If churches and other religious buildings present attractive opportunities for redevelopment in urban neighborhoods, how often does this happen?
I hope someone is tracking all of these switches from religious structures to residences. The impetus to collect this data could come from multiple sources. An organization might want to look at changes in a neighborhood or geographic area. An organization of developers or architects might see this as a business opportunity. A researcher could be interested in housing changes, particularly from an unusual source like unused religious buildings. Presumably, this kind of housing does not go for cheap and could exacerbate existing issues in urban areas. Communities themselves might want to know how many religious buildings are being converted. This could affect tax rolls – moving property from non-taxpaying religious groups to residents brings in more tax money – and nearby residents could be affected.
From what I can gather, these conversions are happening at a regular pace. Yet, it is hard to track the scale from the occasional article. My own research on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago area did not find many churches that became residences. Indeed, former churches could fill a range of uses: the most common was a religious buildings for another religious group but churches could also be reused as daycare facilities, community centers, and offices.
Based on this, I would guess there are not that many churches being turned into residences in terms of sheer numbers. At the same time, of the religious buildings that are sold, I would guess a good number are converted into residences when located in more desirable neighborhoods (though I am sure some buildings are also demolished to make way for new residential buildings).
The conversion of religious buildings into residences continues in many American cities. This is the result of at least three larger forces:
- The decline of numerous religious groups which means religious buildings are no longer used for worship. This decline has been going on for decades in a number of denominations, freeing up numerous churches and other structures.
- The demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. While the converted residences are not often cheap, they are often in desirable neighborhoods and locations. The same reasons religious groups chose particular locations also can make them attractive for residents. (The flip side is that religious buildings in less desirable neighborhoods can languish.)
- The unique architectural features a religious building can provide including tall vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and brick and stone work. These features can be incorporated into new dwellings and provide very different options compared to new construction.
For example, a recent Chicago Tribune piece about a former church in Logan Square highlights these issues:
The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.
In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety…
All nine apartments in the converted church are one of a kind and configured with either two or three bedrooms. Three apartments are on the main level of the church, and three apartments are on the garden level. Three more are stacked within the former attached rectory behind the church. The first residents arrived in April…
“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.
A recently closed church and sold building plus a desirable neighborhood plus interesting building details equals a redevelopment opportunity.
But, just how many of these conversions of religious buildings are taking place? This is the subject of tomorrow’s post.
I recently had an article published in Visual Studies titled “Still Standing After All These Years: The Presence and Internet Presentation of Religious Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1936-2016.”
Here is the abstract:
Scholars have examined the changes in religious architecture over time but few have focused on the ongoing presence of religious buildings in communities nor how long-standing congregations interact with their older building. This study utilises two Internet data sources – Google Street View and the websites of religious congregations – to examine the fate and online presentation of the buildings of four Protestant denominations in the Chicago region from 1936 to today: Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist. The patterns found show the stability of many church buildings over eight decades and how they help anchor some religious groups – even though newer congregations use a number of these structures – yet congregations make unique choices about presenting their buildings through their website. These findings suggest religious buildings continue to influence their original religious congregations, newer groups using the building and neighbourhoods decades after they are constructed.
Addition to the abstract: we could use more research on how older religious buildings are used, celebrated, and renovated by their original religious congregations, new religious groups, and other organizations. Additionally, what do these long-standing buildings mean for their neighborhoods and communities, even if they are no longer utilized for religious purposes?
Data from the 2014 American Values Atlas compiled by PRRI shows the top three religious traditions in a number of large American metro areas:
Here are some of the takeaways according to PRRI:
- Urban areas attract the unaffiliated; the religiously unaffiliated are among the top three religious groups in every metro area polled.
- Catholics also love cities; Catholicism is among the top three religious groups for nearly every metro area—only Nashville, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Atlanta don’t have Catholics among the top three.
- Atlanta is the only metro area that doesn’t have Catholics, the religiously unaffiliated, or white evangelical Protestants in the number one slot; that prize goes to black Protestants.
- Nashville has the largest percentage of one singular religious group: nearly four in ten (38 percent) residents identify as white evangelical Protestant.
Related to these takeaways, two things stuck out most to me looking at this data:
- The relative evenness of major religious traditions (and unaffiliated) in major cities. Few large regions have one religious tradition that comprises of more than 33% of the population. This suggests a lot of pluralism at the metropolitan region level.
- The pattern does not hold in every case but the leading cities for having the percent of different religious traditions tend to fall into certain regions: Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest, unaffiliated in the West, white evangelical Protestant in the Bible Belt and Midwest.
Put these two factors together and it would be fascinating to consider how the experience of religiosity differs across metropolitan regions. For example, a comparison across traditions such as between Nashville (dominated by white evangelicals) and Portland (dominated by the unaffiliated) could be interesting as would regional differences within the same leading tradition such as between Miami and Milwaukee. If metropolitan regions could be considered fields of religious activity, how might they differ in significant ways?
The quote in the title for my newest article just published in The Sociological Quarterly comes from a comment made at a 2011 public hearing in the Chicago suburbs involving a proposal from a Muslim group to buy land. At face value, the claim is preposterous: what suburbanite living in a well-off suburb would want to live next to a trailer park?
My study titled ““Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” looks at what factors lead to more opposition from neighbors and local leaders when religious groups look to buy land, construct a building, or renovate/use an existing building. Is it related to the size of proposed building, the setting for the building, or the group making the request (thinking of multiple cases of Muslim groups facing opposition in the Chicago suburbs – see examples here, here, here, and here)?
The abstract to the study:
To worship in the suburbs, religious congregations often have to apply to local governments for zoning and building approval. Examining 40 proposals from religious groups in three Chicago suburbs between January 2010 and December 2014 shows that local governments approved the majority of requests. For the proposals that received more negative attention or “no” votes from government bodies, opposition was related to locations adjacent to residences, experiences with one local government, and requests from Muslim groups. These findings have implications for how suburbs address pluralism and new development as the application of zoning guidelines can make it more difficult for religious groups, particularly ones involving immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities, to find and establish a permanent presence in suburban communities.
In sum, religious groups in the United States can theoretically worship in many places – until a local government suggests otherwise, often due to zoning concerns. Religious groups can counter with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) but lawsuits require time and effort and can hinder positive community relations.
What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:
Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…
For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.
Familiar, safe, comfortable…
Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.
Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?
I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):
As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.
So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…
Political scientist Ryan Burge summarizes part of the sociological conversation about secularization and wealth at a national level:
If you take a course in the sociology of religion at any college or university, the professor will inevitably spend some time on what is known as secularization theory. This theory posits that as societies become more economically prosperous and obtain higher levels of education, the inevitable result is a movement away from organized religion and toward secularization…
The conclusion from this graph is clear: the more economic prosperity a nation enjoys, the fewer citizens of that country say that religion is very important. There are a few outliers, however. China is in the bottom left portion of the graph, which means that based on the country’s economic output it should be more religious than it currently is, with the same occurring in Hungary.
Obviously, both of those countries have a history that is closely associated with communism, which is the likely cause of their low levels of religiosity. On the other hand, the United States is clearly an outlier on this graph. It ranks as the most economically prosperous country in the dataset, but if it were going to be in the middle of the trend line, the overall level of religiosity should be very close to zero.
The takeaway lesson from teaching this in undergrad sociology classes is that the United States is unique in terms of religiosity. Then, the task of sociologists and other social scientists is to tease out why exactly this pattern holds for many industrialized countries and not others. Burge goes on to discuss one explanation from recent sociological research in the United States:
Taken together, the results from this sample tell a simple story: secularization is apparent for older generations of Americans, but for those born after 1950 there is no evidence that education leads to a decline in religious affiliation.
Of course, secularization is not just about wealth. As Norris and Inglehart argue, the more that governments or nations take on the role of providing existential security to residents, the less need residents have for religion.
Or, as a number of scholars have argued, the United States is an outlier for another reason: it has a unique religious market. Because of a lack of government involvement in state religion plus the protection for freedom of religion, religious groups have been free to compete. This competition leads to innovation and religious groups compete for attendees and resources.