Suburbia’s Sacred Spaces

Appearing in:

Orange County Register

From the earliest times, cities have revolved around three basic concepts – security, the marketplace and what I call "the sacred space." In contemporary America, everyone wants safe streets and a thriving economy, but what about the ethereal side, the places that makes us take note of a place and feel, in some way, a connection with its history?

What makes up sacred space in our time is debatable. Certainly, the great churches of Europe and the mosques in the Islamic world are the most obvious symbols. In America, we have relatively few such places, but there’s also the sanctity of a war memorial, a monument to a revered leader, concert hall, cherished parks or a sports facility.

For its part, suburbia is not good at being venerable. It’s not just a matter of age, notes urban analyst Aaron Renn, but also "a lack of transcendent scale." Ceremonial locations, such as New York’s Times Square or Indianapolis’ War Memorial, make "a statement of the permanence of this community, its people, and their values" for an entire region or even state, he notes. Such spaces tend almost always to be built in core cities.

There is also another factor impinging on the sanctity of suburbia: its lack of permanent establishments. In most suburbs, even the most iconic businesses, notes Renn, tend to go in and out of business. Visit the suburban town that you grew up in, and many of the most cherished spots have gone. This happens in cities, too, but the presence of historic buildings, including old churches, does lend them a greater sense of permanence.

The very notion of sacred space in suburbia has long seemed absurd to urban theorists, who have regarded suburbia as a hellish place with little in the way of permanency or transcendence. In 1921, Lewis Mumford described the emerging suburbia around New York as a "dissolute landscape … a no-man’s land which was neither town or country." Decades later, architect Peter Blake intemperately declared in "God’s Own Junkyard" that the suburban pattern developing in the United States is "making life there only slightly less tolerable than on tenement streets."

Yet, ironically, if the greatest "sacred spaces" are in the core cities, those who seek the transcendent are increasingly found far from the dense urban centers, particularly on the East Coast. The most religious cities, according to one recent study, are lower-density areas such as Salt Lake City, Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Oklahoma City.

Overall, suburbs tend to be not only where the megachurches are, but increasingly also where the new mosques, Hindu temples and ethnic Christian churches tend to cluster. In contrast, many urban churches in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Minneapolis often are empty, or even abandoned.

One trend-setter here is San Francisco – perhaps the ultimate mecca of the secularized "creative class" – where a large former Catholic church, now shuttered, is being turned into an art academy. In many cities, such as ultra-secular Seattle, religious structures are being routinely refashioned into high-end condos and loft spaces.

So, if religious folks cluster in suburbs, where there is insufficient "sacred space," urbanites live amidst spiritual and symbolic splendor, but feel very little attachment to the religions that inspired them. Indeed, the places idolized as pillars of successful urbanism – think of places like Seattle, Boston, San Francisco or Manhattan – tend to be less religious, while cities with more of a strong spiritual commitment, such as many in the South, are seen as somewhat backward.

As the urban booster Richard Florida puts it, the shift from religious to secular values is “one part of the transition to more economically advanced societies.”

Whether one accepts this thesis, it’s pretty clear that most urbanists today have little or no use for religion. This even has crept into discussion of the urban past. Britain’s Peter Hall, for example, wrote a thousand-page history, “Cities in Civilization,” with hardly any reference to religion. Religious institutions rarely appear in the writings of new urbanists, smart-growth advocates and others who tend to also disdain suburbs.

So perhaps we need to look elsewhere than even grand church buildings or old synagogues for “sacred space.” Emphasis on historic and grand places should be supplanted with greater attention on the activities of those who worship and perform charity, even operating out of more prosaic places. When I worked in Houston after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the leading institutions helping the evacuees were not the established mainline churches, but the often vast evangelical ones, many of them housed in uninspiring barn-like structures on the suburban frontier.

In other words, rather than focus on buildings, perhaps we should look at function. What is the most sacred thing in our lives? This could easily be a place where children can play; the parks in places like Irvine or the new Riverside County community of Eastvale, outside Ontario, serve as a kind of sacred space amidst prosaic buildings, malls and strip shopping centers. Perhaps we need to redefine continuity to be less about stylish brick and mortar and more about what animates peoples’ feelings about place and their connections to it.

This may be, in particular, the essence of suburban “sacred space.” Suburban community has its own unique iconography of recreation centers, parks and smaller religious bodies; yet, these places also constitute the connective tissue of suburbia. When UC Irvine’s Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey conducted 15,000 interviews across the country, they found that, for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week goes up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status or age.

This is something I see every day in my own San Fernando Valley suburban community. Not only are there strong ties here among neighbors, but many belong to various faith communities, ranging from African-American evangelical churches, to Armenian orthodox as well as every variety of Judaism, from reform to the ultra-religious “black hats.” For many of us, the “holy places” include the trees, which grow luxuriously here, and the many birds, small mammals and variety of insects that share space with us.

In the end, I would argue that “sacred space” in the current context is basically about home – those places where one has lived, children have played, pets have lived out their lives and where holidays, religious or not, are shared with neighbors. Suburbia not only does not negate this kind of sacred space but, in a surprising way, nurtures it.

In his brilliant book, “Holyland: A Suburban Memoir,” author D.J. Waldie writes about growing up in the Orange County-adjacent, suburban tract development of Lakewood. He still lives there, and believes that, for millions of Americans – like his parents – these modest communities represented something very inspiring, a place to raise children, go to church, know the neighbors.

“I actually believe that the place where I live is, in the words of the Californian philosopher Josiah Royce, a ‘beloved community,’” Waldie said last week. “The strength of that regard, Royce thought, might be enough to form what he called an ‘intentional community’ – a community of shared loyalties – even if the community is as synthetic as a tract-house suburb.”

Lakewood, he notes, is a place that urban planners would like to have seen “bulldozed away years ago to make room for something better,” yet the people there, increasingly Latino and Asian, do not feel their suburb is the invidious thing reviled in urban-studies program or criticized by advocates of forced densification. These are places that people adhere to, Waldie says, even if the appeal is difficult for outsiders to appreciate.

“I believe that places acquire their sacredness through this giving and taking. And with that ever-returning touch, we acquire something sacred from the place where we live. What we acquire, of course, is a home,” he suggests. “It’s a question of falling in love … falling in love with the place where you are; even a place like mine … so ordinary, so commonplace, and my home.”