From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

Apple stores are not new town squares

American communities often lack vibrant public spaces but Apple stores may not be the answer:

The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.

But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square…

And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.

Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.

This is a regular issue that pops up: private retail or office space that often functions as public space is not truly public space. If you conduct activities that are not conducive to business, whether in an Apple store, a McDonald’s, the cavernous lobby of a hotel, a shopping mall, or even a landscaped area outside a business but that it is on private land, you can be removed from that space. These private spaces that allow people of different backgrounds to gather and interact can still be very valuable – see the concept of “third places,” an idea that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has discussed. Granted, there are restrictions on what you can do in public spaces as well but your activities are much more limited in private spaces.

Sociologists and others have asked for decades how American communities might develop more public spaces. The Internet was one space that offered new opportunities for democracy and public interaction. Alas, much of that early fervor has decreased as the Internet is dominated by major corporations and online discourse is often not very enlightening or civil.

Avoid public wi-fi

Here is a helpful reminder:

And finally, don’t forget for one minute that public Wi-Fi is dangerous.

This one illustration is humorous:

Evan, now 11, programmed fake Wi-Fi portals and took them to food courts shopping centers across the Austin, Texas, area and waited to see how many agreed to some pretty outrageous conditions. For the love of free internet access, they’d have to give their OK for the Wi-Fi owner to do things like “reading and responding to your emails, monitoring of input and/or output, and ‘bricking’ of your device.”

More than half of the shoppers shown these terms accepted them.

I like that this the article ties this issue to shopping malls. This might primarily be due to this time of year when plenty of people are out purchasing gifts. However, it also works because shopping malls are about as close as we get as Americans to public spaces. Where else can you regularly go for a safe environment to be around other people to do one of the ultimate American activities (consume)? While this article reminds us that the mall may not be so safe, is it odd that Americans tend to think of it as a safe place? And if malls want to keep attracting people (who then spend money), shouldn’t they do something about protecting their wi-fi?

I see an opportunity for either malls or security firms: ensuring that your public wi-fi experience is a good one.

Google Maps has now added areas of interest

Check out the redesigned Google Maps and you’ll see areas of interest:

Instead of promoting a handful of dots representing restaurants or shops at the city-view level, the new interface displays orange-colored “areas of interest,” which the company describes simply as “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.” In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a big T of orange blocks around Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, and again on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, stretching up La Brea Avenue*. In L.A., areas of interest tend to cling to the big boulevards and avenues like the bunching sheath of an old shoelace. In Boston, on the other hand, they tend to be more like blocks than strips. In Paris, whole neighborhoods are blotted orange.

Roads and highways, meanwhile, take on a new, muted color in the interface. This marks a departure from Google’s old design, which often literally showed roads over places—especially in contrast to Apple Maps, as the cartographer Justin O’Beirne hasshown. The new map is less about how to get around than about where to go.

“Areas of interest,” the company’s statement explains, are derived with an algorithm to show the “highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops.” In high-density areas, Google candidly explains that it is using humans to develop these zones. Algorithms, of course, are tuned by human engineers. But like Facebook with its News Feed, Google has decided that some attributes of the digital world need a human touch firsthand…

Even with its sliding scales, Google Maps can’t fit every shop in Tokyo in a two-dimensional map. So who gets a spot? It’s not an obvious choice: Analyzing Apple and Google’s maps of New York and London, O’Beirne found that the two companies’ maps had just 10 and 12 percent of their place labels in common. (Likewise, different people will have different businesses pop at them—try it with a friend.)

The title of the article is “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.” This bias could be toward certain businesses or certain areas of the city. When certain businesses or areas are displayed, others are not. But, we could also ask about the commercial imperatives of this mapping: what happens when areas of interest are primarily commercial areas and businesses? Are these always the most interesting spots in cities? When sociologists and others discuss thriving public spaces – whether the mixed use areas of Jane Jacobs or the spots of Cosmopolitan Canopies as noted by Elijah Anderson – they often do include businesses including stores and restaurants. Yet, at the same time, aren’t these spots interesting not only because they offer consumable goods and experiences but because they have a mix of people? Do the people make the spaces or do the businesses?

Particularly if Google Maps is used while driving, people can swoop in and out of these areas of interest. Or, it might alert them to specific areas and encourage a vibrant social scene. We’ll see if areas of interest lead to changing social patterns.

Exploring underground cities

Curbed takes a quick look at a number of underground cities around the world. I’ve highlighted a few – the ones that were not constructed for defense purposes:

SubTropolis (Kansas City, Missouri)

Hardly hidden—the development has its own logo—this huge warren of business parks carved into ancient bluffs that line the Missouri River claims to be the world’s largest underground storage facility and business park. Since opening in 1964, this constantly expanding operation, carved into former limestone mines and expanding at roughly 3.2 acres a year, has become a massive commercial success, attracting tenants such as Postal Service, the EPA, a cloud computing company, a food processing plant, and even a special firm that stores old film reels. Turns out giving up sunlight has plenty of business advantages; underground living means a constant temperature, virtually eliminating heating and cooling bills...

Underground City (Montreal, Canada)

Recently renamed RÉSO, a play off the French word reseau (network), this huge tunnel complex spread out underneath Quebec’s biggest city is a lot more utopian than many of the other entries on the list. The city, which now counts 20 miles of tunnels and more than 120 surface entry points, began in 1962 as passageways around and through the Place Ville-Marie, a shopping mall designed by I.M. Pei that helped hide an unsightly former rail depot. Decades later, it has expanded into a massive shopping a recreation district, including a hotel and hockey rink, and stands as one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods, most popular tourist attractions, and an escape from winter weather...

Helsinki Underground City (Helsinki, Finland)

In a bid to develop within its limited footprint, this Finnish city decided to build underground a few years ago, linking shopping centers and a metro station. Currently, a swimming pool, hockey rink, and church can all be found below the surface. Construction stretches nearly 100 feet below the surface, and the city has a master plan for roughly 200 new underground projects in the works, hoping to connect the region and expand space for industrial facilities, leaving the surface free for more aesthetically pleasing development.

These are quite different from abandoned facilities; these are locations that intentionally have sought out underground space for social activity. At the least, these take advantage of space that otherwise would not be used. Land is expensive in many cities so finding new space – same location, just underground rather than building up – can be quite advantageous. Additionally, such spaces can block out weather and utilize natural cooling and heating. I also imagine the underground status gives them some extra measure of cool. Contrast “do you want to go to the mall” with “do you want to go to the underground mall,” particularly for tourists or teenagers. However, if every city has some underground area (just like if every one has an elevated park like the High Line), they all may become less interesting.

Soldier Field, home to religious events, Chicago Fire remembrances, and first cell phone call

Soldier Field has a long history beyond hosting the Chicago Bears:

The first football game hosted in the stadium was, indeed, a football game. Notre Dame faced off against Northwestern in November of 1924 (ND won 12 to 6) but before that, on October 9, a “Chicago Day” event was held to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The event featured a formal dedication and official opening with a mock battle, a horse-riding exhibition from the U.S. 14th Cavalry, and a re-enactment of the fire complete with a cow kicking over Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern. Ten firemen who had actually fought the great fire used the city’s first pump engine against the mock blaze in which a replica O’Leary barn was burned down. Some variation of this event was held there until 1970…

But perhaps the largest event ever held at the field was the Marian Year tribute of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It’s estimated that 180,000 attendees were inside the stadium itself while another 80,000 listened outside on loudspeakers…

In another landmark moment for Chicago synergy, on October 13, 1983, David D. Meilahn made the first-ever commercial cell phone call from the field on a Motorola DynaTAC, a major turning point in communications history. The Chicago-based handset and radio equipment manufacturer was proud to show off its new technology on home turf.

While this has clearly been a sports stadium for nearly a century, it is interesting to note the wide-ranging events that have been held on site. In many ways, this has operated as a public space where the city could come together to celebrate its past, ethnic and religious groups could hold ceremonies, and new sights could be seen. Do we have such spaces today? Most stadiums are tools of corporate power where team owners, often benefiting from public funds in the construction of the stadium, make money. Perhaps it could be argued that they serve the community in that sports can often be a large part of local culture. Yet, it is hard to imagine having large-scale stadiums today that host a wide variety of events and that tens of thousands of local residents would regularly show up to see what was happening.

Does sprawl contribute to difficulty for adults in making friends?

One writer suggests the suburbs and their isolated spaces reduce the opportunities for friendship:

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere…

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)

A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit…

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

Five quick thoughts:

  1. There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear family in the United States, whether in suburbs or other areas. This could be contrasted with other societies that place more emphasis on multigenerational households or living near extended families.
  2. You don’t necessarily have to be in a city to have public spaces or walksheds like these. Many Americans express a preference for small towns and these communities can often be tight knit. Or, you could have denser areas in suburbs that have such public spaces.
  3. The article argues that college is a good example of what can happen when people are put in close proximity. I would argue that college is a very unusual outlier for many Americans where they are forced (they pay for this too) to live in close proximity and then spread out as soon as they get a chance. In fact, many college students try to get out of dorms ASAP while many others are commuters. The residential college experience is not one everyone experiences and it is an unusual setting for relationships.
  4. The broader American emphasis on individualism makes friendships more difficult regardless of public spaces. Think of the frontier or pioneer mentality or our current celebration of mavericks and solo entrepreneurs. Did Steve Jobs need friends? Would Americans have fulfilled their Manifest Destiny if they had stayed in their neighborhoods or small towns?
  5. Does the data back this up? What if Americans are satisfied with their friendships? Does the number of close friends differ by spatial context? This argument is made via anecdote but there are plenty of surveys that ask about friendships. For example, here is a simple table with GSS data on how much satisfaction Americans get from their friendships by spatial context:

GSSSatfrndBYXnorcsiz

The differences in this table are not large but this incomplete analysis suggests people from smaller communities derive more satisfaction from their friendships.