Is NYC still evil enough for the Church of Satan? Whither Hades-on-the-Hudson?
By Jim Knipfel
Following the 1997 death of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, there was some question—at least to those of us on the outside—whether or not the Church would die with him. But to the surprise of many, the Church of Satan not only didn't die, it flourished. Perhaps it was a sign of the times.
In 2001 the Church's headquarters, which had been based in San Francisco for some 35 years, were moved to New York City. Hell's Kitchen, to be precise. (Where else?)
Shortly after the move, Peter Gilmore, a longtime member of LaVey's inner circle and a Magister in the Church, explained the move to an interviewer: "New York is the perfect city for a Satanist to live in," he said. "It is secular, it is Babylon." He went on to describe New York as having "all the pleasures and wonders of the world."
It should be explained here that to members of the Church, Satanism is not about practicing Evil on a grand scale, sacrificing virgins or listening to heavy metal. It's about accepting man as a carnal animal and indulging its desires. Even Willy Wonka has been cited as a very Satanic character.
So what better place for a Satanic base of operations than New York?
But by 2001, the Giuliani administration's war on fleshy excess had taken its toll. Times Square was touting its new family-oriented atmosphere. The city was hardly the sleazy, dangerous, pleasure dome it had been even 10 years earlier. Four years later, the city continues to change in the same direction. It's cleaner and quieter and safer. It's tourist-friendly. Landmarks are being replaced with chain stores, and everywhere you look, there's an advertisement staring back at you. An awful lot of people seem to like it that way, but to some of us, it's become a bland, sterile corporate wasteland without any of the charms that made New York "New York" in the first place. It's like Topeka with thyroid cancer and a lot more money.
Peter Gilmore was raised upstate and visited the city regularly throughout his youth, finally moving to Hell's Kitchen in 1980. He's witnessed firsthand how the city has morphed. So the question is: Does the Church of Satan's High Priest still feel like he's living in Babylon?
"What was refreshing about The City at that time [25 years ago]," he said, "was the lack of moderation, with little of the dull middle ground to muddy the stark black-and-white scenery."
Gilmore, a sharply intelligent, soft-spoken man with a surprisingly friendly demeanor, called the New York of those days "the pivotal exemplar of what it means to be homo urbanus." It was a home port, a refuge, to a broad array of human extremes—idiots and geniuses, the depraved and the sophisticated. That's what he loved about it.
"Times Square used to be the most potent vista for viewing this entire spectrum in one glance," he said. "If one stood on Broadway and 42nd, simply by looking around you could see human passions embodied: base sexuality in the venues for all facets of pornography, the restless mind hungry for information in the endless electronic crawl of headlines and in the publications cramming the newsstands. Our need for fantasy was served by the many theaters showing every level of film being produced and a similar range of live performance from the splendid to the sordid. There were shops which sold exotic weaponry and tacky souvenirs. The cuisine ranged from street vendors of dubious cleanliness and the quintessentially American Howard Johnson's to the second-floor exotica of the Chinese Republic."
Gilmore mused, "Times Square functioned in the way symbols do, allowing so much information to be in conscious focus in one intuitive flash."
As we all know, that symbolic, iconic Times Square is long gone, replaced with "retail boxes" catering, as he puts it, "to the bland needs of tasteless drones." The supposed revitalization of the area, he further notes, "has slapped a sanitized mask on the true face of our Babylon."
It's not just Times Square. It's a wave of mediocrity that seems to be washing over all five boroughs. At the end of the summer, Coney Island will become only the latest victim. The extremes are becoming harder to find, while the "dull middle ground" he mentioned pushes out toward the edges. As Gilmore puts it, "New York City has been attracting more of the marching morons of the herd, who now linger rather than pass through, and in that way it becomes a more accurate reflection of our whole species. I am lately missing the purity of the old perspective. Our Hades-on-the-Hudson seems to have had its sharp edges blunted, made child-safe and tepid."
But all is not lost. There is a cyclical nature to things, and because of that, there is reason to believe the demonic spirit of the old New York will return again one day. As the old Satanist dictum goes, "As environments change, no human ideal standeth sure."
"Our town always works to 'renew' itself," Gilmore explained, "but the squeaky-clean results are short-lived. The hungry darkness still lurks on the fringes and will return to center stage in time, as the loadstone at these world crossroads is a powerful lure. Yes, our once and future Babylon is still Satanic, and those of us who know it intimately can still find the stimulating extremes, sidestepping the alien throng of mall cultists. Their moment is now, but I suspect that it shall be fleeting."
It's a comforting theory, but it might also be argued that the changes the city has undergone in recent years (as well as those it has planned for the near future) are of a different nature than those of previous eras. They're not being brought about by a shift in social mores; they aren't coming from within. Instead, they're being inflicted upon New York from the outside—by massive corporations and developers and politicians. There's a lot of money to be sucked out of that property, and the people who are buying it up to build another upscale mall, high-rise apartment complex or sports arena have no interest in relinquishing it, or in preserving the city's spirit.
So what will it take to usher in the next Satanic era? In short, WWSD—what would Satan do?
Well, it seems that what Satan would do is bide his time.
"So long as there is a profitable market for a 'Manhattanland' experience amongst visitors who think that visiting safe simulacra is preferable to something more 'spicy,' these spots will remain 'improved' and resistant to the surroundings which haven't yet been 'redeemed,'" said Gilmore. "I cannot say for sure what may turn that tide, but in their greed, as soon as the income begins to decrease, the maintenance will lessen and things will become seedy, and again havens for what they view as the less savory…The remaining adjacent areas will be poised to ooze back when the opportunity presents itself."
The latest edition of The Satanic Bible with a new introduction by Peter Gilmore has just been released by Avon Books.