Wednesday, June 30, 2010

MONTAGE: Suburban tumbleweeds.

As the month’s end approaches, I’m due for another photo-centric blog post, and this time I have to reveal to my viewing community a particularly charming incarnation from the housing bust that shares an inextricable link to the economic downturn. Or perhaps not. This development, in Tangipahoa Parish, 60 miles to the northwest of New Orleans, seems to predate the collapse of Lehman Brothers, among other things:

Much to my surprise, I was able to find out a bit about the proposed “Coves of the Highland” subdivision: it was part of a Community Development District under the same name, and the State Bond Commission approved $7.7 million to the District in the fall of 2006 for infrastructure and waterworks improvements, with the apparent goal of stimulating economic growth in an area moderately affected by Hurricane Katrina, through the creation of new construction jobs. In 2008, an audit of basic financial statements revealed no major reportable conditions, and the only issue of noncompliance was the District’s failure to adopt a budget on or before the first day of the fiscal year (January 1 of 2006, 2007, and 2008). And as of 2009, Coves of the Highland CDD is a plaintiff in a suit brought against the New Orleans law firm MgGlintchey Stafford, PLLC.

I’m hardly a good enough detective to connect the dots and figure out what happened with this limited information, but I have just enough sense to bring a camera with me everywhere I go, so I was able to document the progress—or lack thereof—of this large subdivision on a sparsely populated stretch of State Highway 445.

Judging from the wall of forest that surrounds site on three sides, the project involved the extensive clearance of trees. A subdivision with such sweeping tree removal most likely never targeted a high-end or luxury clientele; if it did, the developer may have opted for selective tree removal—most likely at a higher cost than widespread clearance—in order to retain a tree canopy, passing the price down to homebuyers in the form of costlier lots.

But this isn’t merely a cleared plot of land with groomed road beds. What is amazing about this development is how far along it advanced before it choked.

The streets have curbs, and the green box ensconced among the tall grass indicates the installation of buried power lines.

The developer also installed street lamps at regular intervals. In the background against the trees one can see little white flecks: more lamps.

They’re everywhere—fully installed throughout the neighborhood.

Scarcely visible in the center of the above photos is a trace of red—a hydrant. No doubt the developer installed water lines as well.

A development that is advanced enough to include curbs will inevitably also have storm sewers.

Near one of the entrances, the road diverges into what was probably intended to be a landscaped island on this triangular patch.

Just fifty feet further, the two divergent roads wrap around a pond, most likely intended to serve dual roles of decoration and water retention.

Perhaps the most interesting elements of these settlements-without-people are the traces of human presence, despite the absence of any real habitability to the development. Usually the human footprint comes in the form of illicit activity. Clearly the site has caught on as a dumping ground, though it is unclear how many parties are responsible for it.

All it takes, though, is one pioneer—an individual bold enough to appropriate these privately owned lands by engaging in conduct that would range from undesirable to unthinkable on property that the same individual owns. Someone decided to use one of the dead-end streets at the back of this featured property to burn something down to ashes.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is that a lift station in the background?

By now the Broken Windows Theory is generally broadly known: let an environment fall into neglect, and people will take advantage of the lack of maintenance by exacerbating the damage. Leave a home abandoned for too long and it will naturally age, but once someone breaks a single window and it stays unmaintained, the remainder will soon suffer the same fate. Essentially, passers-by can capitalize on the absence of any real stewardship. Our gut reaction is to associate the Broken Windows Theory with urban settings, such New York City’s precipitous drop in crime after Mayor Giuliani integrated it with his policing strategy by identifying and maintaining problem properties.

I suppose it’s possible that this light pole leans at an angle because of natural forces: subsidence perhaps, or a tornado, or most likely hurricane-force winds from Gustav (Katrina pre-dates the groundbreaking of this subdivision). But a car could just as easily have rammed into the base, and someone may have thrown rocks at the light at the top. The fact that the majority of lights in the subdivision are intact provides no extra clue of the identity of the damaging agent: a natural disaster could be just as fickle and selective as a human being. But all it took was that first individual to flag the property as abandoned, and the evidence of abandonment—and subsequent vandalism—is easy to identify.

Natural forces are the obvious instigator when the decay of synthetic materials and reclamation of flora occur simultaneously. Nothing reaffirms the abiotic nature of concrete like a flaw—a gap in the perviousness.

Presumably this patch of the road had just as plainly visible of a curb as the rest of it, but drifts of soil have overtaken it, sometimes thick enough to sustain plant life.

And I’m not sure what this was trying to be.

I’d guess it was most likely a storm sewer based on its position along the curb, but it seems to lack anything deep enough to be considered a conduit for the water.

So what caused The Coves of the Highland to tank? Its location offers a clue:

The purple star approximates the site. If that looks like the middle of nowhere, well, that’s a reasonable guess. But this is America; that has never stopped anyone. The fact remains that it falls in the radar of the outer-outer reaches of suburban New Orleans. Two other communities nearby are fairly developed and offer a significant number of services. I have traced the general urbanized area for these communities in red. The red region to the west, consisting of Hammond and the smaller town of Pontchatoula, conveniently sits at the juncture of Interstates 12 and 15. Hammond (pop. 17,000) is the county seat; it is also the home of Southeastern Louisiana University, a regional mall, and an enviably healthy downtown which has surpassed the mall in popularity in recent years. Ponchatoula (pop. 5,000) boasts an award-winning Main Street and is best known in the region for its annual Strawberry Festival. Hammond is considered the principal municipality of the Hammond Micropolitan Statistical Area, making it the economic center of Tangipahoa Parish, though I suspect commuting patterns will place the parish in the New Orleans Metropolitan Area by the 2010 Census. Meanwhile, the urbanized area to the east, consisting of Covington and Mandeville, are among the wealthiest municipalities in the state—indisputable bedroom communities of New Orleans for scores of commuters who take the great Causeway bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. Covington, the parish seat, also has a vibrant downtown expected of a premier suburb. The sleepier Mandeville, hugging the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, has less of a distinct downtown but claimed a median family income of over $70,000 in 2000. The St. Tammany Parish school district consistently ranks among the top in the state.

Despite significant damage from Hurricane Katrina due to high winds (and storm surge in Mandeville), all four municipalities played pivotal roles in the Katrina diaspora. By many measurements, the catastrophic storm merely catalyzed an ongoing out-migration to these generally attractive communities. In fact, prior to the economic plunge of 2008, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa Parish had turned into a bit of a new Wild West for speculative middle and high-end developments. As commenters on this stalled St. Tammany development announcement have observed, the region is littered with subdivisions that failed to ignite.

The Coves of the Highland is hardly unique. But its location may prove a stumbling block to its eventual revival. It may be conveniently close to Covington and Hammond, but 10 to 15 miles to either town may not be near enough—and most of those other proposed subdivisions sit in a belt closer to Lake Pontchartrain, between Ponchatoula and Mandeville. The land value is higher in this belt, not only because of its proximity to the lake but also to New Orleans. I mentioned earlier that Coves of the Highland does not appear to be luxury—the cheaper real estate north of I-12 would certainly inhibit its chances of targeting a high-income crowd. And all of the evidence I introduced at the beginning of this blog post about it being part of Community Development District suggests that it received significant public subsidies.

Coves will most likely find a developer to complete the process; Tangiaphoa Parish and the State Bond Commission have expended too much political capital through taxpayer-supported bonds to let the site languish forever. And someday, the continued development pressures will make it an optimal location. But it’s not there right now, and it wasn’t optimal before the housing bust. Forget what they say in Field of Dreams: they just don’t always come when you build it. Just ask the instigators of the New Homestead Act. Federal legislators are trying to impel people to move back to the rapidly depopulating Great Plains of central and western Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas through all kinds of financial incentives. It wasn’t particularly successful the first time around, when the land was essentially given away—only about 40% earned their deeds from the federal government—so who’s to say it will work this time? And if it isn’t working just a few miles away from successful nascent bedroom communities of New Orleans (not to mention the equidistant Baton Rouge), when will Coves of the Highland succeed? The buyer will clearly have to implement significant repairs to the damaged infrastructure, but the same shared human values that make it a neglected dumping site now are sufficiently unpredictable to transform it in the future into a successful development, as well as a contributor to a practice at which Americans have long excelled: decentralizing.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Civil unrest along the highway.

It is easy to attribute The Great Recession to the increasingly visible decision among many states to cut long-standing social services. In a good portion of the country, publicly supported interstate rest areas have lost much of their reason for being; with so many other options at the exit ramps along our many limited-access highways, it has been hard for them to compete. The average rest area may have much better maintained restrooms than the typical gas station, but food options rarely extend beyond the content of a few vending machines. Picnic areas are a nice touch, but they often rely on visitors packing their lunches and eating them at the site, as well as comfortable weather. These days, most interstate exits leading to a town of at least 5,000 will have at least a couple full service restaurants immediately after the exit ramp. And it’s impossible to recognize the offerings of gas stations without conceding that gasoline may be the most critical commodity that rest areas—outside of the occasional travel plazas on toll roads—typically lack.

Thus, a number of states, in an effort to slash the budgets of their Departments of Transportation, have begun shuttering rest areas. USA Today reported last year that Virginia has been among the most aggressive, slicing nearly half. New Hampshire and Vermont have cut quite a few. Georgia has targeted its rest areas that are close to large cities (where those same services are available in spades), as have Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey. The aforementioned states, though, are all situated east of the Great Plains, where the distances between settlements are relatively short. However, when Arizona followed suit later in the year, closing an astounding 13 of its 18 rest areas, the action elicited particularly emotional dissent from residents, no doubt attributable to the fact that, throughout the west, the roadside towns spaced between the major cities are few and far between. A state like Arizona may be reasonably well populated, but a disproportionate number of people there call metro Phoenix or Tucson their home, while vast stretches of the Arizona back country are neither inhabited nor serviced with most infrastructure. It’s far tougher in the Mojave Desert than in Connecticut to find an exit with gas and a McDonald’s and a Subway. Truckers, in particular, depend on a secure place to pull off and rest, since many carry their cargo over several nights. Within just the past few days, Arizona’s Department of Transportation announced it was reopening five of the thirteen rest areas that it had previously closed.

This Arizona reprieve suggests that, in at least some parts of the country, the decommissioning of rest areas may manifest itself in a tug-of-war directly paralleling the periods of economic hardship. Clearly a number of states have carefully evaluated the necessity in recent years of these roadside oases—are they the sine qua non for weary travelers that they were in the past? Two bordering southern states offer the most profound contrast regarding how their governments value these once-cherished public services: Louisiana has been implementing austerity measures to its interstate travelers for quite some time, cutting more than two-thirds of its facilities, some of them as long ago as 2000. Conversely, Texas—consistently demonstrating greater resiliency to the recession than most other states—has been using its share of stimulus money to refine its inventory of rest areas. After closing a few of the older ones, the State has also built new facilities, enhancing the amenities offered in the most frequented existing structures, from children’s play zones, pet walking areas, and wireless internet access. The level of investment manifests itself at the Texas-Louisiana border along Interstate 10, near the City of Orange:

Even the most tight-fisted of states would concede that a service station at a boundary should be among the last to get cut. After all, these facilities are often the first structure a motorist encounters after crossing the state line—they aren’t necessarily mere rest areas; frequently they’re welcome centers, and they routinely refer to themselves as such, or in this case, a Travel Information Center. The air-conditioned facility includes interpretive displays, a professional travel counselor, diaper changing stations, a panoply of promotional material for tourist activities in southeast Texas, and a video theatre. Even more impressive is the facility’s back yard, which directly overlooks a vast swamp filled with bald cypress and water tupelo.

This handsome elevated pathway extends about one-tenth of a mile and features educational displays about the ecology of the swamp. The front of the facility shows a comparable level of investment.

The small plaza features a display of flags that loosely encompass Texas’ history as a territory, sovereign nation, and state: the lone star flag, the US flag, flags of Mexico and Spain, and even the French coat-of-arms flag from the 18th century (the northern part of Texas was part of the Louisiana Purchase). But most significant is the Lone Star sculpture in the background of that photo.

From its position immediately to the north of I-10, visible on the right as one crosses the Texas line, this emblem almost achieves landmark status. It’s not quite big or boldly colored enough to stand out from a great distance, but the flags in the plaza puncture the sky and draw the eyes to the site, where they will immediately shift toward the approximately 30-foot sculpture—an effective piece of minimalist pop art that succinctly embodies the spirit of Texas. During my brief visit, several other visitors had their pictures taken in front of the sculpture, and the decision to bury one of the star’s five points has made it appear sturdier and more approachable as a playground feature for children, manifested in the above photo. The flags and the Lone Star sculpture harmonize to form one of the most eye-catching gateways at a state boundary; they more than compensate for the rest area/welcome center facility, which is situated far enough off the road that it would not easily stand out without a prominent fixture poised directly off the highway. The monumentality of the flag/sculpture combination also completely overpowers this far more conventional gateway sign, a little further down the road:

With all these allurements, it’s no surprise that Texas rest areas rate highly among motorists, judging from the array of comments visible online. And having such a comfortable facility right at the boundary is an excellent way of rolling out the welcome mat. But the Department of Transportation has also come under fire for what some would argue is an irresponsible use of stimulus/taxpayer money for the construction of unnecessarily lavish facilities.

Louisiana has taken an opposite approach: the state’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has virtually no remaining rest areas. The few that remain overwhelmingly sit at state border crossings, like this one on southbound I-55, at the Louisiana-Mississippi line.
It’s well maintained, and the 24-hour bathrooms (in the detached facility to the left of the arcade) are simple but clean. The grounds are small but feature elegant renditions of the amenities we have come to expect at most rest areas.
It does not have any walkable nature trails with educational displays; the rest area’s property lines are relatively small.

Though by no means a disaster, the primary landmark is less effective.
I hate to assert something as shallow as “bigger is better”, but this replica of the shape of Louisiana only stands about 7 feet tall, and while it announces the entrance to the state, it lacks the sublime monumentality of Texas’ flag and sculpture combination. It’s just not big enough to stand out. The absence of any metaphoric content to compare with a proud lone star means this sculpture/sign is semantically almost identical to the blue “Welcome to Louisiana” metal sign that preceded it 300 feet before the rest area (seen in a photo above). The redundancy of these two markers weakens their individual impact. This concrete replica of the state boundaries also sets several yards off from the entrance to the facilities, so it is not integrated into a plaza. Thus, it neither catches the eye nor attracts visitors to take their pictures in front of it when they park at the rest area.

The primary structure to this Louisiana pit stop, employing a full wrap-around portico currently popular in new housing construction throughout the South, hosts the welcome center.

It was not open at the time of this visit, but I’ve been to one in the past, and they feature at least a few of the same amenities as the Travel Information Center in Texas: free wireless in most locations (including the one pictured), maps, tourist activity guides, and trained specialists. They are also under management by the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT).

This placard on the side of the building indicates construction in 2002, a few years after the state began closing its rest areas. Thus, the Foster administration most likely decided to cut the aging, infrequently used, low-service rest areas and consolidate the rest of the activities by building these new rest area/welcome center combos, nearly all of which lie on interstates as they cross into Louisiana boundaries. Despite the enhanced programming at these welcome centers, the cut from 34 rest areas to around 10 (depending on what you count) has surely saved significant operational costs, particularly freeing some of the DOTD’s budget as part of the staffing/programmatic burden has shifted to CRT. Among the few rest areas in Louisiana not at the boundary is the Atchafalaya Welcome Center, at Mile Mark 122 on I-10. I have visited this as well, and it has the same amenities as the welcome centers at state lines, but both directions of traffic flow are funneled to one facility through an exit ramp that passes beneath the highway; again, another device to cut operational costs.

It may appear from this essay that I am singing the praises of the Texas approach of bold and monumental. The state has decided to expand and enhance its artillery of rest areas to wow all the passers-by. But is the Texas approach really that wise? Rather than simply letting businesses take over, it would appear that the State has decided to try outdoing the private sector. The rest area on I-10 at Orange, TX is less of a visitor information center and more of a small museum, which means the State is trying to entice visitors through unique features that the private sector is unlikely to provide. But visitors will still go elsewhere when looking for food or gas—two services which it is unlikely the State could ever justify providing at taxpayers’ expense. In this country in particular, the public sector is nearly always on shaky ground when it attempts to compete with a service the private sector can provide: many Americans perceive that it would be an unnecessary intrusion on private sector territory. In fact, federal law prohibits the privatization of rest areas, based on a 1956 law that intended to protect small businesses when a limited access highway passing through potentially diverted their customer base. (Toll roads were largely exempt because they pre-dated the Interstate Highway Act, which is why the travel plazas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike etc are chock-full of national chains.) Arizona’s DOT has pushed for a change in this federal law, further distancing states from the responsibility of furnishing and maintaining rest areas. Should the federal law be repealed, Texas taxpayers could be in for a rude awakening, having used so much federal stimulus money on extravagant rest area enhancement projects.

Louisiana’s approach is clearly more modest, and it surely elicited grumbling from truckers or locals who now find they have significantly fewer options on the highways. But the State has smartly packaged its formidable cuts on rest areas through the veneer of enhanced tourism: motorists just entering the state still can enjoy 24-hour restrooms, and, during normal business hours, a welcome center committed to optimizing their visit to the state. Meanwhile, new chain restaurants, gas stations, and hotels spring up (and shut down) every day at various exits, creating an overwhelming monotony to the interstate highway traveling experience. Run-of-the-mill rest areas were just another part of that tired rhythm. Whether they’re bold, lavish, and monumental like Texas or modest, sensible, and dull like Louisiana, they reflect the widely divergent cultural attitudes toward a government service which has become almost an institution in itself—but one that clearly needs a reinvention in the wake of our increasingly cluttered transcontinental landscape.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

REWIND: Full parking lots, not-so-full pews.

For the first time in the history of this blog I offer a re-run, but no worries—I’m far from syndication and, whenever I offer a repeat of an older post, it is only because I hope to improve upon it. The last time I published “Full parking lots, not-so-full pews” it elicited a reasonable amount of discussion (at least for me). The essay focused on the spatial distribution of main-line Protestant denominations (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists), most of which have a concentrated presence in the oldest parts of a city, often downtown or in the adjacent neighborhoods. Many of them have struggled to retain good membership levels, due to a changing religious landscape, decentralization of the population, and aging facilities. Some old churches in Indianapolis survive as their intended use; some of have been re-purposed as condominiums; others sit vacant awaiting a new life. Since the time of this post, I have had the chance to interview one of the parishioners from First Lutheran, a church downtown that has been vacant for several years and current is listed as for sale. This update of the March blog post will integrate portions of this interview with an enhanced analysis. For those who are new to the blog, I encourage you to read and comment; for the others, much will be familiar but new insights and feedback is always welcome, so read on!

The robust and always broadening cultural pluralism of this country almost guarantees that issues of faith will enter the public limelight regularly. Scarcely a day passes where religious and political concerns don’t overlap, but that is the subject I will consciously avoid in this blog. I’m far more interested in exploring whether or not religion has any tacit bearing on in how people spatialize themselves, or how they maneuver within a larger settlement pattern, as guided by religious principles. Such an examination cannot help but include a study on demographics, and, in doing this, will also inevitably reference sociological implications of certain religiously based demographic patterns. But I hope to sidestep the relations between politics and religion—such a hydra is beyond my ability to wrestle, and hopefully my commenters will tell me how good a job I’m doing at eschewing political partisanship. The built environment offers enough interesting manifestations of religious faith on its own.

Just as the nation collectively cannot and probably should not ever divorce religious considerations from their bearing on self-governance, we also seem fixated with how religiosity continues to evolve. Whether it’s the introduction of a new faith through immigration, the creation of one by an influential guru, the dissolution of another, or an emotionally charged schism within a single denomination, religious matters preoccupy us. Even a newspaper targeting a relatively secular part of the country—the New York Times comes to mind—still regularly offers a section on Religion and Belief, no doubt because it commands readers and sells ad space and commands readers, at least as much as any major print media is finding an audience in this desperate time for the industry. I am confident that other organizations perform more probing macro-level studies of religion in America, but the most thorough of the widely known ones that I’m aware of is the Pew Charitable Trust, whose Religion and Public Life Forum aims to scrutinize issues of personal faith, with particular consideration to how they reflect on the distribution of the population.

I couldn’t help but recall my previous glances at Pew and other religious surveys when I noticed the parking lot of a mainline Protestant religious denomination in an outlying, suburban section within the Indianapolis city limits, shortly after the church’s services had ended:

I’m capturing about two-thirds of the parking lot through these photographs; it holds a little over forty spaces. Clearly not a big one. But the tight-knit congregation manages to fill it on most Sunday mornings (a few members had already left at the time these photos were taken). Yet on most given Sundays, the sanctuary remains only about 30% occupied. This discrepancy by no means intends to discredit the leadership of the church, or the members themselves. Many parishioners have been committed to the church for decades, and they come from a diverse array of professions, backgrounds, and ages. But one member made a critical observation to me, which I will paraphrase: “We get the same number of cars in the parking lot that we did twenty years ago. The only difference is those cars were full of four or five people, and now most of them hold only one or two.”

The conclusion one can draw is simple: large families of parents and children used to go the church, and now most of the kids have grown up and moved on. Many of them, no doubt, have left the area; Americans are famously predisposed to relocation. In his Restless Nation: Starting Over in America, James M. Jasper exalts the American thirst for self-actualization through routinely changing our domestic surroundings; we find a new home, on average, once every five years, and in a typical year, 20% of Americans move, far more than the Dutch or Germans (4%), the British (8%), French and Japanese (10%). Jasper asserts that “Geographic mobility has been a constant in American History” (p. 72). No doubt these numbers—the highest rates in the non-nomadic world—have lagged a bit in recent years due to the recession, but the 2010 long-form Census surveys that ask a householder’s place of residence five years ago will surely reveal similar trends.

That’s fine, and it should come to no surprise to anyone who has seen a dear friend or family member grow to adulthood. But how does that parallel our perpetually diversifying assortment of religious faiths? Did the aforementioned church in Indianapolis shrink solely because the kids moved away from home? What about the ones who stayed? According to last year’s Pew study Faith in Flux, slightly under half of Americans change religious affiliation at least once in their lives. Of those 44% surveyed who do not currently belong to their childhood religion, the largest group (15%) were raised Protestant but have switched to a different Protestant faith. Other shifts, such as those raised Protestant and now unaffiliated (7%) and those raised Catholic and now Protestant (5%) clearly trail in influence. How does this play out in church memberships? The mainline Protestant denominations (such as the one featured in the above parking lot) and the Catholic Church are feeling the biggest pinch. A recent article by U.S. News and World Report reveals that the United Methodist Church has watched its membership drop one-fourth over the past few decades, and the percentage of Americans affiliated with Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and the United Church of Christ has dropped from 19% in 1990 to less than 13% today. Conversely, the nondenominational and unaffiliated Christian churches have grown astronomically over that same time frame, from 200,000 to over 8 million. This statistic suggests that the preponderance of the 15% who have switched from one Protestant faith to another did not move from Lutheran to Presbyterian, or Methodist to Episcopalian; they shifted away from those denominations altogether.

The growth of the megachurch deserves its own report, which I hope to engage in after I have acquired better photographs and more research. But the spatial distribution of the mainline Protestant versus the nondenominational only requires a keen eye: overwhelmingly the older central cities host the Lutherans and Methodists—or the Catholics—and the low-density suburbs are home to the nondenominational, often Evangelical houses of worship. And, by and large, old central cities have a flat or declining population and the newest suburbs, particularly the exurbs, enjoy the bulk of a metro region’s population growth. A fair amount of a church’s vibrance may depend on its physical location: the exurbs, with their affordability, relative homogeneity, and usually highly-rated school systems (often a reflection of that homogeneity), attract the younger families, who left the roost for a home five miles away from where they grew up—that aging neighborhood where Mom and Dad might still live. It’s a match made in heaven (pun obviously intended) for Evangelical start-ups, because the land to host their spacious, often unadorned structures—and the parking for all those full minivans—is much cheaper in the low density purlieus. Meanwhile, the mainline churches near downtown struggle to operate their aging, expensive-to-maintain facilities. And even though their attendance is plummeting, they still have parking problems—partly because they never had many spaces to begin with, but also because the number of cars is not shrinking. Vehicles going to the local Presbyterian Church are most frequently filled with middle aged and elderly folks, in pairs or solo.

How does this Protestant shift play out in a city like Indianapolis? Drive around downtown, just as you would in Lower Manhattan or Tupelo Mississippi, and you’ll see the venerable, ivy-covered brick or stone tributes to European heritage in those Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. Some of them are functioning quite capably: the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral operates from an impeccably maintained structure sitting respectfully along Monument Circle, in the heart of the Indianapolis downtown. Other mainline denominations have been less fortunate.

This French Gothic sentinel presides over Meridian Street just a few blocks north of the Circle. It housed the Methodist Episcopal Church when first constructed in 1906, but the church departed in 1947, long before the documented shrinkage of mainline Protestant denominations. In fact, the entire denomination succumbed to a merger with what eventually became the contemporary United Methodist Church. The church building housed Indiana Business College until spatial constraints required the college to seek a new campus in 2003. How has this institution built of Indiana limestone survived into the twenty-first century?

Condos. Developers removed the back quarter of the building and provided a fenestration reflective of the 27 units that Meridian Arch now contains. Other angles demonstrate the reuse more effectively:

The sign in front of the structure promoting the condos suggests a wide price range for the units, from the high $100,000s to $900,000s. My suspicion is that the priciest units enjoy the vaulted ceilings and arched windows with restored grillwork lintels. Cheaper ones are in the new section in the back. Orthodox preservationists may shake their head and dismiss this as a tacky faƧadectomy, but fellow blogger IN Architecture recognizes (in far more artful words than I could hope for) the respect that adaptive re-use architects Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Inc conferred onto the original structure, echoing some of the design details without attempting an ersatz replication of the aesthetic. The magnitude of the alterations forfeited the structure’s eligibility for the National Register, but it remains a viable building, boosting downtown’s residential population and retaining more than 50% of the original structure. If the old Methodist Episcopal Church building had found new life as an office, a fitness center, another school, or (Lord willing) a church, it may be easier to wag one’s finger at the current reinvention. But the most likely alternative, if not for the adaptive re-use into condos, was for the building to suffer demolition.

One can hope that this other church just two blocks away will enjoy a similar resurrection.

Yet again, another mainline Protestant congregation, the First Lutheran Church. But this one has sat padlocked and vacant for nearly a decade. My interview with a long-term member of the congregation revealed many interesting details about this building for which virtually no information exists online. It originated from the 1870s, back when anything immediately outside of the mile square of downtown Indianapolis was considered suburban. The congregation at 702 Pennsylvania Street peaked after World War I, when leadership advocated the rescue of refugees and immigrants, giving rise to contingents of German, Lithuanian, and Estonian descent. By the 1960s, when my interviewee first became active at the church, the tithing population had declined at the same time that maintenance costs for the aging building was rising. Only one man new how to operate the furnace, and the pronounced fluctuations in temperature accelerated the deterioration of the sanctuary. Despite many challenges, the small congregation remained committed and diverse: all races and social classes were welcomed, from the neighboring homeless to yuppies, from federal judges to gay couples living in the gentrifying historic district down the street.

But the deck was still largely stacked against First Lutheran. Other unfavorable portents included the eventual cancellation of all Sunday school programs (not enough children to serve them), the lack of handicapped accessible entrances for an increasingly wheelchair-bound population, and, in the final years, a minister who made no effort to conceal his interest in re-branding the church as a house of worship targeting the gay community. In 2002, the Indiana-Kentucky Synod announced that it was closing the church; despite little consultation with the congregation, the Synod shuttered the building two weeks after the announcement. Nearly all of the thirty or forty regular members have remained in touch, and the majority still attends other Lutheran churches in the region.

First Lutheran has inevitably fallen into further disrepair: the roof already leaked before the closure, and now plaster is falling out. Homeless individuals squat on the patio and undercroft. A few years ago, several developers had eyed the property with the hope of echoing the Meridian Arch condo redevelopment, but nothing materialized as the economy tanked, and downtown owner-occupied housing suffered a particularly devastating blow. Its fate seemed grim until recently, when Halakar Real Estate placed the sign out front (visible in the photos), suggesting that the perceived market for some form of adaptive re-use may have improved.

In both of the above examples, the congregations that closed their doors could not find a new religious group to buy or lease the space. Are these two defunct downtown churches indicators of the reduced demand for houses of worship in central cities? Are they a bellwether of the decline in mainline Protestant denominations in general? Downtown Indianapolis is not particularly declining; its economic health and diversity of activities are more confident than they have been in over half a century. But many old churches in even the most bustling of American downtowns are struggling to retain members. The US News and World Report article notes that Lutheran and Episcopal and Presbyterian leadership have been seeking to reinvent themselves in order to compete with the more relaxed, contemporary approach to praise and worship by which the large evangelical and non-denominational churches are flourishing.

But there’s a possibility these leaders could be neglecting the advantages that are percolating in their front yards. Here’s a broad-brush generalization, tiptoeing around politics as much as possible. These European-descended mainline churches may still rely upon to age-old Eucharistic services, antiquated hymns, and beautiful but stuffy old buildings that, as a friend of mine said, “smell like the 1950s”. But their interpretation of Scripture is often deliberately worldly, and Pew surveys reveal that the mainline Protestants are far more open than most Evangelicals to the notion that other faiths can also lead to eternal life. The growing populations staking claims in urban condos such as Meridian Lofts tend to be well-educated, affluent, childless, and desirous of a culturally diverse community and classic urban environment, which they may prefer over low crime or superlative schools in the suburbs. These yuppies and empty nesters are willing to live just a few blocks away from the soup kitchens and homeless shelters—the same ones that the mainline churches often support or operate. This by no means intends to criticize the nondenominational churches in the suburbs—quite frankly, the Evangelicals have done a far better job at assessing the confluence of demographics and theology and assigning it a place on the map. Meanwhile, the population base most likely to be attracted to the Weltanschauung of an Episcopal or Lutheran church is literally moving right next to these dusty old buildings, if they’re not staking claims on the ones that church leaders have already abandoned!

The decline of mainline denominations none-too-subtly echoes the general decline of old inner-city neighborhoods. One is clearly symptomatic of another, and I’d venture that the later causes the former, rather than vice versa. After all, old religious buildings themselves aren’t driving the congregation away simply because they’re old: the members have simply left the neighborhood and found a church closer to their new home. Then the increasingly high-maintenance houses of worship slip into financial insolvency. The cash infusion generated by weddings becomes a saving grace, but the charm of an old church does not impel people to loosen their pocketbooks the way they might when they spot an old house in an urban neighborhood that could use some TLC. Simply put, a church does not spur reinvestment the way an old house would—which is why, in the case of Meridian Lofts, the church has become an old house.

All observations of America’s past suggest that we will continue to exhibit wanderlust and crises of faith well into the future. Other religious institutions will emerge or fade. The megachurch may someday seem like a museum piece. But only some denominations will synchronize with both our suitcases and our choir robes. The great churches of yesteryear have a few choices in order to avoid the fate of First Lutheran: they may become showcases for adaptive reuse; they may continue as mausoleums for extinct denominations; or they may operate as experimental labs for spiritual practices that find a second life through a constituency that loves everything about urban centers—the streetscape, the stores, the homes, the parks, the churches. Hopefully the Episcopalians and Lutherans will find away to get these people, their own neighbors, into their net—they might not even have to offer them a free parking space.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

There goes the neighborhood, Part II: When a Name is More Powerful Than a Fence.

An unusually intense period at work reduced my blogging activity to a few uninspired posts these past few weeks, but at long last I can return to the second part of my study on the application of labels such as “neighborhoods” and “subdivisions” to sub-districts within a larger metropolitan area. In the first part, I focused on the moneyed Garden District in Baton Rouge, which, in a city which is dominated by automobile-driven development patterns, emerges as one of the city’s most successful walkable, urban neighborhoods.

I use the term “neighborhood” loosely, primarily because, as I elaborated in Part I, the difference between a “neighborhood” and a “subdivision” often parallels the implied understanding of the distinctions between urban and suburban. Neighborhoods are old, urban, and walkable; subdivisions are newer, suburban, and auto-driven. These gross generalizations unfairly sequester the old and the new into two disparate categories, and the former enjoys a far loftier position in the cultural pecking order than the latter. Virtually everyone living in a reasonably dense residential community would like to claim part of a neighborhood, and civic associations rarely if ever organize themselves as the Highland Park Subdivision Association, for example. They use the word “neighborhood” instead. A realtor is far more likely to promote a home as “being part of a community with a genuine neighborhood feel”, and Mister Rogers immortalized his miniature Pittsburgh with the opening song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. These examples may seem facile, but they demonstrate a prevailing aversion to “subdivisions” as anything beyond a clinical term; it is the developer-speak that refers to the initial reorganization of land title through the accrued sale of individually subdivided plats, derived from an initially significantly larger parcel. But a good subdivision almost always strives to shed its tedious image, away from a series of financial agreements into something apparently much more organic—conceived from the aims and values of the people living there, rather than the paper-pushing of a businessperson with eyes on the dollar signs. In short, subdivisions always try to mature into neighborhoods.

This is precisely what has happened with the Garden District in Baton Rouge. As I noted before, an address in this neighborhood ranks among the most prestigious in the metro. But the Garden District didn’t begin with such a distinct identity. In fact, it consists of several smaller districts, which today are on the National Register, but began as subdivisions platted out by a private realty company. The area shaded in red is Roseland Terrace, platted in 1911; the region in blue is Drehr Place, a subdivision platted in 1921, while the green rectangle to the south of the other two historic districts is Kleinert Terrace, founded just a few years after Drehr Place. Though the three developments are contiguous, they matured autonomously under these separate names for decades. The Garden District Civic Association relates its origins on the website. Essentially a rezoning hearing in 1976 for a house on the northern edge of Drehr Avenue drew an unexpectedly large number of residents in the vicinity. After learning about their shared interest in its future and well-being, several members decided to form a neighborhood organization. They agreed to bestow upon it the name “Garden District” because of the positive connotations it arose, recalling the prestigious New Orleans neighborhood 80 miles downriver. Within a few weeks, some of these neighborhood activists (many of whom live in the area to this day) had drafted by-laws and elected a president. Thus, the Garden District as a neighborhood name and its respective neighborhood association were born simultaneously. To this day, the Civic Association collects dues, publishes newsletters, runs the adopt-a-tree program for live oaks in common spaces, and maintains the signs and bollards it installed to demarcate the neighborhood’s entrance.
The original developers had conceived these three early subdivisions—Roseland Terrace, Drehr Place, and Kleinert Terrace—at slightly different time periods. But as they aged comfortably, their residents witnessed new development pushing considerably further to the north and east, and over time the architectural and socioeconomic similarities within the three early subdivisions became more widely visible. The eventual inception of a Civic Association was inevitable. It provided a forum for the transmission of the ideas and collective concerns that could reinforce the identity of a neighborhood. And through these regular meetings, the Association was able to bring to the table some of the technical specifications that the new Garden District was lacking—which, incidentally, happened to include the sort of “place-making” features that were increasingly prevalent in the subdivisions popping up in the outer suburbs. Essentially, the Garden District Civic Association—like so many others—has re-appropriated some of the initial roles of a developer. It clearly establishes cohesiveness to the neighborhood by simplifying the lines of communication. It also has implemented particular street and landscape improvements, which, in this day and age, would take place during the site planning stage, as a subdivision is getting off the ground.

By many standards, the neighborhood’s cohesiveness is patently visible (and no doubt was in 1976 as well). First, the array of housing types, while diverse, comes from a relatively uniform time period. The shared age of the housing mitigates the variety of styles and sizes. Secondly, the landscaping follows a certain basic pattern, emphasizing the tremendous tree canopy afforded by live oak trees, both in private property, and—in the wider streets—spaces throughout the broad, grassy medians. If the front yards cannot fit such an expansive tree, they will often host smaller indigenous species, such as the crepe myrtle. Thirdly, the three subdivisions share borders, proven by the three colored transparencies on the oft-referenced map.

Fourth, and perhaps the most important for the arguments featured in this half of the blog post, the three smaller subdivisions that make up the Garden District all share the same gridded street network. This shared network affords them a high level of interpenetrability among all the streets that make up the three, as well as—and this is critical—the surrounding neighborhoods. The strange brown shape shows the means of accessing the Roseland Terrace and Drehr Place involves nothing more than crossing an intersection. Even more critical is the purple demarcation on the map below: That thick purple line essentially separates the affluent sections of this part of Baton Rouge from the poor ones. I hate to make such broad distinctions on something as simple as a street map, but empirical evidence generally supports this. The Garden District occupies the northwestern most portion of a mostly upper-middle class part of town, but directly to the north and west of the neighborhood’s boundaries are considerably poorer districts. Particularly noticeable is the neighborhood west of 18th Street, where the housing more frequently looks like this: Simple, unadorned single shotgun houses with virtually no front yard and little foliage. Unlike in the Garden District, where cables are either buried or hidden behind back alleys, here they are out front along the streets and sidewalks. And the old commercial buildings along Government Street (the northern boundary to the Garden District) are generally vacant in the area to the west of the affluent neighborhood. Here is the vista at around 16th and Government: As Government Street continues toward the wealthier Garden District, the retail landscape is hardly top-tier for the metro, but it is considerably stronger than the virtual abandonment visible in the picture above.

In short, the Garden District—a general term for three old-money subdivisions in inner-city Baton Rouge—sits cheek-by-jowl with one of the poorer old neighborhoods, with not even a major arterial street or the stereotypical railroad track to separate them. For example, at the corner of 18th and Cherokee, on the edge of Roseland Terrace, one sees a typically immaculate house characteristic of the Garden District. And just a two blocks to the west, on 16th Street, the view below is not uncommon: In all likelihood, the neighborhood to the west of 18th street was not impoverished at the time Roseland Terrace was platted on the site of a former fairground racetrack. It was probably a working class or lower-middle class community. But by the time the Civic Association organized itself and bestowed the name Garden District to these three subdivisions, the fortunes on the two sides of 18th Street had diverged significantly. Forty years later, Old South Baton Rouge remains a largely low-income African American community, while the Garden District is mostly white and virtually devoid of poverty. In an era in which discriminatory redlining, fraudulent blockbusting, and publicly sanctioned segregation (once common in the South) are all illegal, how can two neighborhoods show such significant disparities, with the desirability of the Garden District remaining superlative despite sitting so close to such poverty? The Garden District Civic Association undoubtedly provides many of the answers. Aside from organizing a garden club to protect the live oaks, social committees to plan Christmas caroling and ice cream gatherings, or public relations to organize home tours, the Civic Association also has hired a separate security unit on top of the existing Baton Rouge Police Department. (Incidentally, the original Garden District of New Orleans, which sits almost as close to an even more impoverished neighborhood, also hires a plainly visible separate security force.) The association also allows homeowners who will be out of town for a lengthy amount of time to report their unoccupied home for extra monitoring during their absence.

Such actions are hardly unique among urban neighborhood associations, particularly those that are wealthy but remain close to considerably poorer areas. I by no means am attempting to portray the Garden District Civic Association nor the neighborhood’s residents as exclusive or prejudiced. They are reacting in a similar fashion as many other wealthy districts that rest squarely in high-crime cities, and the residents have clearly opted to buy into unity of activities as well as a shared sense of added security by remaining in the neighborhood instead of abandoning it to newer subdivisions out in the suburbs, where they would undoubtedly be far removed from inner-city privations and violence.

What is interesting about this is that, perhaps more powerfully than just signage and tree plantings, the Civic Association is helping to foster the unity an urban neighborhood needs, quite possibly as a compensatory gesture for the fact that its street configuration cannot exclude strangers in any other way. Compare the street grid from the color-coded maps above to the one below, several miles away on Highland Road, one of the wealthiest suburban districts within Baton Rouge city limits: Most of the housing around here post-dates the 1960s. Street designers for these subdivisions/neighborhoods have all but abandoned the old grid for a hierarchical design, in which most of the streets terminate in cul-de-sacs. Each individual development usually has only one or two means of ingress, as opposed to the Garden District, which has closer to twenty. The development pattern becomes even more pronounced a few miles further out on Highland Road. Here, in the last outskirts of the city and East Baton Rouge Parish, the housing typically post-dates the 1980s and is almost uniformly wealthy. The subdivisions are smaller and even less interconnected. Some of them are gated at the front.

Any elementary student of urban studies has caught on to this long ago; the average layperson can also recognize a change in street configuration from the old inner-city neighborhood and the modern subdivision. What is most striking is how urban neighborhoods have essentially had to co-opt certain features from suburban subdivisions—as well as duplicate basic city services—in order to preserve their desirability. The Garden District in Baton Rouge cannot build gates around every one of its entrances to keep the higher criminal activity at bay that residents might associate with the neighborhood to the west. Instead, the Civic Association must find ways to cultivate unity and inclusivity from within. It uses carrots like the neighborhood picnics, organized garage sales, decorative signage and lighting, and recommended arborists, electricians, or carpenters. It depends upon sticks as well, such as the additional security, stipulations for people who rent out part or all of their property, and a clear line of communication for reporting of city code violations, such as parking in the grass or sweeping debris into the street. Neighborhoods such as the Garden District will depend on a certain capacity to exclude on paper to compensate for the inability to exclude via physical barriers. One may consider this elitist or racist, but neighborhood associations are so prevalent in this day and age that they hardly single out certain segments of society—persons of all strata may find their neighborhood has one, rich or poor, white or black, urban or suburban.

The superficial stereotypes I listed in Part I of this blog post clearly placed neighborhoods into one categorical box and subdivisions into another. I did this ironically, because the old, venerable Garden District neighborhood originated from the subdivision of real estate that followed a similar pattern to the exurban subdivisions of today. Subdivisions and neighborhoods are little more than expressions of individual preferences; the line distinguishing them is impossibly blurry. The biggest difference, of course, is that the old urban subdivisions (which we are more likely to refer to as “neighborhoods”) typically depended upon rectilinear grids with an almost unlimited number of points of entry. Conversely, most contemporary neighborhoods (often referred to as “subdivisions” until they mature and develop something we like to call “character”) employ curvilinear cul-de-sacs that allow for a much clearer monitoring of who comes and goes—which nearly always happens by vehicle instead of by foot. One could argue, as many urbanists do, that the grid is more desirable because it offers a greater freedom of mobility. But the non-gridded subdivision emerged as a reaction to the characteristics that people found least appealing about the historic grid: namely, the ability to restrict who enters, whether it involves speeding cars that cut through or potential ne’er-do-wells from a neighboring community. The Garden District in Baton Rouge has undoubtedly attracted a certain type of resident that consciously eschews the suburban cul-de-sac, but such individuals often find themselves devoting more time and money to retain a certain level of security and privacy that almost everyone hopes to attain. The Civic Association has found a generally benign way of achieving this, keeping a gridded neighborhood safe and attractive as the majority of the population continues to surge toward cul-de-sacs ten miles down the road.