Suburban lawns and religious alternatives

With religious motivation, the suburban lawn can be transformed into an area of biodiversity:

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Mr. Jacobs is an ecologist and a Catholic who believes that humans can fight climate change and help repair the world right where they live. While a number of urban dwellers and suburbanites also sow native plants to that end, Mr. Jacobs says people need something more: To Reconnect with nature and experience the sort of spiritual transcendence he feels in a forest, or on a mountain, or amid the bounty of his own yard. It’s a feeling that, for him, is akin to feeling close to God…

Mr. Jacobs, for his part, looks around at all the pristine lawns (“the lawn is an obsession, like a cult,” he says) and sees ecological deserts that feed neither wildlife nor the human soul. “This is a poverty that most of us are not even aware of,” he said.

And he has started a movement to promote better ecology:

About 20 years ago, he began compiling quotes from the Bible, saints and popes that expound on the sanctity of Earth and its creatures, and posting them online. He considered naming the project after St. Francis of Assisi, the go-to saint for animals and the environment. But, not wanting to impose another European saint on American land, he instead named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th Century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and, in 2012, became the first Native American to be canonized…

Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs took a step further, teaming up with a fellow Catholic ecologist, Kathleen Hoenke, to launch the St. Kateri Habitats initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens that feature native plants and offer a place to reflect and meditate (they also teamed up to write a book, “Our Homes on Earth: A Catholic Faith and Ecology Field Guide for Children,” due out in 2023). They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics, and have since added an Indigenous peoples program and two Indigenous women to their board.

What exactly is the connection between religious faith in America and the suburban lawn? Two hints above:

  1. First, Jacobs suggests the lawn is “like a cult.” Americans put a lot of effort into keeping the lawn looking good. The lawn signals status and is part of necessary upkeep for the sacred single-family suburban home. The lawn may provide insight into someone’s soul. The devotion to the lawn has its own practices, beliefs, and organizations.
  2. Religious traditions have something about how to approach the earth and land. Jacobs draws on Catholic theology, tradition, and practice to develop both his personal personal practices and an organization that now has members around the world. In a country where a majority of residents are Christians of one tradition or another, how many suburbanites draw on religion to help them interact with their yard and nearby nature?

As more people reconsider whether to have a lawn or consider modifying their lawn, bringing religion into the conversation could help clarify what the lawn is all about. Is the lawn itself worthy of religious devotion or does it help point to larger and transcendent realities?

A religious destination in the Chicago suburbs: Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines

The suburbs might not be the place where people would expect to find a significant religious shrine. Yet, thousands gathered over this past weekend in Des Plaines, Illinois:

Screenshot of solg.org December 5, 2021

That was the first sighting of at least 1,000 equestrians who rode through a Cook County Forest Preserve in Wheeling to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary. Saturday marked the tenth kickoff of the tradition in which mostly Latino Catholics from across the tristate area and even the U.S. made the pilgrimage to Des Plaines to visit the Guadalupana’s shrine, the most visited monument of its kind in the United States.

Many make the annual journey to the shrine to mirror the pilgrimages done in Mexico to fulfill a promise — a manda ― or give thanks to the Virgin Mary for blessings and protection. Others do it as a sacrifice as they pray for a specific need or concern…

Equestrians and their families from all over the Midwest partake in the pilgrimage. There are young children and women who also ride their horses.

Though Maria Vargas has attended hourslong pilgrimages to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as the Patroness of the Americas, for several years, in 2016 she and her brother organized a caravan with their semi-trucks offering it as prayer for their family business.

The same suburb known as an early home to McDonald’s is also home to an important religious site. This latter fact highlights the potential for suburban space – often devoted to private, single-family homes – to be sacred space. I have seen and experienced both more permanent and transitory sacredness in such settings.

The history of the shrine at solg.org says it all began in the late 1980s:

In 1987, Mr. Joaquín Martínez acquired a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe during a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. When the statue arrived in Chicago, Mr. Martinez and a group of devotees called “Friends of Our Lady of Guadalupe” decided to begin a mission whereby the image began a pilgrimage to several parishes and family homes to encourage devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chicago.

At the beginning of this mission, which coincided with the Marian Year proclaimed by Pope St. John Paul II, Fr. Robert Harne blessed the statue during a Mass that was held outdoors at Lake Opeka Park (Des Plaines) on June 14, 1987.

In June 1988, in search of a permanent place for the veneration of the Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fr. John P. Smyth, President of Maryville Academy, welcomed the image and its faithful devotees. On July 4, 1988, the statue was brought to Maryville Academy with the blessing of Most Rev. Placido Rodríguez, O.C.M, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

On December 12, 1995, Fr. John Smyth, Fr. David Ryan and Fr. Rafael Orozco inaugurated the construction of an outdoor shrine modeled after the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City. The outdoor shrine, known as “El Cerrito”, became the main devotional area for the veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The number of Mexican Americans in the Chicago region, both in the city and throughout the suburbs, helps make this possible. The city does not mention the shrine on its history page but there are numerous Catholic parishes and Latino residents in and around the community.

The decline in percentage of households with married parents and kids and the good life of suburbia

A recent release of data from the Census Bureau shows a decline in the percentage and absolute number of households consisting of married parents and children:

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The number of U.S. homes with a married couple and kids fell to a record low, according to new government data, as the pandemic further delayed weddings and more adults don’t plan to have kids at all.The share of the U.S.’s 130 million households headed by married parents with children under age 18 fell to 17.8% in 2021 from 18.6% last year, according to the Census Bureau. That’s down from more than 40% in 1970.

By absolute numbers, there are just 23.1 million homes with nuclear families, the fewest since 1959, the data show.

This has direct links to the rise of suburbs in the United States. One of the primary reasons Americans moved to suburbs in large numbers is that they believed – and often continue to believe – that the suburbs are the best settings in which to raise children. Suburban life revolved around children, from their schooling to activities to ensuring that they get ahead in life. Nuclear families, particularly with parents who had married young, became associated with suburbia and a particular era of American history.

Today, suburbia is much more complex. It still includes nuclear families and families wanting their children to succeed. But, it also includes single households, multi-generational households, older adult households where their children have grown and/or are still living occasionally, households where the partners are not married, and young professionals.

All of this means that the typical image of nuclear families in the suburbs may not be as prevalent or powerful as it once was. It still is important, particularly in more residential communities. But, as more different kinds of households also reside in suburbs, what communities values and how decisions are made may change. Are the suburbs of today just for families with children or do they have a responsibility to a broader audience? The future American vision of the suburbs may still include families and children but the depiction may also include other households that also contribute to the good of suburban community.

Wealthy people can just buy a town, Mark Cuban edition

A very small community in Texas is now owned by Mark Cuban:

Google Maps, Mustang, TX, on December 3, 2021

The billionaire just bought the entire town of Mustang, Texas — a blip on the map off I-45, with a population of 21 people, according to the latest census data.

The reason, Cuban told the Dallas Morning News: A buddy needed to sell it…

The town was founded in the early 1970s, when it was known mostly as a local watering hole in an otherwise dry Navarro County, according to the paper. These days, there’s little more than a trailer park and a strip club, Wispers Cabaret, which is reportedly in disrepair. On Friday, Google Maps showed the name of the club had been edited to “Mark Cubaret.”…

It’s not clear what Cuban paid for the town, but for someone with a net worth of nearly $6 billion, it was almost certainly a steal. The town was reportedly put up for sale in 2017 for $4 million, but Turner said it was overpriced, even when they slashed the listing price in half.

The angle taken in this reporting is whimsical: a billionaire purchases a town with few plans except to help a friend. The point is made clearly by the opening comparison of Cuban to Johnny Rose, the father in the comedy series Schitt’s Creek.

There are other ways to approach such a story:

  1. How often do wealthy people make such purchases?
  2. When you buy a town, what happens to the people who live there? Is this like buying homes or apartments or is there something different involved when purchasing a community?
  3. What could these 77 acres become given the existing land use and location?

The buying and developing of large land parcels is big business and has consequences for many people. Where does the story go from here?

(This is not the first time I have written about the selling or buying of towns in the United States. See here.)

The shrinking lifespan of popular worship music

Earlier in the week, I read about the likelihood that Adele’s new album will fade more quickly from the public consciousness because music today does not last as long. This may also be the case for popular worship songs sung in churches:

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Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study that will be published in the magazine Worship Leader in January.

For the study, Mike Tapper, a religion professor at Southern Wesleyan University, brought together two data analysts and two worship ministers to look at decades of records from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The licensing organization provides copyright coverage for about 160,000 churches in North America and receives rotating reports on the worship music that is sung in those churches, tracking about 10,000 congregations at a time.

Looking at the top songs at those churches from 1988 to 2020, the researchers were able to identify a common life cycle for popular worship music, Tapper told CT. A song typically appears on the charts, rises, peaks, and then fades away as worship teams drop it from their Sunday morning set lists.

But the average arc of a worship song’s popularity has dramatically shortened, from 10 to 12 years to a mere 3 or 4. The researchers don’t know why.

Along with the possible reasons listed in the article for this change (social media, pressure to incorporate new music faster. remote church), this might also go along with an increased speed of social change more broadly. There are more cultural works accessible to more people at a quicker speed. Any cultural work may struggle today to stand out and endure in such a flood of possibilities. I could imagine it would be fruitful to bring a sociological of culture lens to the same data and research question to get at what factors have led to these changes.

Additionally, this hints at the cultural speed at which congregations feel they may have to operate. Is religious faith and practice timeless or must it keep up with the times? American evangelicals are distinctive in part because of their interest in engaging with culture while attempting to retain what they see as traditional and important beliefs. How does the speed of new music affect this tension?

Passed down McMansion an albatross or a financial windfall?

One money advice column recently addressed a question regarding what to do with an unwanted McMansion passed down from family:

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My husband and I have been struggling to find a house to buy. Despite having a down payment saved, we still pay rent, and the market is insane where we live. My in-laws have several homes and decided to turn their vacation home into their retirement one. After their last renter moved, they offered their old suburban house to my husband and myself for free. It is very generous—unpromptedly so!—but I hate the idea. It was built in the mid-1990s and never updated. It is huge, designed in echo-y open concept style, with half the space barely useable for everyday life. Other than the downstairs master’s, the utility room, and the upstairs bedrooms and baths, there are no doors. You can overhear a normal conversation in any part of the house. The back and front yard are huge (did I mention my husband and I have black thumbs?) The commute would be horrible enough, with the house over an hour away from where we work, but given traffic and the never-ending road construction, that time can almost triple. And the local culture here is barren—no theater, no art, no nightlife unless you want to go to a chain restaurant.

There is no question that my in-laws will be insulted and offended if we reject moving into the house and chose to sell it and use the funds to buy something better for our lifestyle. They will call us ungrateful. My husband thinks we need to take the offer and wait a year or two before selling it. I don’t know—the market can’t stay like this forever, and I do not want to get dragged into a house flip. The commute will kill my mental health. Right now I can walk to work. My husband bikes when he isn’t working from home. There is some sentimentality at play, since my husband spent his last year of high school in this house, and his sister grew up in it. And my in-laws are thin-skinned and very proud. Is this the golden goose or a white elephant?

—House Hunters

Dear House Hunters,I wouldn’t say it’s a golden goose or a white elephant, I’d say it’s more of a “hold your horses” situation. Here’s why. You want to offload the house while the real estate market is hot, and for good reason. It sounds like you’ll be miserable there. No one wants to be miserable, nor should they be made to feel so.  Life’s too short! But I am hearing a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t be living there, not why your husband shouldn’t be living there. It actually sounds like he’d be okay staying there, and stacking some cash. Depending on how much you’re currently paying in rent, you could easily save over five figures. This cash can be put towards the down payment that you currently have saved, but that isn’t enough to get you a competitive offer in your desired area. It could also go towards repairs, to make the house more comfortable, so you could use it as a rental and secure cash flow for your future mortgage payment in the house you actually want.

Also, if you sell the house before living in it for two years, you’re at risk of paying up to 20% of your profit to the IRS. A capital gains tax is a levy on a profit of an investment after it’s sold. One of the items on the list of investments subject to a capital gains tax is real estate. Not to mention, you’d probably make your husband’s life a living hell with his parents if you take the money and run. Who wants that?

You can handle a shitty commute and no museums for a year or two. Offer your husband a compromise, and put a time limit on living in your new digs. Stack the money for over two years. Make enough upgrades to the home that you can charge market value if you sell it—or get a renter, and a cash flow to subsidize your life in your dream house.

Short summary of the advice: you can survive a McMansion for a short time if you can financially benefit from it (and family relationships remain positive).

Two points of this exchange interest me:

  1. The letter writer defines the home in such a way that seems to fit with the moniker “McMansion” applied in the headline. What McMansion traits does this home have? Three are clear here: it is large home with an unpleasant layout located in a suburban area. The relative size of the home is not discussed. The potential homeowner is not fond of such a home.
  2. This is a situation that many younger adults might face in the future. As people age, they may be interested in passing along their suburban McMansions. Do the younger adults want to live in McMansions or would they rather have nothing to do with the actual homes and what they represent? The answer above tries to take an approach in the middle: the home could prove beneficial in the long run even if the younger adults do not wish to stay there long. The McMansion is not shunned but it does have value.

If the younger adults are willing to use the term McMansion to describe the homes of their parents, this could send a particular message about what they think of the house.

What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

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Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

Buying and selling real estate in the metaverse

With Facebook pivoting to the metaverse, real estate activity is picking up in this realm:

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In October, Tokens.com, a blockchain technology company focused on NFTs and metaverse real estate, acquired 50 percent of Metaverse Group, one of the world’s first virtual real estate companies, for about $1.7 million. Metaverse Group is based in Toronto but has virtual headquarters in a world called Decentraland in Crypto Valley, which is the metaverse’s answer to Silicon Valley. Decentraland also has districts for gambling, shopping, fashion and the arts.

“Rather than try to create a universe like Facebook, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and buy the parcels of land in these metaverses, and then we can become the landlords?” said Andrew Kiguel, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tokens.com…

For those wondering why a company would want to invest in a virtual office in the metaverse, Michael Gord, a co-founder of the Metaverse Group, said that skeptics should look at the trends catalyzed by the pandemic…

The Metaverse Group has a real estate investment trust and it plans to build a portfolio of properties in Decentraland as well as other realms including Somnium Space, Sandbox and Upland. The internet may be infinite, but virtual real estate is not — Decentraland, for example, is 90,000 parcels of land, each roughly 50 feet by 50 feet. Among investors, there’s a sense that there’s gold in those pixelated hills, Mr. Gord said.

Let the artificially-induced-scarcity-fueled-boom begin!

Seriously though, this offers an opportunity to acquire real estate that otherwise might be very difficult to find online or offline. In the offline world, how often do significant new parcels of land or developments come available? If they can be bought, they are not cheap, they probably attract a lot of interest, and there might be restrictions based on what is already there or what is possible on the site. In the online world, it could be difficult to predict where users might show up, how long it could take for sites to develop, and what it all might be worth?

In the meantime, investors and speculators will wait and see what happens. The bet could pay off massively: if the metaverse is successful with a few years or even a decade or two, those who got in early in prime locations with the right offerings could gain a lot. And if the metaverse does not develop in this way or other factors go awry, the money lost will be in a long line of those who hoped for the best with property and nothing materialized.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

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In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.