Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday morning: Churches, religion, community and change

I do love church architecture and stained glass windows (not exclusively religious of course), but because I am somewhere between agnostic and atheist, perhaps too often I discount the role of religion in society generally as well as locally.

Of course, religious communities and their churches and related institutions (charities, monasteries, convents, colleges, etc.) are involved in many aspects of communities, urban and suburban and rural, which make them worth paying attention to, including such issues as:

• their roles in community and building community;

• their participation, directly or indirectly, in ocal politics (ministers and churches can be the backbone of support for particular politicians);

• the issue of the church and society, the First Amendment, separation of church and state, and the pernicious rise of  the application of religion to all sorts of public activities (e.g., "Putnam courthouse could display 'In God We Trust'" from the Nashville Tennessean);

• their participation in community stabilization and redevelopment--some churches such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Bethel New Life in Chicago, and the Catholic Church affiliated Famicos Foundation housing development organization in Cleveland, among others, have very well respected community development arms (although some once well-respected church community development arms have also degraded, see "Floyd Flake ripped over condition of buildings run by his church" from the New York Post);

• and in community destabilization, by warehousing urban properties (Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw is well known for amassing properties and letting them moulder but they are hardly the only church that does so, see ""Losing my religion: Shiloh Baptist Church and Neighborhood Destabilization" from 2005)--I argue that churches may believe that improving a neighborhood is a bad thing, because by improving property values, it becomes more difficult to continue to acquire nearby properties;

• the parking issue--because as church membership becomes disconnected from the neighborhood where the church is located, people drive in to worship and need somewhere to leave their cars--actually I am fine with Sunday double-parking as opposed to demolishing buildings and converting the land to parking lots used a handful of hours/week and believe that churches should have to create transportation demand management plans (see the blog entries, "Even a church can do transportation demand management planning" and "Megachurch parking ministries set standard for church transportation demand management");

• church-related historic preservation and land use issues and the RLUIPA Act (see "Building regulations (including historic preservation), religious freedom, and local and federal laws" and "Be careful what you wish for/religious freedom/RLUIPA"), which many churches use in an attempt to privilege the way they wish to use property and avoid local regulations--in DC, there are frequent calls to give churches an exception from historic preservation laws, which is ironic because it was a church's demolition of houses for parking in Capitol Hill that spurred the creation of local historic preservation law;

• including the opposition by people with more traditional beliefs to the establishment of new faith communities, especially in the post-9/11 environment, to Islamic churches (e.g., "Planned Mosque Inches Along, but Critics Remain" from the New York Times);

• and vice versa, the belief by some faith traditions, usually the most orthodox, that freedom of speech provisions should not be applicable to the interpretation of their religion by others;

• church closure, relocation, and the counter-response of the creation of new types of religious communities that are a-denominational (although for a First World country, the US has the highest rates in the world of people who declare a religious faith).

Church closure and relocation in the face of demographic change

It is the latter to which the rest of this blog entry is directed, in response to an article in The Atlantic blog, "In Changing Neighborhoods, Black Churches Face an Identity Crisis," in part about the H Street neighborhood.

The article is interesting only because it employs an incredibly limited, a-historical time frame that ignores the last 100+ years of urban history.

Church location used to be tightly linked to ethnic/racial communities living in particular neighborhoods

Historically, particular churches and faiths were tightly associated with particular ethnic and racial groups, and people of the same ethnicity and/or race tended to live in the same places and neighborhoods, for various reasons including income, immigration patterns, segregation, or other forms of discrimination. 

As a result, churches were very tightly linked to particular communities, and a "Little Italy" was likely to be dominated by the Catholic Church, Jewish neighborhoods by synagogues, German communities had Lutheran churches, etc.
Today's black churches in changing inner city neighborhoods are not the first churches to be buffeted by demographic change.

And in DC at least, "black" churches have been responding, for better or worse, to black middle class outmigration from the center city for decades anyway (for example, the Nineteenth Baptist Church is located on 16th Street NW, as it moved to follow and better serve its relocating members, as Ward 4 became home to the city's largest concentration of middle-class African Americans), and many of the city's black churches have relocated to the suburbs, generally Prince George's County, following their parishioners, not unlike how at one time, retailers left the city for the suburbs, in pursuit of their relocating customers.

Relocation to where members live makes sense too, if you want to play a prominent role in civic affairs and local elections.

Chromolithograph of the St. Stanislaus Kostka (Polish Catholic) Church, 1891.  

Yet, these kinds of issues cross racial, ethnic, neighborhood, and denominational boundaries, and have for decades.

For example, declining membership has led Catholic dioceses to close churches (and their associated schools), in the face of significant opposition ("Church and School Cuts Anger Catholics in Philadelphia" from the New York Times), in cities across the country including DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

For example, when Pittsburgh's steel mills were booming and immigration was high, the Strip District had four very large Catholic churches, each serving different ethnicities and languages, such as Polish or Czech.  Today, one of these churches, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, once supported by over 7,000 families, now has fewer than 500 families as members, and has merged in part with St. Patrick's, sharing a priest and other functions, while other churches have closed.

Urban demographic change has often meant change to the buildings where people prayed

As neighborhoods changed in the cities--and the first form of "outmigration" from cities was from the core of the city to neighborhoods still in the city but outside of the core, typically neighborhoods developed and served by streetcar companies--their churches and temples followed them into new buildings in their new neighborhoods, and the old churches were sold to different religious faiths.

For example the church at 8th and I Streets NW in Downtown DC was once a synagogue--and before it was a synagogue, the building was a Methodist Church, although eventually the Washington Hebrew Congregation demolished it and built the religious building that still stands today.  To make the former Methodist church more "Jewish" they "add[ed] a depiction of the Ten Commandments and Stars of David to the apex."

This process continues.  Recently a church in Orange County, California converted to a mosque.  See "Catholic church converts to Islamic mosque" from the Orange County Register.  And the once closed synagogue at 6th and I Streets NW was converted into a church of another faith, and a few years ago was reopened as a facility to serve the community and people of the Jewish faith both, but not as a traditional temple ("Sixth & I Historic Synagogue" from Washington Jewish Week), and a conservative church bought a church on Capitol Hill and wants to rip out its stained glass windows because the church doesn't believe in "graven images" ("Broken Windows Theory" from the Washington City Paper), etc.

Suburban out-migration and center city population loss significantly impacted traditional churches

As long as cities maintained population and as long as religion was important to people in the way they organized their lives, there was enough demand so that old church buildings could be sold to different religious faiths more in tune with new populations.

 As population dropped in center cities, churches lost membership, some to the point where they had to close, leaving buildings empty without demand for purchase from other church organizations. (Of course, this is now a problem in rural communities as well.  See the webpage "Educating Ourselves About Rural Church Preservation" from Sacred Places.)

This church building at 9th and D Streets SE on Capitol Hill was converted into 18 condominium units in 1989.

It wasn't until after World War II when housing choice (and incomes) expanded greatly and in forming new, mostly suburban, neighborhoods and choosing where to live, people bought houses without considering ethnic and religious ties (although there is no question that in certain faiths, such as Judaism in both Baltimore and Detroit, there is a religiously influenced geographic pattern to the migration outward from the center city that is clearly discernible).

And of course the parking issue is related to the fact that churches no longer primarily serve members in the neighborhood who walk to services.  (Orthodox Jews are an exception of course.  Religious laws restrict the use of mechanical equipment, including cars, on the Sabbath, so adherents tend to cluster in particular neighborhoods close to their temples, within walking distance.) 

Image of Pittsburgh's former St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, now the Church Brew Works, from the Pittsburgh Eats blog.

But as population shrunk, incomes dropped, and even as religious practices changed (the rise of Pentecostalism and storefront churches), the demand for large, grand (and expensive to maintain) church buildings declined. 

Besides reuse of the buildings for other types of institutions and agency, or as housing, churches have been converted into night clubs or brew pubs (the creation of the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to put a clause in its sales agreements for church buildings to forbid certain uses).

Changing communities: some churches reposition and maintain their position, space, and place

Sojourners Magazine serves the Christian social justice movement.

Churches changing in response to changing communities is not new, especially in relationship to the increased prominence of social justice concerns as more people turned their spiritual focus outwards.

One example (and hardly the only one) is how in Washington, DC, Luther Place Memorial Church on Thomas Circle at 14th Street NW refocused their programs on inner city, poverty and other social justice concerns, in turn attracting new members who supported the church in its efforts to refocus its mission outwards toward active, engaged community service (the Church now has multiple programs, including housing, that are probably amongst the best in the city).

As immigrant populations change urban neighborhoods, other churches have changed as well, adding services in different languages, such as Spanish, and adapting outreach and community service programs to be responsive to new demands. Certainly this has been the case in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, which is the center of DC's Latino population.

And the increase in the number of Unitarian-Universalist Churches in urban locations in the 1960s and 1970s was another response to people looking to join with others in worship, community service, and fellowship, without necessarily being bound in the same way with ethnicities and neighborhoods.  For example, DC's Washington Ethical Society, Unitarian-Universalist affiliated:

is a humanistic religious community, without formal creed or dogma, united in the belief that the greatest moral and spiritual values are to be found through raising the quality of human relationships.

Certainly, rise of progressive and social justice practices in the Catholic Church (liberation theology, Nuns on the Bus, etc.) and the Episcopal Church (such as the appointment of women and gays as priests and bishops) continues to spark tensions between conservative and liberal factions, even to the point where some churches are breaking off and leaving the mother church.

Another response by churches has been to organize across religions through the creation of ecumenical organizations that link churches and their missions towards working together on a variety of social justice goals.

DC's Downtown Cluster of Congregations and the Capitol Hill Group Ministries are local examples.  (Although I will argue that these kinds of organizations can also devolve into typical special interest groups focused on their own needs to the exclusion of others, at least when it comes to church parking matters...)

The rise of the new church: non-denominational churches as a new response to serve diverse communities

While we can't ignore the reality that churches and organizations espousing traditional religious interpretations continue to open in the city to serve audiences new to the city, often using non-church buildings (storefronts, other buildings), in part because such buildings are much less expensive than a large traditional church building, social and community changes concomitant with the continued development of the post-industrial society, mean that traditional definitions of ethnicity are no longer the dominant way many people to choose to define themselves, leading to weak religious ties with traditional forms of religious practices.

In response, religious practice and organization has been changing and adapting to serve these new communities.  And, there are many organizations and a growing body of literature that addresses the issue of how churches and religious denominations need to change to serve new and different populations.

Plus, considering how much I write about civil society, community building, civic engagement, etc., it would be a mistake to ignore church community building as an element of this and community organizing more generally, especially in terms of the success of the megachurch and other forms of non-denominational churches in creating racially and economically diverse congregations that connect people over broad geographies.

New age spirituality.   New age spiritualism and offshoots of traditional religion (kabbalah) and older practices (Wiccan) has been one response, but typically that hasn't been associated with in-city practices.  Instead it is more likely to be associated with the out-of-doors, communes, and in natural landscapes ("The New Age in Sedona, Arizona" from the New York Times travel section).

Megachurches.  While we think of megachurches as "suburban," it's probably more accurate to think of them as churches that operate on a metropolitan scale.

Left: Houston's 16,800-seat Lakewood Church Central Campus, home to four English language services and two Spanish language services per week, is located at the former Compaq Center.  Wikipedia image.

The car allows the megachurch to create spiritual communities in places where people otherwise feel disconnected and where traditional religious denominations may not be adequately serving their needs, by drawing upon the automobile-enabled across an entire metropolitan area rather than limiting themselves to a particular neighborhood or district or single jurisdiction. 

See "Megachurches As Minitowns" and "Megachurches Add Local Economy to Their Mission" from the New York Times.   Megachurches serve metropolitan communities connected by the car.

Televangelism.  While we may think of megachurches as a recent phenomenon, I think it's more accurate to think of it as the second generation of this phenomenon, which started first with the rise of the televised ministry ("televangelism") in the 1960s and 1970s and the teleministry's associated church and related facilities (Jim and Tammie Lee Baker, Pat Robertson and the 700 Club, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller in Orange County). 

(Then again, you had the radio ministers in the 1930s and 1940s, people like Father Coughlin of the Shrine of the Little Flower Parish in suburban Detroit's Royal Oak--Father Coughlin was the scourge of FDR and was only suppressed through a deal that FDR made with the Vatican to recognize the Church as a city-state and appoint an ambassador to the Vatican.)

MCC serving the LGBT community.  The Metropolitan Community Church formed in the late 1960s to serve lesbians and gays in response to the rejection of homosexuality by most traditional religious denominations.

LGBT status by definition transcends race or ethnicity and so MCC churches, like Unitarian churches, tend to have more diverse memberships compared to ethnically- and race-bound traditional churches.  Because MCC adherents came out of traditional faiths, the Church tends to be more formal in their religious traditions, while being more expansive and unbiased in terms of membership and to whom services and rites are provided.

Non-denominational churches.  Like megachurches, but not nearly as large as the arena-sized congregations that exist in Dallas and Atlanta, non-denominational churches have been created in center cities to serve populations that are younger and newer to the community, connecting diverse peoples looking for spiritual connection, and who are less interested in worshiping within more traditional ethnic and/or racial boundaries or their neighborhoods, instead creating racially and/or ethnically diverse faith communities that cross neighborhood and sector boundaries, drawing its membership from across an entire city (and beyond).

DC's National Community Church as a multi-site urban-sized megachurch.  DC has a good example in the "Theater Church," now called the National Community Church, which first started by holding worship services on Sunday mornings when the theaters at Union Station weren't showing movies.

Ebenezer's Coffee Shop, 2nd & F 
Streets NE, DCI have long thought this church was interesting, because they didn't have a building.  (See "Building a churchless megachurch" from the Washington Post).

And you could argue that it was a form of "mixed primary use," by using a "hall," in this case a cinema, in a nontraditional and time- and space-efficient manner.

But I just wasn't looking at their operations as closely as I could have, because likely, physical manifest destiny was always part of the plan.

Just like how food trucks can be a way to "build up" to a bricks and mortar location, the same kind of path was forged by the National Community Church--they are not a "megachurch" in one location but a "multi-site" church serving multiple communities with favorable economic demographics.

First, they expanded services from Union Station in DC to other theater locations in the metropolitan area, not limiting their operation or "service area" to DC proper.

Ebenezer's Coffee Shop, 2nd & F Streets NE, DCSecond, they created the Ebenezer's Coffee House on 2nd Street NE near Union Station--with a hall suitable for religious services in the basement and offices on the second floor above the coffee house, although with a bit of puffery (see the past blog entry "Ebenezer's Coffee Shop and a bit of truth stretching") as they claimed the building they had rehabilitated had been a drug house, which was not the case.

Right: the basement hall at Ebenezers Coffee House.

This gave them offices, space that they controlled, and a way to have physical presence outside of the Sunday morning hours. 

And currently they have expanded into a building, (I don't want to call it "third" because I imagine that they will continue to expand into physical buildings, most likely not typical church buildings), through the acquisition of the old People's Church on 8th Street SE in the Barracks Row neighborhood of Capitol Hill ("National Community Church Pouring Serious Money into Barracks Row" from the Washington City Paper  and "Century-old movie theater in Capitol Hill to reopen as the Miracle" from the Washington Post).

They are restoring the theater function of the building, and will show movies and such outside of church hours.

Interestingly, the restoration of these buildings does illustrate an interesting element of nonprofit business activity.  I don't know if the buildings are exempt from local property taxes, because they are owned by a church.

In any case, the income from the cafe or operations as a movie theater would be taxable (it's unrelated business income from the standpoint of a church.  But not having to operate the businesses strictly on a for profit revenue basis allows them to spend more money and create "grander" facilities than is likely for a tax paying business.


There is a lot more going on in the city with regard to religion, religious practices, and community and spiritual development than you would ever imagine if all you do is limit your consideration of religion and the city to the last couple of years of demographic change.

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At 4:00 PM, Blogger The Urbanophile said...

To me the historic preservation argument is less about religious exemption than the fact that, unlike most secular historic buildings, the buildings are still occupied by the original owners so to speak. If you buy a house or commercial building someone else constructed a couple hundred years ago, you naturally tend to think of the community having some interest in preservation. When it is the house you yourself built (or your direct ancestors), you tend to much more think of it as "yours" - and I think there's something to that, frankly. Original owners of structures, religious or not, I do believe have a stronger interest in being able to do what they like with them.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

That's not an argument I support. The issue isn't what you can do with your property as much as it is "what you may do with your property that is a negative contribution to quality of life, neighborhood values, and the property values of nearby property owners.

No different than the concerns the property owners of stores in the Ladies Mile district in Manhattan had vis-a-vis the encroachment of the Garment District back in the 1800s.

If you are a proper steward, then it shouldn't come up. But lots of property owners, including churches, do some really wacked s*** and that's what matters most, not how long you've owned the property.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

What I found interesting about the Atlantic article, and a lot of DC talk about black churches, is how much it replicates how settlers in the west talked about the Indians and the need for removal. The existence of the churches is a real threat for the search for authenticity.

One thing you left out is the tendency of churches to offer homeless services in the city, and how that really manages to shit on the local neighborhood. That needs to be regulated and banned.

As I see it, the real problem is the warehousing aspect. Churches want to expand, and use their tax exempt status to do so. (Others are using it as a way to turn themselves into real estate developers). This isn't an isolated issue: The cleveland clinic ran down its local neighborhood in order to have cheap real estate to expand.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Hmm, the homeless services point is a legitimate one. Partly that is probably why the DCC was formed, to manage the provision of services.

I've written a lot about the warehousing element over the years, Pilgrim Baptist Church at 7th and I Streets NE--when I lived around the corner--schooled me on that.

I am going to add a couple links to this, and it's reasonable to put in a section on homeless services, although it's also about the suburban churches coming in to the city to "minister" and enable problems.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Fair enough; the "suburban" churches don't seem quite as into social services are more mainlines ones.

What is interesting is the continued language that treats the urban pre-1960s as pre-history.

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I have a stack of back issues of the Economist. From July there is a great takeout on London. It discusses the revitalization of the East End, describing a church building at some corner that over the past 100+ years went from Lutheran to Jewish to something else.

Wrt pre-history, reading GGW, I sometimes think the period of pre-history extends to about 2006 or so...

but to be fair, it's a general problem. So much good research and writing from the very recent past that is no longer really referenced/utilized, and it's great work.

At 6:12 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

article about the need for churches, synagogues, mosques to increase their security.



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