Sunday, January 24, 2016

The future of religious places (II)

Rural churches (here, Alice United Methodist Church in
Center Point, IA) face an uncertain future...
...but there are choices facing city churches, too,
like Cedar Rapids's Westminster Presbyterian
Two women, one in an urban area and one writing from the perspective of small towns, have just published perceptive essays raising issues of religion's relationship to place. Meanwhile, Faith and Form is out with their always-fascinating annual list of awards for religious art and architecture. The striking juxtaposition is also troubling for those (like me) who see an essential role for religious spaces in 21st century American places.

Lyz Lenz writes about the troubled future of small-town churches, including interviews with residents of Sidney (pop. 1138) and Ely (pop. 1776), Iowa. Citing the Association of Religious Data Archives, she notes the state has 500 fewer religious institutions than it did 20 years ago, mostly in rural areas. The Plymouth County Historical Museum has a whole floor dedicated to the remnants of rural churches. Drab old organs are huddled on the yellowing linoleum. One room holds stained glass windows, rectories, and murals retrieved from the small white churches now atrophying in cornfields alongside abandoned schools. In part this is due to declines in religious observance, and population shifts from rural to urban areas. But in towns like Ely, which is close enough to Cedar Rapids to be considered a suburb, a third factor is evident: the religiously observant have a wide choice of houses of worship in the nearby big city. And they're making those choices, reports Lenz. When our mobility enables us to get to a church that suits us, it also "leaves them more disconnected from the community where they live."

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis (pop. 400,070), there are over 30 houses of worship within a mile radius of Sara Joy Proppe's house. In contrast to the small towns which are losing population, Proppe's neighborhood is densely populated, with residents making use of excellent pedestrian infrastructure. She looks at whether churches in the area offer inviting places for passers-by to rest. Citing scripture that values rest and sitting, she also notes a place to sit provides an opportunity for meeting our neighbors and the stranger. This is a vital component to actually loving our neighbors.... Putting in some seating is not a panacea for making better communities, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a way to invite others to rest, to participation, to value neighbors and strangers. And it all can start with something as simple as a bench. She observes a variety of orientations (see the link below for pictures). The fourth pictures in the two sets offer sharp contrasts: One has [a] vast expanse of lawn with so much unrealized opportunity. The mostly blank front fa├žade of the building only exacerbates my pain; the other offers a garden... a Little Free Library, and some seating on the arc of the garden path. Having a place to sit is a measure (albeit not the only one) of how oriented a church is to the neighborhood around it.

Which brings us to the Faith and Form awards. In contrast to last year's set, which included the neighborly Christ Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts, this year's bunch tend to the overwhelming. They are visually striking, and artistically imaginative, but their size and shape mean they're unlikely to play well with others on the street. The first three American church structures (as opposed to buildings on academic campuses) listed are:
  1. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, relocated to the outskirts of Bend at 61980 Skyline Ranch Rd. It is truly a lovely building, and sits comfortably in its woody surroundings, but as far as I can determine is walkable from nowhere.
  2. St. Pius X Chapel and Prayer Garden, 6666 Spanish Fort Blvd, New Orleans. Maybe it's the angle of the photo, but it looks forbidding. I like the church next door better; it has a wide double front door that opens towards the sidewalk. The neighborhood, near Lake Ponchartrain, has an odd layout, but seems centered on the church/school campus, which may make this an exception to my point.
  3. St. Edward Catholic Church, 5203 River Road North, Keizer, Oregon. River Road looks like a serious stroad, and the cross street Sandy Drive is a dead end, albeit the Walk Score is 74 so there might be more than meets the eye. There are benches outside for seating, which we've established is a plus.
This year's prize winners continue a positive trend towards use of natural light in the design of sacred spaces. Most of them, however, appear to reflect what Eric O. Jacobsen (2012: 189-190) calls insular churches (as opposed to embedded chuches like the ones described by Lenz and the ones Proppe likes). Typically built after 1945 in suburban developments, insular churches sit on large lots and feature large parking areas onto which their main doors open. They still can and do engage in vital ministry. A new facility on the edge of town gives congregations limitless choice to design their worship space to maximize natural light, sustainability and participation. But they miss an opportunity to help make and maintain neighborhoods, with all they imply for connecting and empowering people.

Jacobson calls churches to re-invigorate the idea of parishes, where churches are integrated into and minister to the neighborhoods around them.
 I don't expect to see very many churches draw the majority of their congregations from those who live within walking distance. However, I do believe that most churches and members of churches could benefit from learning to think in terms of parish....
I think that it would be a highly productive exercise for a church to make a regular practice of defining its geographical footprint and then doing strategic thinking in terms of the needs and opportunities presented within that footprint. Such a practice would be more accurate and helpful the more it was informed by hands-on local knowledge. That is to say, the more that church members and leadership actually spent time within the footprint talking to people and observing with all their senses, the greater would be their understanding of where God is at work in their parish. (2012: 194-195)
In the three examples above, there doesn't seem to be much of a neighborhood to integrate into. Lenz quotes sociologist Paul Lasley on the lost functions of community-centered churches (and small town schools): There is no glue holding these communities together... and it’s making us forget how to neighbor. As the 21st century forces us towards interdependence, insularity is a luxury we can't afford. We need embedded churches, among other elements of human-scaled civil society. Faith and Form might consider that as a design award category.

The low wall around Immaculate Conception Church, Cedar Rapids,
will be an asset to what may once again become a walkable area
Michael J. Crosbie, "2015 International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture," Faith and Form 48:4, 
Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012)
Lyz Lenz, "The Death of the Midwestern Church," Pacific Standard, 20 January 2016, 
Sara Joy Proppe, "Sit On It," Strong Towns, 21 January 2016, ...includes additional links on the value of sit-able places

"CR Churches," 20 July 2015 [historic churches in Oakhill-Jackson neighborhood of Cedar Rapids]
"A Win for Today--A Strategy for the Future?" 14 May 2015 [a Cedar Rapids church in a core neighborhood expands its parking lot but saves a historic building]
"The Future of Religious Spaces," 8 January 2015 [thoughts on the 2014 award-winners]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Claudia Rankine on race

Poet Claudia Rankine, whose book Citizen was both a National Book Award Critics Circle winner and a New York Times best-seller, said she doesn't know whether we Americans can in the near future "get to a place where we respect other people's humanity." Her comment was part of her answer to a question at Thursday's nights talk in Coe College's Sinclair Auditorium. The questioner had mentioned an interracial date that drew stares in mid-1960s Chicago, and wondered whether his grandchildren would ever see society get to a stage where race isn't so present. She said racial difference was always apparent, so we'd never get to a truly "post-racial" destination. When she rephrased the question to "respect other people's humanity," she said she didn't know, but hoped so. She noted that evidence from history is ambiguous at best, and culture is hard to dismantle.

She drew a decent-sized crowd (200-300?), although in a large auditorium it looked small. She read for about 40 minutes, which included showing two videos she made with her husband, John Lucas. She took questions for about 30 minutes, after which there was a reception and book-signing in the lobby.

Rankine sees our contemporary racial situation--in his introduction, Professor Nick Twemlow referred to "a long, often fraught moment in our culture"--as a system, which black people were excluded from creating, but in which we are all now trapped. When a female student asked her how she managed not to be (or at least not to sound) angry, she said she wasn't angry at white people, even those "random" whites who act aggressively, but gets angry at the failures of, say, the justice system.

The book Citizen features elegantly written prose-poetry reflecting on how it is when race is not merely an issue to consider but an inescapable fact of life. Her writing excellently reveals the interior life of the mind. She makes clear that, even for the well-intentioned, race is a tangled web that will take maybe generations to unravel, if even then. 

At Coe she read sections of her text without introductions, but did discuss some of the pictures in the book at some length.
(From Google maps, not the picture in the book)
The photograph of the "Jim Crow Rd." street sign on page 6 is a real sign, photographed by a friend of hers in Flowery Branch, Georgia. (I mapped it on my iPod during the talk; Flowery Branch is a suburb of Atlanta, near Gainesville GA.) Urbanists will notice the large-lot subdivision with no sidewalks. Rankine noted that contemporary societal segregation "allows us to never have a person of another race in your home." One of the bases of urbanism is the expectation that the 21st century is going to prove that degree of separation an unaffordable luxury; that we're going to find ourselves in closer proximity; and we're going to have to learn how to live together, to converse and to hear each other's stories. She is not shy about telling those stories, either, which is her great contribution. She told another student that she had had to train herself to respond to micro-aggressions (such as she doggedly reports in Citizen) because otherwise she carries the situations with her and replay them and not sleep. Such responses are conversation, and progress might result. Just taking it silently changes nothing, except one's own blood pressure.

Much of her book details those micro-aggressions that are an unfortunate part of everyday life, even for a black university professor. (She's on the faculty at the University of Southern California.) Micro-aggressions aren't the physical violence and hate-filled screaming faced by pioneers like Jackie Robinson and James Meredith, or the marchers at Selma. They are more subtle, and might not even be fully-conscious. Sometimes they make the individual invisible, sometimes hyper-visible. Here's one that sticks with me, because of its seeming ordinariness:
When your waitress hands your friend the card she took from you, you laugh and ask what else her privilege gets her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles. (p. 148)
An honest mistake made by a harried worker? Perhaps. But Rankine told the audience this "happens to me quite frequently," and never in the reverse (i.e. the waitress hands her her white colleague's credit card). After awhile, either because you're living it, or because you're reading it, too much adds up for all these to be random accidents. Which shows we all have a long way to go.

The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it's raining. Each moment is like this--before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you. (p. 9)

SOURCE: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014)

"Speakers Raise Tough Issues at Coe MLK Celebration," 19 January 2015
"The Latest Bad News and Our Common Life," 17 December 2014
"The Race Card Project," 12 February 2014
"Race Matters, Damn It," 16 April 2013

Friday, January 8, 2016

The futility of widening

No sooner had Iowans approved a 10 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase for infrastructure repair than the Iowa Department of Transportation began looking seriously at widening Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. A recent Cedar Rapids Gazette interview (cited below) with Iowa DOT transportation planner Cathy Cutler reported the agency is designing a six-lane section between Iowa City and North Liberty, and is studying the possibility of adding two or even four lanes all the way to Cedar Rapids.

There are several rationales for additional highway construction between the two cities that bookend what has been branded the I-380 Corridor.

[1] Increasing population, and increasing incidence of dual-career couples with jobs in different towns, means there is more traffic between them on the average workday. All must be accommodated on I-380, which is the predominant route between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. (There's a two-lane road, S.R. 965, that once was a viable alternative but has now gone all stroad-y in North Liberty. Bus or train service is non-existent.)

Population increases in the "corridor":
2014 update
Linn County
Johnson County

[2] The Gazette article, quoting my former Coe colleague Randy Roeder, focuses on the disruption to traffic caused by numerous crashes, suggesting an extra lane each way would allow commuting to continue while the accident was cleared.

[3] As Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the towns between them chart their common destiny, facilitating traffic along the "corridor" would help to tie the region together.

[4] Any form of public transportation would not be attractive to enough people to be viable.

The DOT and the construction companies are ready to go. But say we're convinced, either by the above rationales or their eagerness, and the additional capacity along I-380 is built. (Never mind the dislocation caused by construction while it's happening, or that non-commuters are subsidizing the construction for the convenience of commuters.)

What outcomes can we expect? There's been a lot of research on this question, ably summarized by Tom Vanderbilt in his masterwork Traffic, particularly in chapter 6, "Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What to Do About It)."
  1. Traffic along the highway will increase. Induced demand is a widely-acknowledged phenomenon, except maybe not by the highway lobby: When more lane-miles of roads are built, more miles are driven, even more so than might be expected by "natural" increases in demand, like population growth. In other words, the new lanes may immediately bring relief to those who wanted to use the highway before, but they will also encourage those same people to use the highway more--they may make those "rational locators" move farther out, for example--and they will bring new drivers onto the highway, because they suddenly find it a better deal. (p. 155)
  2. Government budgets will be additionally stressed (p. 161). Remember that the rationale for the gasoline tax increase was we are having trouble keeping the infrastructure we have in repair. Iowa's budget is not exempt from the stress governments around the country are feeling. Our governor recently item-vetoed a bipartisan increase in the education budget, is trying to get private insurers to take on Medicaid clients, and just suggested water quality problems caused by farm runoff could be addressed by shifting funds from educational infrastructure.  This is not a fiscal environment that suggests widening highways to achieve optimal rush hour commuting convenience is a really good idea. (See Cortright, "Pulling a FAST One": [The 2015 federal transportation bill] has utterly failed to craft a solution that asks the users and beneficiaries of the transportation system step up and pay for its costs.)
  3. People will drive faster, and may take more risks. For years, economists, psychologists, road-safety experts, and others have presented variations on this theory, under banners ranging from "the Peltzman effect" and "risk homeostasis," to "risk compensation" and the "offset hypothesis." What they are all saying, to crudely lump all of them together, is that we change our behavior in response to perceived risk, without even being aware that we are doing so. (p. 181)
  4. Hence, there will still be accidents, and resultant rubbernecking. The actual crash, which may or may not close a lane, is only part of the problem, of course. The highway's capacity drops an estimated 12.7 percent because of the line that forms--often on both sides of the highway--to take a look.... The economist Thomas Schelling points out that when each driver slows to look at an accident scene for ten seconds, it does not seem egregious because they have already waited ten minutes. But that ten minutes arose from everyone else's ten seconds. Because no individual suffers from the losses he inflicts on others, everyone is slowed. (p. 163)
The bottom line is that we'd be poorer as state but no happier as individual drivers, and probably would have induced more sprawl towards the outlying parts of the metro areas, with all the attendant negative social, environmental and fiscal consequences. (See Ewing et al. for the latest round of evidence of safety consequences.)

So what can we do? Vanderbilt is big on congestion pricing, to encourage traffic to move from peak to off-peak times. The DOT lists a number of public transportation alternatives worth looking into, mostly involving buses. Given the costs of getting it wrong, both financial and political, I'm for going slow on public transportation. What I'd like to see right now is to get the governments of Linn and Johnson counties to negotiate a no-poaching agreement, tax-sharing and urban growth boundaries. This would allow economic development to occur in ways that aren't wasteful and unproductive, and might lead to the sort of urban density that would make public transportation viable. In any case, as economist Joe Cortright concludes ("Our Old Planning"), we should be trying to maximize accessibility instead of mobility.

 Joe Cortright, "Our Old Planning Rules of Thumb Are 'All Thumbs,'" Strong Towns Blog, 6 January 2016
 Joe Cortright, "Pulling a FAST One," City Commentary, 8 December 2015
 Reid Ewing, Shima Hamidi and James B. Grace, "Urban Sprawl as a Risk Factor in Motor Vehicle Crashes," Urban Studies 53:2 (February 2016): 247-266
 Iowa Department of Transportation, "Executive Summary: I-380 Commuter Transportation Improvements," 19 August 2014,
 B.A. Morelli, "I-380 Crashes, Gridlock Snarl Commutes in Cedar Rapids," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 December 2015, 1A, 7A
 Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (Vintage, 2008)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Let's talk about: What's up in Uptown Marion?

Last month's New Urbanism Working Group confab got onto the topic of planning in downtown Marion, a town of 34000 adjacent to Cedar Rapids. We decided to take it up at our next meeting, and to meet in Marion. If you would like to join us, please consider yourself invited! We'll be at Ramsey's Wine Bar, 1120 7th Ave, from 7-8 pm. or so on Wednesday 1/27/2016. In the meantime, some background to get the conversation started:

Before the development of New Bohemia--and maybe even since then--the best example of local urbanism was the two blocks along 7th Avenue known as Uptown Marion. 7th Avenue is the main street of the city; in olden days it was U.S. Route 151 and state route 64, connecting in one direction to 1st Avenue in Cedar Rapids and in the other direction becoming the highway to Dubuque.

Between 10th and 12th Streets, though, 7th Avenue narrows to two traffic lanes. One the south side is Marion Park, where the train station used to be, and which plays host to numerous civic events.

On the north side are small, mostly local businesses in lovely old buildings.

Halfway along, where 11th Street would cross if it hadn't been dead-ended on both sides, is a little plaza with a bus stop.

This connection to Cedar Rapids--two buses running circuitous routes every 90 minutes during the daytime, six days a week--could certainly be improved, to the advantage of both cities.

The shops of Uptown Marion are becoming less practical than you would want in a traditional downtown. There is an over-representation of antique and gift stores. There is no grocery, albeit the giant Walgreen's up the street sells a lot of grocery items; the hardware store has been closed for several years; and the venerable Irwin's Clothing just closed.

Moreover, you don't need to go too far in either direction along 7th Avenue before the urbanism completely deteriorates.
Some hopeful colonization above 12th Street...
...but it doesn't last long...
...and on the south side the parking craters start at 11th
Looking west, from 7th Ave & 10th Street
Nevertheless Uptown Marion has one built-in advantage over New Bohemia and downtown Cedar Rapids, which is its adjacency to residential neighborhoods to the north and south, as well as the historic and well-heeled Puffer neighborhood to the east along 8th Avenue.

These areas could certainly support a 24-hour downtown. The Walk Score for this section of Marion is 82, as opposed to 29 for the city as a whole. Besides, some of the Uptown businesses are well-known and well-established. But seriously... only one coffee house?
Wit's End, 630 10th St, your (only) choice for coffee in Uptown Marion,
now that Fat Tire and Marion Square Gardens have closed

First Presbyterian Church (1885), one of two historic churches at 8th Avenue and 12th Street...
...but First United Methodist Church (1895) has announced plans to decamp to the edge of town
Marion's 20-year-old public library building, at 1095 6th Av adjacent to Marion Park.
They're angling for a new facility,. but will stay downtown.
In 2010 Marion adopted a new streetscape plan for the Uptown District (cited below). They planned to narrow 7th Avenue while diverting through traffic to 6th Avenue, reconnect 11th Street across 7th Avenue, and gussy up the alleys to make attractive walkways between the streets and possibly generate some new business locations.

Six years later, the timetable has clearly slowed, and perhaps commitment is flagging. Anyway, are these the steps needed to sustain this enduring paragon of urban infrastructure? Join the discussion, online, or in person!

Uptown Streetscape Plan:
Wikipedia entry for Marion, Iowa:,_Iowa

Will we ever stop being angry?

(Source: Wikimedia commons) Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) has a new book out, subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal....