red star, inside the auto shop on the north side of the street and just down from the event space…
Well, we found out later that Scientology had expended all of its costly methods for keeping press and protesters away on 126th Street, because they expected that curious onlookers like your proprietor would be trying to see into the stage area from that vantage point. It was there, a block north of our location, where they had set up high hedges and portable shrubs and massive fabric walls in order to keep our prying eyes from seeing what was going on.
What they didn’t expect, apparently, is that we’d get a vantage point on 125th Street itself, and it quite obviously sent them into a panic. Within a few minutes of our entry into the auto shop lobby there were half a dozen beefy looking guys in tight-fitting suits and with earpieces, talking into their wrists and pulling over police officers.
We can tell you now what we found out after talking to several people about why they hadn’t planned for this contingency. We learned that Scientology had paid off the owners of the few businesses that were located on 125th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues so that they would remain closed on Sunday. But the owner of the auto shop — who soon showed up — had never responded to their offer. He was still open and doing plenty of business. And now that we were inside the shop, and the manager had said we could stay, there really wasn’t anything Scientology could do about it. Even the owner didn’t seem put out, and didn’t even ask us any questions (though we told the manager we’d be happy to talk to him).
Still, the scene outside was pretty comical as the Scientology operatives set up a barrier and got the police to string some tape so that no one could get any closer than our position…
To our relief, we were soon joined by our attorney and webmaster, Scott Pilutik, who had agreed to be our legal observer and to try to keep us out of trouble…
Scott snapped photos while we tried to find out what was going on at the event. At 1 pm, the official start time, we could hear some Scientology hip hop start up, and we learned later that Chill EB was, in fact, present. Gosh, we wish we could have seen him perform, if he did. After some brief music, the noise died down as the speeches began and we waited for the ribbons to come down on the buildings.
As we waited, Scott got some shots of the Scientology operatives or other hired security who were casing our position…
At one point, the Sea Org workers tried to set up an umbrella wall to block our view. But it just wasn’t very effective…
Scott was really surprised by the banner on the public library. How did a city facility agree to hang what was essentially a massive advertisement for an organization that calls itself a church?
After setting up their barrier with police tape to keep people away from us, the Scientology operatives forced people — even with small kids — to walk onto busy 125th St itself in order to go around our position…
The police presence was heavy, and must have cost Scientology a pretty penny.
With his long lens, Scott managed to capture some familiar faces. Scientology whale Tom Cummins, on the left, tried to stay dry…
And Scott managed to snag a look at Chill EB as he was walking into the community center…
And Underground Bunker favorite Jim Mathers also showed up on one photograph. But we didn’t manage to spot Grant and Elena Cardone, which was disappointing.
One slender youngster, who didn’t seem to be exactly thriving on the Sea Org diet, took a special interest in us. He also spoke to this local clergyman, who we spoke to briefly. He seemed curious when we told him that L. Ron Hubbard didn’t have the most savory record when it came to talking about people of African descent.
Just for fun, we enjoyed this attractive couple who were caught by Scott’s camera. Anyone know them?
After the ribbons had come down, and the people crossed the street to go from the empty lot to the buildings themselves, we came out of the auto shop and stood by the barrier to snap photos and see who was there. And we talked to the NYPD officer who seemed most interested in finding a way to get us out of there.
He turned out to be very affable, and even called us by our name. We asked how he knew it, and he said Scientology had warned that we’d be coming, and told him that we had disrupted Scientology events in the past. (Us? Disrupted? In fact, although we’ve been writing about Scientology since 1995, this was the first church event we’d ever attended in person.)
It really pained us to see the NYPD doing Scientology’s bidding. But it might have been worse. It turned out that one of the officers knew who we were because he’d seen Going Clear. So Alex Gibney, we owe you one.
If the police had relaxed, the Scientology operatives hadn’t. They seemed really tense, and we guessed that Miscavige was still in the area and wanted to know what we were doing. That seemed to be confirmed when a Sea Orger came over and recorded us with her smartphone. We didn’t mind being photographed — after all, we were doing plenty of it ourselves — but we said to her, “Why bother? You already know who we are.” She didn’t flinch. Earlier, we’d tried to ask her how old she had been when she signed her Sea Org contract, and how long it had been since she’d phoned home. We got the 1000-yard stare.
Finally, before we left, we did walk around to 126th Street to see what the scene there had looked like. And that’s when we saw the portable shrubs and high hedges and other elaborate barriers meant to keep us from seeing into their event. Now, it all seemed so ridiculous. As far as we could see, there had been no other reporters on the scene, and no protesters. They had set up maybe tens of thousands of dollars of barriers to keep out one website proprietor and his camera-happy legal counselor.
The same Sea Orger who had photographed us earlier made sure we didn’t try to walk onto the event space itself, and Scott captured her in the photo you see at the top of the story. What a scene. All that money for 40 minutes of Scientology hip hop and a few speeches and some confetti.
Still stunned by the experience, we sent a message to Mike Rinder asking him why David Miscavige would expend so much in resources to keep us away, when if he’d let us come inside, we would have been happy to stand at the back, quietly taking photos.
“It’s their fear of SP’s,” Mike told us, referring to “suppressive persons,” what Scientology labels the people it considers enemies. “Miscavige cannot deal with the idea that SP’s might be in his vicinity or have the opportunity to put him on the spot. And all his underlings know they would be toast if such a thing happened. So they go overboard. Why spend $10,000 a week following Ron Miscavige? Or whatever it cost for the Squirrel Busters? It’s paranoia.”
Well, that certainly described what we saw. And we thank the Church of Scientology for all the laughs.
Cathy Schenkelberg in the Daily Mail
Chris White has a fun profile of Cathy Schenkelberg today, and that should really get the word out about her one-woman play, “Squeeze My Cans,” as she takes it to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.
We love the story about her going off on Tom Cruise when she was going to be “auditioned” for him back in 2004. That’s totally Cathy, who is, as Chris says, lovely and talented. But we have a feeling Tom wouldn’t have been interested anyway, given his proclivities, since they’re both around the same age. What was his rule? Jettison them at 33?
Paulette Cooper in London
Paul Noble calls it “HowdyCon Europe.” We don’t know if the Brexit voters would agree with that!
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield