Showing posts from April, 2013

Sacred Space

People looking for the intersection between geography and religion could do worse than Roger W. Stump's comprehensive The Geography of Religion: Faith, Place, and Space (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). Stump, a geographer at the State University of New York, Albany, considers multiple ways in which geographical concepts illuminate religious belief and practice, including how adherents are distributed geographically (ch. 2), belief and practice in physical context (ch. 3) and territoriality (ch. 4).

My main interest is in chapter 5, which discusses sacred space; this was the subject of some talks I gave last month, which I unfortunately had to do before I was able to procure a copy of Stump through interlibrary loan. He defines sacred space as "manifestation of the cosmos defined in [believers'] religious worldview," especially "crucial points of contact with superhuman domains." He then lists seven categories of sacred space (Table 5.1, p. 302), seven forms …

What price urbanity?

Preston Lauterbach's 2011 book, The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll (W.W. Norton) is an interesting history of the origins of rock, with an interesting argument: Rock originated in black communities across the South, in the music we used to call "rhythm and blues," and country-western had very little to do with it. The honor of being the first rock song, conventionally accorded to "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, in his view should go to "Good Rockin' Tonight," recorded in 1949 by Roy Brown. I'm OK with that: "Good Rockin' Tonight" is a better song and, despite being recorded six years earlier, has a more contemporary sound than "Rock Around the Clock."

Most of the book is spent on the argument, and the personalities and lineages that moved black popular music from the 1920s to the 1950s. Quite clearly, though, rock's origins have to do with the places they inhabited: …

Cedar Rapids development news

Two stories in today's Cedar Rapids Gazette raised issues of development. As a small city, we can get away with ignoring some issues that, say, Atlanta cannot, but probably we shouldn't.

The more compelling concerns development of Tower Terrace Road north of the city. It is an east-west route than runs off and on between Hiawatha and Marion. The proposal would include creating an interchange on I-380, widening the road and completing it all the way through to state highway 13 on the east side of Marion. The towns of Marion, Robins and Hiawatha very much want to do this; the City of Cedar Rapids is rather hostile, and is using its weight on the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization to obstruct it. They have proposed funding trails instead, and while I love trails and $4 million could build a whole bunch of them, I think this is a red herring.

There are two things at the crux of this controversy. First, the completed Tower Terrace Road would enable a good deal of commercia…

Dominion over the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God gives to his newest creation, human beings, "dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Then in the next verse God gives humans plants for food, although in verse 30 this is also given to animals and birds. The dominion thing has been a stumbling block for some Christians who interpret it as a mandate to exploit the earth for our own benefit. Just as when you give a dog a chewy toy, you don't expect the dog to preserve and sustain it, God by this interpretation is giving us something to play with and maybe clean our teeth.

The key word here is "dominion" (unless you don't regard the Bible as authoritative, in which case none of what follows is going to be of more than trivial interest). If I had studied Biblical languages, I could tell you what the original word was and how it relates to the two passages I am about to cite. But I didn't, and so shall plunge…

Gleanings from the New Urbanism

The New Urbanism is a movement in city design that seeks to enhance the livability of cities while keeping an eye on issues of sustainability. I first encountered the term when the town of Seaside, Florida (designed by the team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) got a lot of attention. Seaside is a development that is redolent of traditional small towns. Columbia, Maryland, is another example. My first impression was that theis movement is well-intentioned, lovably idealistic, and relevant to no one except mobile idealistic rich people.

(Seaside house--picture swiped from
Since then I've read a good bit about the New Urbanism, particularly this semester with my sense-of-place research. I am happy to report that it is much more than a passing fancy; it is a way of thinking that is broadly applicable, even to well-established localities. The following is a synthesis, drawing heavily on the books referenced at the end of the post.

The core problem…

Race matters, damn it

Among the panels I attended at last weekend's Midwest Political Science Association conference was one entitled "Geography and Political Behavior." Three of the four papers dealt in some way or other with the effect of race on people's actions. One of the participants recalled the quote, "If you're a scholar of American politics sooner or later you become a scholar of race politics."

I have taken quite the opposite view. For all race mattered through America's long, sad history of slavery and Jim Crow, most people alive today were born since the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the institution of affirmative action. They are used to seeing blacks in positions of prestige and authority, residing in middle class neighborhoods and attending top colleges. The real American divide, in my view, was social class. (Not the only divide, of course... I do study religion and politics, after all.) We live in an era of ever-widening inequal…

Physical Design Issues Illustrated

Chicago's downtown Cultural Center (1893), on Washington St, besides being a physically stunning building, is hosting an exhibition of paintings by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980). An Illinois native, Woodruff spent much of his working life in Alabama and Georgia. His work has a common theme of black empowerment. That he was also sensitive to issues of physical design is shown in these two murals painted in the 1940s.

"Results of Poor Housing"

"Results of Good Housing"

Toddlin' in Chicago

I've spent the last four days in Chicago, attending the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. I attended a bunch of panels and heard gobs of presentations, and I'll blog about some of those later. For now I want to talk about the city itself.

Chicago exhibits many aspects of what the city design folk are calling "urbanity." I spent most of my time downtown; the conference was in the Loop, and my hotel was in the River North area. Pedestrian traffic is everywhere, and there are a lot of work places, places for serious recreation like theaters and museums, and a huge number of coffee houses and restaurants. The sidewalks are wide, with buildings mostly built up to the sidewalk. The few exceptions make for a nice variety. The building across Jackson St from the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower actually has a lovely lawn, but for urbanity's sake that's definitely the exception. This is a section of Jackson St looking west, by the well-famed In…

Is Too Society

The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal published by the American Political Science Association, has a number of articles related to the financial crisis which began in 2008, and the impacts it has had on American society. Two speak directly to the core question of this blog--how are we going to live together?--and are worthy of comment.

In "The Insecure American: Economic Experiences, Financial Worries, and Policy Attitudes," Jacob S. Hacker and two co-authors report results of a survey that asked Americans about their economic experiences and expectations. The economic crisis brought a "dramatic" increase in the number of people reporting worrying about things like losing jobs, losing health insurance coverage and not being able to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. These worries were "far greater" among nonwhites, people with lower incomes, and people with less educational attainment. The worried are more likely to support governm…

Something's up at the Armstrong Building

As of this afternoon, people entering the Armstrong building on the 3rd Street side are greeted by signs like this:

That's because, beyond the library entrance, before you get to the lobby and the food court, some men are building a wall:

The library staff was not sure why this wall is being built. They were told it had something to do with building an underground parking garage. Meanwhile, the library now has a back door so patrons can access the washrooms (hard to find anyway, but they're behind the food court) as well as the stairs to the skywalks.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall. I'll miss seeing the stream of people walking through this hallway as I study. But I suppose underground parking garages, like bypasses, have got to be built.


Sacred Places In-between

In my readings about place this semester I ran across an article by Steven Pickard in the Journal of Anglican Studies: "Church of the In-Between God: Recovering an Ecclesial Sense of Place Down-Under" (May 2009). It's an unlikely journal for me to run across, but Ebsco is a rare and beautiful thing. I talked about Pickard's article in our church's adult Sunday School this morning, and the class had some interesting responses.

Pickard writes from the perspective of an Anglican in Australia, and while I am neither, his observations have wider import. He describes Australian Anglicanism as "a colonial church 12,000 miles on the other side of the known world, on the largest and driest island continent on Earth." Consequently church members set about trying to establish a sense of home, which they do, but they remain oriented to faraway Britain instead of their immediate surroundings. This makes it difficult to adapt to their physical surroundings as well as…


(Skywalk System enters the Higley Building)
I've been reading a lot lately about the New Urbanism, which has been very interesting and provocative, and which I expect to address in a post soon. One of the best books in the area is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by a trio of planners: Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck (North Point Press, 2000). (Ms. Plater-Zyberk is also the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami.) Amidst an impressive array of pertinent observations and recommendations, the trio takes part of chapter 9 to inveigh against "pedestrian bridges." This struck me forcefully, because as I've already told you, I love love love Cedar Rapids's Downtown Skywalk System.

Duany et al. argue that skywalks work against urban vitality. Cities, to succeed, must be designed to do what cities do best: provide "a public realm, with the vibrant street life that phrase implies&qu…

The Place Where I Live

I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a small city of 110,000 population (metro area: 150,000). Our house is about two miles east of downtown, in a well-kept neighborhood with lots of trees and sidewalks. We are close to Bever Park, a large multi-use city park; Brucemore National Historic Site; and Washington High School, which my two boys attend.

Cedar Rapids has a lot to recommend it. Our cultural amenities are modest, compared to a large city like Chicago or Minneapolis, but they are plenteous and accessible. My family are members of Brucemore, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library, Indian Creek Nature Center, and the National Czeck and Slovak Museum, which gives you an idea of the breadth of activities available. There is also minor league baseball, hockey and football, and an emerging trails system.

Downtown is slowly recovering from the flood of June 2008. It is almost entirely commercial; there are few places to shop, and even fewer places to live.…

Welcome to Holy Mountain!

"They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."--ISAIAH 11:9

This winter and spring, during my sabbatical leave from teaching at Coe College, I have been reading a great deal about place. I'd also hoped to be doing more hands-on investigation of place, particularly related to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, but that has so far not worked out.

I teach a course in our first-year seminar program called "A Sense of Place," and two times through this course has impressed me with how pliable this concept is. A semester out of the classroom has enabled me to immerse myself in the place literature--or, should I say, literatures, because it's a hot topic in any number of disciplines (though not so much, curiously, in my home discipline of political science). Perhaps I will turn all this reading into an article or book, but that's down the road a piece. In the meantime, …