God’s country? Red Hook street gets heavenly name

The Brooklyn Paper
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A Red Hook street just got a heavenly new name — and that’s the problem.

To honor seven dead 9-11 firefighters, a portion of Richards Street has been ceremonially renamed “Seven in Heaven Way” — prompting tributes to the heroes and complaints from critics who say that the government should not be in the business of advancing one religion’s notion of the afterlife.

“It’s improper for the city to endorse the view that heaven exists,” said David Silverman of American Atheists. “It links Christianity and heroism.”

Local atheists also insisted that public signs should be non-sectarian. “It falls under the umbrella of Church and state,” added Ken Bronstein of NYC Atheists.

The new street sign — which city officials hung last Saturday at Seabring Street — honors seven firemen assigned to Engine 202 and Ladder 101, who were killed after at the Twin Towers.

Teary-eyed widows, dozens of uniform-clad firemen and civic leaders paid respects outside the firehouse at the intersection, explaining the men were killed while pulling victims from burning rubble.

“They are heroes and should be rewarded in a place like heaven,” said Tom Miskel of Community Board 6, which unanimously supported the name change in December 2009.

“Almost every religion has some form of heaven,” he added. “It’s not just specific to Christiani­ty.”

The “Seven in Heaven” firemen — Joseph Gullickson, Brian Cannizzaro, Salvatore Calabro, Thomas Kennedy, Patrick Byrne, Joseph Maffeo, and Terence McShane — were among the first firefighters called to the towers, making it there before the second airplane hit.

“They gave up everything to help — and that’s what sets them apart,” said Ralph Gullickson, Joseph’s brother.

It is unclear whether the firemen were all were religious, although most either attended Catholic school or had weddings at churches.

“The problem with the sign is that you’re assuming that you know what they felt deep down,” said Bronstein, pointing out another potential flaw with the street sign. “You’re assuming they even believed in heaven.”

More than 400 streets in the city have been named after 9-11 victims and heroes — cops, elevator mechanics and civic leaders among them — some of whom died helping people escape from the towers.

But few, if any, street names make such blatant faith-based references.

In Brooklyn, most street dedications — Ed Rogowsky Way in Park Slope, for example — pay respect by simply noting the honoree’s name, although petitioners get more creative when groups of honorees are involved.

In Red Hook, “Red Hook Happy Hookers Hook and Ladder” and “Red Hook Heroes Run” street dedications honor fallen firefighters without throwing God into the mix.

Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D–Sunset Park) — who sponsored the renaming — did not respond by press time to questions about rules regulating religious references on city signs or displays.

First Amendment caselaw suggests that government must allow both religious and non-religious speech when it opens a forum for expression — provided it’s clear that religious references are attributed to the individuals making the expression, not the government.

“The area of religion is so complex and nuanced that you could argue nearly anything,” said First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner. “But a [legal] challenge in this case would be far-fetched.”

But agnostics and atheists disagree.

“It crosses the line,” Bronstein said.

Updated 5:24 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

claire from cobble hill says:
I guess making a reference to hookers is preferable to mentioning heaven.
June 20, 2011, 7:58 am
jose from sunset park says:
asking sara gonzalez for a comment is like asking a fish to fly - she hasn't got a single thought in her head. she has introduced less bills than any other councilmember. her only bills were written by other councilmembers who asked for her support for some political reason. she has the least committee chairpersonships of any member. she has no brain and speaker quinn jokes about her behind her back.

but i guess us folks in sunset park & red hook get the kind of representation that we deserve. maybe someone in the windsor terrace section of the district could run against gonzalez and give us a worthy representative like Joan McCabe was.
June 20, 2011, 8:20 am
Rob from Greenpoint says:
Seems to me that these atheists are a bunch of
quarrelsome, self-important douchebags.
June 20, 2011, 9:28 am
diana from sunset park says:
Families and firefighters felt this was a nice sounding, simple way to honor a group of heroes. Can't really fit seven names on a street sign. Don't think they're trying to impose a religious view, and neither did the community board, city council, or the mayor - all of whom approved it. Completely frivolous...
June 20, 2011, 10:08 am
tom from red hook says:
Thank you to my Councilmember, Ms Gonzalez. We appreciate you renaming this street to honor these brave firefighters and for everything else you've done for us!
June 20, 2011, 10:16 am
rosa from columbia street says:
saw this sign up. didn't even think of the religious connection. I'm an atheist and I use words like 'heaven' or 'hell' or 'god' - they're part of the common vernacular and often times have nothing with religion
June 20, 2011, 11:23 am
guevara from Gowanus says:
Ugh, really? We're gonna argue about this. As someone who has no dogmatic religious inclinations whatsoever, I still can't help but feel this debate is completely ridiculous.
And, Jose - 1. councilmembers are only allowed to chair 1 committee maximum. 2. Gonzalez hasn't introduced the fewest number of bills. 3. 'She has no brain'? If you're gonna make insults on par with the dumbest of 6 year olds and consistently make arguments that have no grounding in reality, then you're right, you should get the sort of representation you deserve: none.
June 20, 2011, 1:10 pm
Max from Maspeth says:
Another story up to the stirring journalistic standards of Natalie O'Neill! And her editor, of course. Still waiting for any of the coverage from the Atlantic Yards events last week, Natalie, or didn't you get the memo that REAL news was happening last week?
June 20, 2011, 1:18 pm
Mike Curatore from Carroll Gardens says:
If we told Ken Bronstein of NYC Atheists to "Go to Hell!" would that be a religious reference or just an expression?

Gimme a break.
June 20, 2011, 2:31 pm
LOLcat from Park Slope says:
Fake culture wars courtesy of murdoch incorporated.
June 20, 2011, 4:30 pm
K. from ArKady says:
Mr. Murdoch sir, the working class is revolting!

"I know, I know.", he sez, "They stink on ice!"
June 20, 2011, 5:58 pm
Or from Yellow Hook says:
Boycott Chock ful of Nuts - the Heavenly Coffee!
June 20, 2011, 6:27 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
The very first street sign to be tl;dr
June 20, 2011, 6:35 pm
tony from red hook says:
Claire........Hookers = the hooks they carry to pull ceilings. Get it?
June 20, 2011, 6:58 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
Hey Erik Knudsen, if you want to believe that the reason you could do math in the 8th grade was because a rib-woman was tricked into eating a magic fruit by a talking snake, then that's your business, but then use your own money for a religious memorial, not public funds.
June 21, 2011, 6:33 am
Rescue Joe from 96th Street says:
Hey Jim, you mean the public funds where the dollar bills have "In God We Trust" written on them?

June 21, 2011, 8:22 am
Or from Yellow Hook says:
Jim is one of those people who believes that the Bill of Rights provides him with freedom FROM religion.

Failed at civics, failed at English – from does not = of.
June 21, 2011, 8:45 am
danny from red hook says:
live n let live - this sign doesn't harm or impose anything on anyone. It took 10 years too many, but I applaud the city for putting this sign up
June 21, 2011, 10:42 am
Jim from Coble Hill says:
Hey Rescue Joe, a lot of bad decisions were made in the 1950's, and putting "In God we Trust" on the money was one of them. And Or in Yellow, be glad that you too have freedom from religion (you know, all the ones that aren't yours), that way you don't have to partake in any wiccan solstice hodowns happening today or have to see "praise allah" at the DMV.
June 21, 2011, 11:03 am
Or from Yellow Hook says:
Poor Jim still doesn't get it.
June 21, 2011, 11:34 am
Daniel from Carroll Gardens says:
The thing all of you should be offended by is how each of you just got gamed by this paper and shoddy sensationalism. The writer of this article just got exposed at The L Magazine for basically creating this story rather than simply reporting it. Apparently no one was offended by this until this paper itself placed the call to NYC Atheists, who are not local(they are based in Manhattan). The writer of this article informed them of this ceremony to incite quotable opinions out of them to create a story where non existed.
June 21, 2011, 1:36 pm
Or from Yellow Hook says:
If you can't report the news, you can always create it.
June 21, 2011, 4:15 pm
Erik from L101 in Red Hook says:
Jim, you obviously missed my point. Whether or not people want to believe in God or heaven is completely up to the individual. I'm tired of people ALWAYS having to put in their two cents on things that aren't hurting anyone or any of their business. When you and six of your friends give your life defending this city and country, you can name your street "I don't believe in anything" Blvd. or "Agnostic" Way. I doubt you or any of your narrow minded friends would be so selfless though. And also, all the money the city wastes on nonsense and your worried about a few bucks for a street sign...C'mon man, seriously.
June 21, 2011, 5:09 pm
pop from red hook says:
hey Jim from Cobble Hill
how about letting the firefighters pay for the sign which i know for a friggin fact they would do in a heartbeat, and let all the bicycle riders pay for all the bike lanes.
June 21, 2011, 7:46 pm
pop from red hook says:
hey jim from cobble hill

Even after all the crap u wrote, if ur house was burning, these men would still risk their lives to save yours
June 21, 2011, 7:54 pm
Erik from L101 in Red Hook says:
Well said Pop from Red Hook. Thank you
June 21, 2011, 8:01 pm
NYchick from bay ridge says:
Stupid ass yuppies.
June 22, 2011, 8 am
Joe Costa E-202 from Rockaway Park says:
1st Thanks to Daniel from Carroll Gardens for calling out the paper on their role in creating a problem where none existed. If that is accurate shame on them for toying with people's emotions on a sensitive topic. 2nd to the these atheists, not all, they are yet another example of the ignorance of a small group who feel that the rest of the world should adapt their culture and beliefs to fit into their personal world. We should all change the way we live and operate society to accomodate them, right? I have a better idea. Let them go find a cave or a rock to live under where they won't be offended by the other 99% of the population. Maybe they are unaware that this country was founded by people of faith, and our President is a man of faith. Seperation of church and state is meant to give people the freedom to choose their own religion, not to ban it.
June 22, 2011, 8:47 am
Max from Maspeth says:
Totally thrown together story, engineered by Natalie O'Neill, latest in a series. And approved (at the very least) by Gersh Kuntzman! When are you gonna change the name to Fox News? Wouldn't that just simplify things for Murdoch?

June 22, 2011, Noon
Bryn from UK says:
If these atheists don't want to believe in God, why don't they go and try to look for somewhere to live that God has not created and see how long it takes them to get there? but then they probably believe they have already, seeing as they live a sad life of denial and disapproval. Denial of a creator and disapproval of the a street name in honorable memory of the hero's who gave their lives, valiant men who gave the world every reason to feel proud to be human. Tell me atheists, what really is your worth when you compare yourselves to these men of courage, who willingly serve the people of America, including yourselves, who can find nothing better to do than moan and complain? Go get a life you sad deviants.
June 22, 2011, 1:09 pm
Daniel from Red Hook says:
There is no argument to be had here...There is no religious connotation to the general term "heaven." The skies have been refered to as the "heavens" for thousands of years. There are no religious symbols or affiliations on this sign whatsoever. What is more, from a scientific standpoint, when one dies (as the seven fine men did in the service of others) there energy dissipated into the atmosphere, the ground etc and became part of the life cycle again ie, some may say the "heavens" or just plain "heaven". Einstein theorized this! P.S. Religion came about before science to describe the reasons for our existence...they are metaphores for universal truths that actually do exist (not always entirely) not to mention, some of the foremost theories in quantum physics insinuate the existence of intelligent design......Food for thought.
June 22, 2011, 2:05 pm
Daniel from Red Hook says:
PS. I also work as a fireman at Ladder 101 in Red Hook.
June 22, 2011, 2:08 pm
Daniel from Red Hook says:
I also work as a fireman in Ladder 101 in "the hook" and am very thankful for the support we've gotten in commemorating our street to individuals who represent a higher standard of service that we all aspire to live by. May God Bless them all.
June 22, 2011, 2:13 pm
A Happy Hooker from The Hook says:
Dont sweat these knuckleheads brothers....
June 22, 2011, 5:16 pm
pop from red hook says:
hey jim from cobble hill
how about i pay for the sign, i have no problem doing that
and the money i save the taxpayers ,well you can figure out a way with that money to bring the seven in heaven back so their children can have their fathers back, how bout that big jim huh, im sure they would trade that sign to have their dads back, you got some set jimmy boy
June 22, 2011, 9:52 pm
Ed way down in Fla. says:
Mr. Silverman of American Atheists nails it: Christianity IS linked with heroism. What else would you call God incarnate laying down his life for you? In their human way, firefighters do sometning similar-- risking and, too often, laying down their lives for others.
June 23, 2011, 11:16 am
A-plus from n.y. says:

heroism has nothing to do with a war vet. and a the jails are full of Christians but it doesn't mean you are all tell you the truth i don't really care about the word heaven.but it does have something to do with religion .don't try to lie to yourselves about its meaning. "In God we Trust "wrong "one nation under God" wrong .trying to teach creationism in school also wrong.and yes this sign harms no one but it is also wrong.because its not private it belongs to the have freedom of religion and i have freedom from religion.all religions are just fairy tales.We're all atheists. I just happen to believe in one less God then you.
June 28, 2011, 1:44 pm
Freddy from Bay Ridge says:
pop from red hook says: "Even after all the crap u wrote, if ur house was burning, these men would still risk their lives to save yours"

How is THAT special? They signed up for the job, they're NYC-employed, and they have a responsibility to NYC residents, period, not just to people they "like." If they did otherwise, they'd be unethical, corrupt, and wouldn't deserve the paycheck.
And any legit employer would sack you if you were picking and choosing and just working for your "friends."
July 2, 2011, 5:33 pm
Eugene Garvin from Park Slope says:
Political Correctness and Multiculturalism have destroyed Europe - they will destroy America, as these Atheists are trying to do. American is the "Melting Pot", these people and our new immigrants need to MELT - not maintain their old way of life - why immigrate here if you want to do the same thing you were doing in your country. I think I went off on a tangent.
Heaven help me.
July 4, 2011, 10:12 am
Jack from NYC says:
Oh give it a rest, Eugene. (And FYI, "political correctness" cuts both ways: Conservatives have their own "politically correctnesses.")

The atheists aren't advocating something dogmatic like a "No Afterlife Boulevard" -- which WOULD be the equivalent of including "heaven-belief" in a street name. They just endorse something neutral-nonsectarian on a city street, and I don't blame them.
July 5, 2011, 6:51 pm
tupelo35 from windsor terrace says:
gosh,does this mean i can't buy a Saint Bernard or move to Saint Albens .
July 5, 2011, 10:21 pm
Shaking head from in sadness says:
If they go forward with the lawsuit, people should sue them for emotional distress. Also nbody complains that the atheists have their national holiday...April 1st
July 6, 2011, 11:11 am
Pete from NYC says:
Militant-atheists are the most robotic, predictable, angry, dogmatic, narrow-minded, obsessed, pseudo-intellectual, narcissistic people around...and they are BORING.
July 11, 2011, 2:11 pm
DKaifetz from Upstate says:
Dear Freddy from Bay Ridge, the employees at the DMV [no offense to them !] do not risk their lives to save your sorry ass, nor do bus drivers etc. What a moronic jerk you must be to not recognize the heroism and bravery of the FDNY. God bless the Seven in Heaven and the rest of New York's bravest. dk
Oct. 17, 2011, 1:07 am
Jimutz from Cobble Hill says:
"Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."
—Talking Heads
June 23, 2012, 1:51 pm
Jimutz from Cobble Hill says:
I'm an atheist and I have no problem with the use of the word Heaven in this circumstance, and mostly agree with Daniel from Red Hook.

From a martial art point of view, heaven is what is not earth. So when your feet are on the ground, you are rooted to earth, but when you imagine the air around you as something substantial, something you can interact with, you then begin to root to heaven. Quite a wonderful experience.
June 24, 2012, 8:15 am
Pope from The Hill says:
God has nothing to do with religion.
July 5, 2012, 11:29 am

Comments closed.

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