Saturday, April 27, 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 of sacred space, and four ways believers interact with sacred space. Did I mention he is comprehensive? He is a man after my own heart, a maker of lists!

As a first pass, this is brilliant, though as I shall suggest I think there are some other aspects of sacred space he doesn't discuss. Here are Stump's seven forms of sacred space:

(1) cosmic, elements of the universe, tangible (earth) and imagined (heaven)
("Doggie Heaven," swiped from

(2) holy lands, territory that is significant because of its role in defining the group, usually though not always in terms of its traditional history, such as the land God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12
(Biblical "Land of Israel," from Wikipedia Commons)

(3) natural spaces, where the supernatural power is reflected in nature in some meaningful way, especially but not exclusively by animists and polytheists... Doesn't this look like a fun read?

(4) sacred cities, which are significant by association with key events (Mecca, Bethlehem), sacred figures, rituals, pilgrimages (Santiago de Compostela) or religious organization (Rome)
(Santiago de Compostela, Spain, from Wikipedia Commons)

(5) ordinary local spaces, churches, synagogues, mosques and other humanly constructed places of worship associated with the everyday practices including communal worship and many other functions
(My church: Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, Cedar Rapids,
swiped from

(6) unique local spaces, same as above but applying to those with special association with central functions (the Great Mosque of Mecca, St. Peter's in Rome), sacred events (Lourdes) or relics
(Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka, swiped from

(7) microscales, sacred objects such as icons, altars, or in some cases bodies
(Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto, Mt Mercy University, Cedar Rapids,
swiped from

(Lovely Lane sanctuary: altar is in the foreground, Re table behind it)

Stump's book focuses on religious groups, particularly Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and given that's quite a large chunk to bite off, it is a prodigious work. Nevertheless, by doing this he mostly overlooks (except for the discussion of microscales) the individual's relationship to the sacred. I would say that besides personal shrines, individuals may experience three types of sacred space.

First, there are places where one feels the presence of God (or ultimate reality, or whatever is your preferred term). This is different from saying places where God is present, because all western religions believe God is omnipresent. Though God may be "a very present help in trouble," it is usually quiet places where we sense God's presence. Perhaps quiet liberates our mind to wonder at Creation. During a troubled summer in Louisiana, I was shocked back to myself one morning upon seeing the sunrise through the trees near my apartment. Also, quiet, particularly in natural places, allows us to notice God instead of whatever might be stressing us. Here we can, in the words of John Denver's great song, "Talk to God and listen to the casual reply."

Another place we encounter the supernatural is in a beloved community. This is for me far more likely to be the case than when I "come to the garden alone," because I'm not a particularly spiritual person. I also generally don't like meetings. But at some times with some groups of people I feel a sense of the transcendent. When I discussed this with my Sunday school class, my friend Margaret mentioned the song "Betty's Diner" by Carrie Newcomer. The song describes the various hurts and frustrations of the diner patrons, but somehow together they find a caring community that brings out their own better selves:

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face...

Interestingly, the song does not mention God or any other spirit. It is clear, though, from Newcomer's corpus of songs that spiritual concerns are at the core of her songwriting, and so reasonable to infer a sense of spirituality in this community as well. And then there's the bridge:

You never know who'll be your witness
You never know who grants forgiveness
Look to heaven or sit with us

(The Faith Issues class at Lovely Lane serves as a spiritual community for me)

A third type of sacred place that relates to individuals is a place that is or should be inviolate. This may or may not be your church. Several congregations in Cedar Rapids have moved in recent years, including Buffalo United Methodist, Central Park Presbyterian, Maranatha Bible Church, People's Church and St. Mark's Lutheran. Still I read sad stories about churches closing, so I know it happens. But individual attachment to places that reaches the level of sanctity is hard to predict. There was much fuss in 2002 when construction of our town's new baseball required moving the veterans' memorial, and the local preservationist group Save CR Heritage formed in part in response to the destruction of two historic downtown church buildings. And Chicago media are full of public concern that the new Cubs' ownership may alter Wrigley Field in some way, or even--quelle horreur!--move the Cubs to the suburbs. I frankly don't know how much of this relates to sacredness and how much relates to other concerns. And I'm having trouble coming up with personal examples, too. If my church moved out of our roughly 50-year-old building, I don't think I'd mind, but if development threatened the Sac and Fox Trail there'd be blood in my eye.

(Demolition of First Christian Church, Cedar Rapids, May 2012,
swiped from

Another dimension altogether is the effort of religious institutions to create a sense of sacredness in their worship space. That seems worthy of a separate post.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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: the vibrant, somewhat scary districts in many southern cities known as "Bronzevilles." Bronzevilles were cauldrons of innovation and entrepreneurship, partly because they put creative people in close proximity to one another while attracting others from outlying areas, and partly because rigid segregation of the races meant even the most talented blacks had no other place to go. By the 1970s, bronzevilles had fallen victim to both urban renewal (which "cleaned up" the ghettos by knocking them all down) and desegregation (which allowed those with talent and education to go elsewhere).

Lauterbach's descriptions show the positive and negative aspects of what the New Urbanists call "urbanity," which is what makes cities exciting places to be. The book needs a CD soundtrack to accompany it, but even without one you can imagine what a thrill it would have been to be there when B.B. King or James Brown or Johnny Ace made their debut. It would be cool to live within walking distance of such happening places. The New Bo area in Cedar Rapids is sort of happening, and even so is three miles away from my house.

Some of the descriptions, however, are positively harrowing. Sometimes the excitement must have been too much, and the resourcefulness that fueled the area's businesses worked around the law rather than with it. Lauterbach quotes Errol Grandy, a piano player in the Sunset Ballroom on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis:

"Every time I was there I wished for a bulletproof vest," Avenue pianist Errol Grandy recalled. "I didn't have one, but I wished for one." A former [numbers racket] player and Sunset regular named Joe Hester concurred. "Everybody carried a gun in there," Hester said. "I had my little .32," he added, a revolver that fit just as neatly in the palm of the hand as into the inside pocket of a man's coat. Denver [Ferguson, owner]provided a security force, as Hester recalled. "Brawny motherfuckers, grab you by the shoulders and deposit you on the street, say, 'Get out!' (p. 61)

An extended description of the West Dallas Avenue strip by a reporter for the Houston Informer (pp. 96-97) is longer but well worth reading, the lyric of shocked innocence. "The loser goes to the hospital," he says describing a dice game gone horribly wrong, "The winner goes to jail. What a street!" Bandleader Walter Barnes, all of his band except one, and more than 200 others died in a fire at Indianapolis's rickety Rhythm Club (pp. 66-72). Singer Jimmy Liggins was shot on stage in Memphis (p. 194). Prostitution was rampant; violent deaths were common.

The story of the cities on the chitlin' circuit are instructive, though the institutionalized racism that bred them is I hope in our past. There's probably a porous boundary between excitement and danger, and at the same time another porous boundary between interesting urbanity and soulless schlock. Too much regulation, governmental or societal, kills innovation and makes for a dull, lifeless world. Too little regulation is scary, and justifiably so. I'd rather not be bored, but I'd rather be bored than knifed to death.

There's also something to be said for small, cautious steps in change. Urban renewal succeeded by destroying what it set out to save. From across five decades comes the prophetic voice of Jane Jacobs:

But look what we have built with the first several billions [of dollars of urban renewal spending]: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities. (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities [New York: Random House, 1961), p. 4)

(Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago; swiped from

The smart people that pushed urban renewal and suburban sprawl don't look so smart today. The New Urbanism is timely, has chosen its enemies well, and at least from what I've read seems to have learned the lessons from prior design and policy failures.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

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 commercial development in the three outlying towns, which would get them some nice property tax revenue and possibly make them more attractive to future residents. Assuming there is commercial development waiting to happen, there is a zero-sum game when it comes to property taxes: Businesses in Cedar Rapids pay taxes to Cedar Rapids, businesses in Marion pay taxes to Marion, and so forth. It's a competition, in which revenue that goes to Cedar Rapids doesn't go to Marion, and vice versa. Secondly, to the extent that the development is successful, it will add to the existing sprawl of the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. It's worth mentioning that the financial contribution of the CMPO would be a small percentage of the total project cost; it would essentially be some skin in the game to leverage financing by the state and federal government. A couple posts ago I mentioned how national government policy has contributed in a large way to sprawl around the country, and here is a prime local example.

The Gazette editorial notes the valid concerns of the City of Cedar Rapids, but concludes it would be unfair to deny the aspirations of the outlying towns. "[W]e think," they write, "Cedar Rapids must temper its own preferences with the needs of its growing neighbors. It needs to tamp down its natural competitive instincts and consider the good of the region, especially in its dealings with the CMPO. The ultimate goal should be a comprehensive transportation system that helps the region grow and thrive. We think both of these priorities [trails and the project] fit that objective."

This is on the right track. I prefer "win-win" solutions to "win-lose." It doesn't address either the finite pot of money available, or the long-term unsustainability of sprawl. I think a better "win-win" solution would be to support the Tower Terrace Road project, while leveraging it to create a viable regional plan. This would include a meaningful urban growth boundary, regional property tax sharing, and a no-poaching agreements among all area municipalities. (I'd make them take the casino, too, but that's just me joking, ha ha.) The additional sprawl created by Tower Terrace Rd would be a small price to pay for a serious effort to cap future sprawl. I'm for drilling in ANWR and building the XL Pipeline, too, if they can be used to leverage a serious approach to future energy policy, like a serious gasoline tax.

Less controversially, John Smith of CRST International has proposed building a multistory commercial building on the river side of 1st St SE, where the First Street Parkade was formerly located, and where there is currently a surface parking lot. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz is appropriately psyched: "We think it's going to be a signature building, meaning it's going to be a very attractive addition to the downtown skyline."

(current parking lot, facing Alliant Building, 4/22/13)

(architects' drawing of proposed building)

I agree with Pomeranz that this is an exciting idea, and I hope it comes to pass, and I hope it connects to the Skywalk System. I'm thrilled that a heavyweight like Smith wants to invest in our downtown. The stickler seems to be the lost parking lot; Smith has suggested building underground parking for 250-300 cars. That reminds me that one way our country subsidizes auto use is through acres and acres of parking spaces. A recent "Freakonomics" podcast estimated there are 800,000,000 surface parking spaces in the U.S., not counting driveways and parking garages. We sure do pave a lot so we can drive a lot. Do I have a better idea? No. Go for it, Mr. Smith.


Dave DeWitte, "CRST Plans Major Headquarters Expansion in Cedar Rapids." Cedar Rapids Gazette,  23  March 2013 [].

"Metro Pathways." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 21 April 2013, 9A, 12 A [].

Rick Smith, "CRST Wants to Join Downtown Skyline." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 21 April 2013, 1A, 7A [].

Rick Smith, "Tower Terrace Road Becoming a Battle Line." Cedar Rapids Gazette, 9 April 2013 [].

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 directly on to...

The Two Biblical Models of Kingship

The Chew Toy Model. In I Samuel 8, Israel demands that the prophet Samuel appoint a king for them. Samuel doesn't want to, but God, while taking the demand as a personal rejection, suggests Samuel do it anyway, after explaining to the people exactly how awful kings really are. So Samuel does:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 

When the Israelites remain unconvinced, Samuel adds this kicker:

And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

The Good Steward Model. Quite a different picture of kingship is described by the prophet Isaiah, who could at other times be as grumpy as Samuel. But in Isaiah 9, he waxes rhapsodic about the good king to come. This king does not see the kingdom as his personal chew toy, but uses his reign to benefit all:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

I don't think it takes that subtle a reading of the Bible to discern which model has scriptural sanction, and which does not. This is particularly true for Christians, who interpret Isaiah 9 as referring to the coming of Jesus Christ. Reading this interpretation of "dominion" back to the Creation story suggests that God surely expects more from us than exploitation of His creation.

Friday, April 19, 2013

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 that the New Urbanism addresses is sprawl, from which numerous other evils spring. Sprawl occurs when a metropolitan area develops over a large area, relying on low-density housing developments, located far from places to work, connected by vast networks of highways. Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles are probably the most famous loci of sprawl, but it's plenty visible in older cities like Chicago, and certainly has occurred albeit on a smaller scale in Cedar Rapids.

(suburban sprawl--picture swiped from

Sprawl has happened because since the 1940s Americans have assumed there will be eternal flows of cheap oil. Lower up-front costs, along with promises of low crime and privacy, have made suburban living attractive, and developers and suburban government officials and the highway lobby have been very willing accomplices. But the whole process has been made possible by very bad policy decisions by the national government, which has subsidized the building of large homes through unlimited tax deductions for home mortgage interest, energetic highway construction and a transportation aid formula that pays states based on the raw amount of vehicle miles traveled. These policies may have made sense at some time, but they have long since become dysfunctional.

The evils of sprawl are, as I said, numerous: traffic congestion and air pollution, highway deaths and injuries, waste of taxpayer dollars, individual spending on transportation, and disinvestment in core cities. The last has meant poverty and marginalization for those unable to follow their better-off neighbors out of urban (and older suburban) ghettos. Society loses from the lack of public spaces or time to spend in them: people have less contact with people different from themselves, including those who live nearby, spending time isolated in their cars, or with similar and like-minded friends ("gated communities of the mind," in Douglas Calthorpe's phrase). Individual rationality is collective irrationality, and then the individuals find themselves on an accelerating hamster wheel with no way to get off.

Addressing these problems requires shifting our policy focus to metropolitan regions and individual neighborhoods. Metropolitan problems need to be handled by metropolitan governments with the ability to make decisions (highways, urban growth and urban service boundaries) in the best interests of the whole region, not just of individual municipalities. Zoning in particular needs to change, allowing for integrated planning, and ditching the current system which require physical separation of different uses and ridiculous amounts of parking while indifferent to how a place looks and operates.

Their most intriguing recommendations have to do with how neighborhoods should look. The "traditional neighborhood" idea common to New Urbanism thought consists of streets that are walkable and human scaled (narrow so they're safe for bicycles and pedestrians, architecturally pleasant), diverse in population, varied in uses, and shaped around public spaces ("centers") that are meaningful and memorable. These centers provide loci for the "everyday and sometimes random casual meetings that foster a sense of community" (Calthorpe and Fulton ch 2). Many places should be reachable in a five-minute walk. Walkable and bikeable streets should support an appropriately-scaled system of public transit (Calthorpe and Fulton ch 9).

Revitalized cities would be able to provide the advantages of "urbanism" without miserable areas of concentrated poverty. People who wanted different kinds of lifestyles would have different options, but without incentives to push ever-outward. More people could get to work, shop, recreation and back home with a reasonable amount of time and effort, without destroying the atmosphere and depleting resources. More contact between people might well bring a greater sense of common purpose and common destiny.

All the authors recognize that there are powerful forces arrayed against attainment of these goals. Wealthy interests are heavily invested in the current system, and individualism is everywhere rampant. Imagining trying to convince Naperville not to sprawl into Will County, or to do some infill, is enough to convince one of the hazards of this project. Then imagine trying to convince Naperville that its destiny is any way tied to that of 63rd Street in Chicago (other than keeping it as far away as possible). The authors are, thankfully, politically realistic, and offer some ideas about how to persuade. (Hester is particular puts a great deal of emphasis on inclusive participation, but they all do to some extent.) They remain convinced that we don't have the resources or the public funds to sustain sprawl, and that communities cannot flourish with so much of their population miserable and marginalized.

In future posts I hope to illustrate some of the specific aspects of the New Urbanism, as well as some of the challenges in making them come alive.


                Calthorpe, Peter, and Fulton, William. The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl. Washington: Island, 2001.

     Duany, Andres; Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth; and Speck, Jeff. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point, 2000.

         Hester, Randolph T. Design for Ecological Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

    Kelbaugh, Douglas S. Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

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 inequality, with economic groups living more and more apart from each other, evolving different norms of behavior and signs of identification. I vividly illustrated this last fall in a class discussion: Imagine, I instructed the class, I'm walking down the street with a black colleague, and we pass a house where a few white drunks are throwing bottles off the porch and shouting racial epithets. Am I suddenly going to identify with my white brothers? I think not!

And yet, in spite of my naivete and bad hypotheticals, some pretty careful research concludes that race is very much with us. Jason Anastasopoulos of UC-Berkeley presented "The Big Sort: Diversity, White Flight and Polarization in Neighborhoods and Cities." He tracked the impact on neighborhoods in Houston, Texas, of the influx of hurricane refugees from New Orleans in 2005-07. As the mostly black refugees moved in, a sizeable portion of existing residents, mostly white, relocated out of those neighborhoods. Relocation decisions were predictable by ideology--conservatives moved, liberals didn't--resulting in a more liberal neighborhood overall. This supports the argument of authors like Bill Bishop (The Big Sort, 2008) that Americans are moving to be with like-minded people, resulting in strongly conservative and liberal areas that elect strongly conservative and liberal representatives who then have trouble agreeing on policy decisions. The racial lesson is ambiguous: any influx that massive is likely to be destabilizing for the neighborhoods, and it's certain (given how the damage affected different areas of New Orleans) that the refugees were mostly lower class.

Findings in "The Primacy of Race in the Geography of Income-Based Voting" by Clayton M. Nall of Stanford and Eitan Hersh of Yale are more difficult to explain away. Nall and Hersh analyze the relationship between family income and a voter's choice of candidate. (Survey research going back to the 1930s shows the probability of voting Republican increases with with income, though the relationship has been less strong since the 1960s.) In congressional districts that are predominantly white, income remains strongly predictive. But for whites in racially-mixed districts, the wealthy still vote Republican but the less-well-off tend not to vote Democratic as much as similar voters in predominantly white districts (or blacks in racially-mixed districts); this is particularly true in the South.

Race, then, still motivates political behavior. Perhaps one can explain nonwhite racial solidarity by the legacy of discrimination and minority status. For whites, though, that reason doesn't wash. We--particularly people like me who have been rather naive about the topic--need to acknowledge the lingering presence of racial motivations in American political behavior. And we should commit ourselves to working for a better life for all, rather than acting to protect ourselves from spurious threats.


Monday, April 15, 2013

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 Intelligentsia Coffeehouse.

Note the amount of car traffic, and street width, both probably more than the new urbanists would like. Interactions between pedestrians and cars were mostly peaceful, though there were frequent examples of aggressive action by both. 

Downtown Chicago has many places you've heard of, so I'll skip those and talk about my quirky favorites. Friday morning I had breakfast in the food court at the Merchandise Mart (1928). There are many oatmeal options, and the CTA stop exits right into the gigantic office building.

Friday night I saw a movie ("Jazz on a Summer's Day") at the Gene Siskel Film Center, hidden in the middle of the block on North State Street, but once inside a great place to see movies that never come to Cedar Rapids. Sunday morning I worshiped at First United Methodist Church downtown, housed in "Chicago Temple" (1924), a skinny skyscraper on Washington Blvd. The church is vital and active, acoustically live, with an impressive music program and (are you sitting down?) no video screen.

I made a couple forays into the suburbs, seeing the downtowns of Downers Grove and La Grange. Both seem to be in fine shape (as is Naperville's, which I visited in January): commercially active, nice layout, though I suspect that if I did a careful survey I'd find they tended towards the tony-upscale over the practical. Maybe not. All three are 19th century towns that became suburbs when the metropolitan area's reach took them in. I didn't visit any more recently-created or less-wealthy towns.

Even so, signs of sprawl are everywhere in metropolitan Chicago. The metro area extends for miles beyond the city limits, and takes in numerous suburbs of ever-decreasing density. Understandably, a former student who recently moved to Chicago from Montana complained about the lack of nearby wild areas.

The area's reach has long since engulfed the small towns along Route 30: Sugar Grove, Big Rock, Hinckley, Waterman and Shabbona. From the perspective of my car on Route 30, Hinckley and its traditional downtown seems to be making the adjustment well. Waterman, by contrast, is building a gigantic subdivision east of town with cookie-cutter houses, all large on large lots, and connected to nothing. As a society, we have a long way to go to achieve sustainability. In tiny Waterman, even for destinations that aren't a long way off, they'll have to get there by car. 


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

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 government social policies--the "very worried" especially so.

In "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright report on a survey of wealthy Chicago residents. The average income of their respondents was $1,040,140; the median wealth was $7,500,000. Compared to surveys of the general population, respondents in this survey reported far more political activity and attitudes that were in the main (though not universally) far more conservative. The survey asked about a broad range of issues, including the economy, social programs, health care, Social Security and education. The three points of greatest difference were:

  • 52: The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to (general public 87, SESA survey 35)
  • 50: The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so (general public 78, SESA survey 28)
  • 49: The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job (general public 68, SESA survey 19)
The two articles explore in depth different dimensions of our contemporary economic reality: current economic arrangements increase insecurity for most people, and do so in ways that are experienced very differently by people in different life situations. It is clear from these surveys that they know it. This may not be even worth mentioning except that there is little sense of a common destiny among Americans. Many people feel like they've achieved exemption from ordinary insecurities, and work to ensure that their status is protected (for example, by eliminating the tax on estates). Many people have given up. Most people seem to be in some sort of middle state, where they're getting by but aware that one adverse event can knock them severely off track. For their perpetual insecurity they blame whoever they don't like--the government, the rich, the poor, oil companies, Obama, Bush, ...

It is interesting to read and write this in the week following the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She, and her contemporary Ronald Reagan, are widely credited with getting their governments out of ditches, and preparing their societies for the information age economy. They are also criticized for attacking the social safety net and leaving individuals to their own devices amidst increasing economic insecurity. Individualism and competition have their roles to play. But Thatcher is widely quoted as saying, "There is no such thing as 'society.'" The quote's been taken out of context, and so probably doesn't bear deep analysis. But a people who have tilted heavily in the direction of individualism and competition, with no concern for the opportunities of the people around them, is a people that has lost their souls. It may be better in the short run for the rich if they become ever richer, but a public sphere that is impoverished leaves us all poorer eventually--if not financially, then at least in terms of quality of life.

Fact 1 image is missing

Source: Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality,

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

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.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

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 their fellow inhabitants, particularly indigenous people that got colonized upon.

Their situation isn't identical with ours, but middle-class churches can identify with their situation to a considerable degree. Particularly, he suggests, globalization creates insecurity on so many levels (homogenization of places, economic dislocations, &c.) that we may well feel the need to establish roots in secure and protected spaces. And this is OK, as long as we don't just stay there. To quote the hymn "In the Garden," which by the way is 100 years old this year, "he bids me go; thru the voice of woe his voice to me is calling."

It is good to be welcoming to visitors, but today's churches have to face the reality that many people are not likely to seek them out. Through much of the 20th century, going to church was socially-expected, and people went where their parents went, or their neighbors, or co-workers, and then they kept going, and the churches didn't have to work too hard to attract people. Maybe they could put more energy into weeding out the undesirables? Anyway, in today's more secular America, this is quite clearly no longer the case. And that stands to reason: my comfort at my church stems in part from going there for 22 years, which means I know a lot of the people, the theology, the location of the rest rooms, and perhaps most important the unwritten rules of normal behavior. An outsider obviously is not going to feel that degree of comfort; in fact, they are likely to be uncomfortable in inverse proportion to our comfort! So only some other strong motivation is likely to bring them in.

Pickard advocates what he calls "life-at-the-boundary," the boundary, that is, between the safe place of our church home and the relative chaos of the world beyond. It is along these boundaries, he says, where routines and roles are disrupted enough to allow "new and creative opportunities for life together [and] new patterns of human interaction arise." He draws on a book which I have not read, A Christian Theology of Place by John Inge (2003), to argue that any "location of meeting and activity in the interaction between God and the world" could be a sacred place. Pickard cites two familiar, powerful incidents in Jesus's ministry: the encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, which occurred because Jesus led his disciples out of the comfort zones of Judea and Galilee into decidedly alien territory; and the post-resurrection encounter with two followers on the road to Emmaus, where the men do not even recognize Jesus when they see him apart from their usual meeting place.

The members of the class took the class in a number of different directions, including: encouraging members of the community (however defined) to share their talents and gifts, developing a sense of acceptance in the church, issues with welcoming new ideas, and the trials of relocating to a new town. All agreed that going out beyond our shelter is a core part of the church's job. That much was not even controversial.

So why is it so difficult to do? Pickard stresses the aspect of risk, and I can certainly identify with that. I am not comfortable meeting new people, particularly in unstructured situations. And time is always in short supply, even in the City of Five Seasons. I wonder if there are sufficient opportunities available, or even structures where those opportunities could be created? Habitat for Humanity builds or work trips or medical missions are great experiences, maybe even life-changing, and I think Pickard is thinking of more routine encounters. There are opportunities for charitable work with meals programs, health clinics, and homeless ministries in our town, but those are encounters specifically designed to help those in critical need. Are there "in-between places" where people can meet mutually?

Toward the end, the discussion went off to discuss our church's welcoming stance towards gays and lesbians, and how some people may not feel welcomed in a church that welcomes gays. Moreover, our church sponsors a Boy Scout troop, and the Boy Scouts have their own rules and issues about homosexuality. Those are interesting and difficult questions, but I think are NOT the issue here. In those cases the church is addressing how it deals with people in its own home. The "in-between places" of which Pickard writes are no one's home, the encounters are mutual, and structures and rules remain to be negotiated. It is in such "neutral places where relationships are less clear and consequently open to new possibilities."

Are there such places?

Friday, April 5, 2013


(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" (p. 156). That means city neighborhoods, particularly downtowns, must offer a mix of eating, shopping, working and socializing, so that there is activity at any hour of the day and night. And in the center of this is, not streets full of cars, but sidewalks full of pedestrians. Skywalks, they say, are designed to achieve two goals, both of which work against urban vitality: (1) get pedestrians out of the way of cars so they can move more freely and quickly through downtown streets; and (2) get professional people up and away from icky poor people on the street. They discount factors related to adverse weather that might make walking unpleasant during long hot summers in Dallas or long cold winters in Minneapolis (or Cedar Rapids): "Only in the most extreme conditions has bad weather proved capable of eliminating pedestrian traffic along a properly designed street. There is more sidewalk-fronting retails space in Toronto than in all the cities of the Sun Belt combined" (p. 159n).

In that same footnote, they quote a 1992 article by Trevor Boddy: "Precisely because downtown streets are the last preserve of something approaching a mixing of all sectors of society, their replacement by the sealed realm overhead and underground has enormous implications for all aspects of political life. Constitutional guarantees of free speech and of freedom of association and assembly mean much less if there is literally no peopled public space to serve as forum in which to act out these rights."

Before I respond, I'll pile on with more consideration: In a stretched city budget, would I rather see Cedar Rapids (a) expand the Skywalk System; (b) extend our rudimentary trails system; (c) build sidewalks on Prairie Drive NE and Memorial Drive SE; (d) reclaim some of our endless acres of surface parking for some more useful purpose? Well, I'd like to do all of those things, but I must admit "(a)" is at the bottom of the priority list.

So why do I love the Skywalk System so much. (Gee, after writing the above paragraphs, maybe I don't!) Part of it has to do with the frequently hostile weather in our town, and yes, the fact that drivers are not conditioned to look for pedestrians. Just yesterday, a woman turning right onto 4th Av, eyeing a parking space on the far side of the street and enjoying a vigorous conversation with her passenger, got uncomfortably close to your author. But I can do better than that.

One thing I love about the Skywalk System, and which somewhat redeems it from the criticisms made by Duany, Boddy and others, is its utter impracticality. Walking the skywalks is an adventure. Far from paralleling the sidewalks, the skywalks twist and turn all over the place. Last week I overheard one of the public library staff telling her colleague, "On the skywalks it takes you four blocks to go two." They're better signposted than they used to be, but back in the '90s it was a well-known challenge to get from one end to the other without getting lost. It's not quite an autonomous ramble through uncharted territory, but it can feel pretty close.

Secondly, the Skywalks put me in buildings I'd never be in otherwise, at least not up to the second or third floors. Some of the most venerable architecture remaining in Cedar Rapids, a city that has long loved to tear itself down, is in the downtown commercial district. The skywalks run you through the American Building (1913, pictured below), the Higley Building (1918), the Dows Building (1930), and other places that exude history and where I'd have no other business being. I'm not sure the staff of Scherup Blades or United Fire and Casualty need me to walk down their hallways, but I'm grateful for the chances to do so.

The skywalks were already here when we moved to Cedar Rapids in 1989, so I wasn't around for the discussions around building them. But I'm glad they're there, and now I've got my sons into them, too!

(Below: the American Building, completed in 1913, is one terminus of the twisted and confusing and totally lovable Skywalk System)

A couple programming notes:
 1. I'm doing a talk at church this weekend on "third (in-between) places." I'll summarize the discussion next week.
 2. "World Cafe," a public radio program out of Philadelphia has an occasional series called "A Sense of Place." Next week they're featuring Nashville.

Monday, April 1, 2013

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. There are some nice restaurants, though, along with the art and history museums, and the Czech and African-American History museums are not far off. There are two theaters, one hosting the drama group Theatre Cedar Rapids, and the other the Eastern Iowa Symphony Orchestra. The main branch of the library is due to open August 24 on 4th Avenue SE. My favorite part of downtown is the Skywalk system, which runs about two circuitous miles through office buildings. The ends are cut off due to reconstruction; I hope they eventually get reconnected. There are three outstanding coffee shops attached to the Skywalks, and another directly adjacent. About a mile south of downtown is New Bohemia, an area where there's been a lot of development post-flood, and which has developed an active night life.

Another strength of the town is the parks system, which includes several large parks as well as local "pocket" parks. Bever Park, about 3/4 mile east of our house, comprises several acres including a playground, petting zoo, duck pond, picnic areas, a large swimming pool (one of five in town), and some woodsy trails in the back of the park where it's hard to believe you're still in a city. Noelridge and Cherry Hill Parks are flatter and more open, and (to me) less interesting, although Noelridge's gardens are exceptional. Ellis Park, on the west side along the river, is larger than Bever and almost as diverse but harder to lose yourself in.

Because we're a small city in a sparsely-populated state, we've felt rather free to sprawl. I've heard Cedar Rapids covers more square miles than San Francisco, California, which is absurd if true. It's very difficult to get anywhere in town without a car. Grocery stores are few and tend to be enormous, surrounded by enormous parking lots. The sidewalks in our neighborhood are nice, and the city has undertaken a sidewalk construction project. There are plans to build a sidewalk along Prairie Drive NE, which desperately needs it, if the number of people walking in the street are any indication. I hope Memorial Drive SE is also on the list. But there's nothing within a five-block walk of our house except more houses and Brucemore. A lot of bars, restaurants and stores are concentrated in hellish strips on Mount Vernon Road SE, 33rd Avenue and Edgewood Road SW, and Collins Road NE, as well as around the two malls.

Historic preservation in Cedar Rapids is a struggle. A lot of our older commercial buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or newer uglier buildings. The area east of downtown, say between 6th and 10th Streets, is pretty much a dead zone except for the two medical complexes. I'm not sure what the answer is: the older buildings tend to get pretty run down before they get torn down. A case in point was the People's Church (Unitarian-Universalist), 600 3rd Av SE, built in 1878. By 2011, the congregation despaired of making the necessary repairs, and sold the property. Now the address is occupied by this:


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, I've increasingly wished that I'd been keeping track of and reflecting on my reading in a more public forum than the notes I was storing on my hard drive. Unfortunately, the world has lost much of the brilliant posts I would have made on this blog had I started it three months ago. Fortunately, there's still time to be brilliant if one can manage it.

My study of place this year has reinforced my conviction that the fundamental human challenge in the 21st century is figuring out how we're going to all live together on the planet Earth. This challenge has a number of dimensions.

  • There sure are a lot of us. We're pushing 7 billion people on the planet, which is more than it's ever supported in human history. Technological advancements have helped manage this, but there are practical limits to spaces where we can fit and resources we can use. If we expand the notion of "us" to include animal and plant life, it's undeniable that human activity has pushed and is continuing to push squads of species to the brink of extinction.
  • We have diverse talents and opportunities. It's common knowledge that economic inequality is increasing in the United States to levels not seen in roughly 100 years. This is occurring at the very time when leaps forward in automization, communication and transportation are making a lot of human employees redundant. Opportunities for Americans who don't have a head start in life are pretty bleak. The keys to success in the 21st century economy are to make the most of your opportunities, and to sell yourself. But what if you're not good at selling? Do we really want to evolve into an entrepreneurial monoculture? Do we really want to doom huge chunks of the population to marginality?
  • We are different in a lot of other ways as well. Choose any demographic dimension you care to, and you're going to run into people who are different than you. The homogeneous small towns of the 19th century are probably as much myth as they were reality, but they are for the most part over. We are a diverse bunch racially, linguistically, culturally and in terms of sexual orientation. We are diverse religiously, not only in what we call ourselves (Christian, Moslem, atheist, e.g.) but in terms of how we practice our religions or lack thereof. We have different ethics, social norms, lifestyles, political ideologies and such. Can we get along?
  • Climate change is undeniable, even though many people still deny it. Prudence dictates that we adjust our lifestyles to reduce our production of greenhouse gases. We also need to start thinking about how we're going to accommodate changes as they arrive. Rising sea levels would have an interesting impact on some major population centers. Greater incidence of severe weather has already started to happen, and it's harder and harder to find the wherewithal to dig out from repeated natural disasters.
  • Everyone's angry. Well, not everyone... if you've made it this far through this post, you certainly have the patience and open-mindedness this country needs. But there are plenty of people in politics and the media marketing outrage to an eager audience. Too many people are ready to believe anything, no matter how preposterous, if it makes them feel good. And "I have a right to X" doesn't contribute to the conversation, it stops it. The tradition of individual rights that originated in the Enlightenment is one of the glories of civilization. Yet, rights have to be accompanied by responsibilities, and accommodated to public need, if we're going to work all this out. 
Those are some of the ways in which living together in the 21st century is going to be a challenge. Can better understanding of place, and better spatial arrangements, help us to do that? 

Despite the title, and the epigram, my blog will not primarily focus on religion, though religious subjects may arise from time to time. I thought about calling the blog "Living Together," since as stated above it is my fundamental concern, and because it has an amusing double entendre to it. Then I ran across the verse from Isaiah, which I think covers the same ground, and most poetically. Incidentally, the address has been taken, though that blog hasn't been updated since October 2002. Were there blogs in 2002? Does Blogger have a statute of limitations? My fallback,, has also been taken, albeit no entries have ever been made on that one. So I'm using "Holy Mountain" for the title, and my Gmail for the address.


Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...