Seen from the outside, which is the only way an ordinary mortal can see it now, the physical hotel exudes the patrician elegance of the most expensive parts of the neighborhood. The woodwork is lovingly waxed, the brass is shiny, everything is perfectly maintained.
But the human goings-on are quite another story. Neatly dressed young men and women, apple-pie American rather than patrician, hover around not only as residents of the hotel but also as its delivery personnel and maintenance crew. Others come from the neighboring Jehovah's Witness plant on Furman Street to lunch and to dine in the basement communal restaurant This dining hall is the only feature of the interior of today's Bossert that can sometimes be observed by passers-by, through the basement windows on Hicks Street. The Bossert is no longer a public hotel: it is a private preserve of Jehovah's Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, part of the group's very considerable real estate holdings in Brooklyn Heights.
The Witnesses established their first foothold here in 1909, when Charles Taze Russell, their founder, moved the headquarters from Pennsylvania. But their massive Heights presence began after the Second World War. From time to time there was neighborhood opposition to them, notably when they displaced older residents along Columbia Heights to make room for their ever-expanding dormitories. Opposition was also caused by the rigorous economic self-sufficiency of the Witnesses. Their food is brought in from their own farms, their maintenance is performed by their own craftsmen; they cannot be said to benefit the local economy.
At one time, about twenty years ago, a local florist on Montague Street expressed his displeasure by placing a sign in his shop window:
The Jehovah's Witnesses ... em- bark upon a program of using their tax-free millions to swallow up building after building until they own a major portion of the Heights ... and contribute nothing to the life of the community except for destroying lovely old brownstone houses and erecting ugly, modern structures.
The map of thirty-six properties listed in the name of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society in the Heights derives from city records, which I was told may be incomplete. The city estimates the current total market value of the Witness properties that are shown here at over 190 million dollars. A very small proportion of this property is taxed but most of it is wholly exempt because its use is considered to be religious. If all of this property were on the tax rolls, the city would receive an additional $9,427,051 per year. But this figure is based on current assessments, which, in the case of buildings, are generally out of date. For that reason one can estimate that the city loses well over ten million dollars a year as a result of Witness real estate holdings in Brooklyn Heights This sum amounts to an indirect subsidy paid to the Witnesses by the tax payers of the city.
The Witnesses are certainly not alone in receiving such indirect subsidies. All religious, educational, and charitable groups enjoy similar benefits. But the Witnesses are distinctly different from other religious groups because most of their properties are not used for religious purposes in the traditional sense. Unlike churches and synagogues, most of the Witness property is not used for public worship. The bulk of the Witness property in the Heights is used, first, to print Witness literature in the huge "factory" (printing plant), and, second, for the communal housing of about 3,600 young Witnesses who work for no more than their upkeep.
The Witnesses, together with certain other groups, have obtained such gray-area tax exemptions through aggressive litigation Until the Second World War, the courts interpreted the laws providing for religious tax exemption very strictly, and printing plants and dormitories were held taxable But since the war New York State judges have liberalized the law considerably in a series of decisions in which the Witnesses figured very prominently. The result is that the Witnesses today enjoy property exemptions for uses that would have been deemed secular in an earlier age. Many say that the Witnesses benefit from a series of legal loopholes.
There is an irony in this situation. The Witnesses believe "worldly" institutions, especially governments, to be basically evil, though they do teach that governments should generally be obeyed Jehovah's Witnesses, in matters other than real estate, jealously guard their "separation" from government They will not serve in the armed forces, especially not in case of war, they will not salute the flag or pledge allegiance to the country; they am, in their own view, about the worldly allegiances of the rest of us. In a compendium of their doctrines entitled insight on the Scriptures, they proclaim that "Christians must keep themselves clean and unspotted by [the] world's corruption and defilement, not entering into friendly relations with it, lest they be condemned with it." The willingness of the Witnesses to accept indirect government subsidies, through number of legal loopholes, must be judged in the light of these Witness doctrines.
Some former Witnesses have criticized the organization for what they perceive as hypocrisy in the matter of real estate and other worldly possessions. One such critic is the well-known writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who recalls her witness days in her 1978 book Visions of Glory. Another is H. James Penton, a Canadian professor of history and an ex-Witness, who wrote a critical history of the Witnesses in his 1985 volume Apocalypse Delayed. But the most embarrassing accounts from the point of view of the Witnesses, are two books by Ray Franz, a former member of the Witness Governing Body: Crisis 4 Conscience, 1984, and In Search of Christian Freedom, 1991.
But despite such criticism from former members, it is unlikely that the Witnesses will pay voluntarily what is not required of them by law, or that public policy will change to require such payments. After all, many more: millions are lost to the city through tax exemptions of the larger denominations and there are many instances, in the case of the major religions of loopholes similar to those that benefit the Witnesses. It would require a veritable revolution in the political climate before any such exempt properties could ever be brought onto the tax rolls, Nevertheless, we do live in a time in which government cannot find the means for the most basic services, a time in which people go hungry and un-housed and without medical care. Perhaps, who knows? -- our politicians will some day come to reconsider their present habit of heaping millions, no questions asked, upon all manner of religion.
Werner Cohn, who lives in Cobble Hill, is professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.