Saving houses of worship

Preservationists, who have in the past been reluctant to offer landmark status and preservation dollars to religious institutions, are sounding alarms that houses of worship that anchor urban neighborhoods are beginning to decay from neglect, lack of funding in poor congregations for complex maintenance, and decay. These spaces have also become targets for acquisition by developers where choice real estate is in short supply.

The New York Times reports :

Throughout the city, houses of worship built in the last century for Jewish and Christian immigrants from Europe are now home to congregations with roots in Latin America, the Caribbean or the American South. Some are grand palaces that occupy a regal spot in a neighborhood, while others are modest halls nearly indistinguishable from bland storefronts. They sustain communities by helping slake spiritual and material thirsts.

Many of these buildings are under threat, crumbling from years of neglect and deferred maintenance in the case of impoverished congregations, or becoming targets for acquisition by developers in neighborhoods where choice real estate is scarce.

Preservationists have begun to sound alarms, warning that rich urban traditions of art, religion and community service are imperiled.

“You see in these buildings history and continuity, and the influence of new populations and new religions,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “The face of the city will change and an important part of our history will be lost if these buildings disappear.”

Preservationists and urban planners say that city officials have generally been reluctant to landmark religious buildings or to help them with funds for structural repairs and rehabilitation out of concern over separation of church and state. But some advocates have argued that these congregations, which are often community anchors in distressed neighborhoods, deserve a measure of public help.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, director of the Center for Rethinking Development, an urban-policy group, has urged city officials to form a commission dedicated to preserving religious buildings and the role they play in communities. She is the author of a recent paper that suggests city officials could mediate between developers and congregations that wish to strengthen their coffers by selling air rights or unused buildings and parcels.

Ms. Vitullo-Martin said that without a consistent planning approach, cash-poor congregations risk having to demolish their buildings or riling their neighbors by allowing developers to build tall apartment buildings.

“If nothing is done, these churches could fall like dominoes,” she said. “There is something sad about the destruction of something of great beauty. It is the ultimate in using up your capital when you destroy a church or synagogue.”

The article, written by David Gonzalez, gives particular attention to Christian congregations that occupy former synagogues in neighborhoods that were once predominantly Jewish. The unstated implications, obvious to anyone who works to preserve and grow an urban church in a mainly suburban world, is that the past dynamic of one congregation replacing another as one group gave way to another is less and less an option for those interested in preservation.

As the religious landscape changes, many of these neighborhoods are not forming new congregations to fill old spaces, but convert these buildings to secular uses. Preservation schemes, laudable as they are, may be a subtle indicator of greater social (and religious) forces at work in the culture.

Read: The New York Times: Once Synagogues, Now Churches, and Ailing Quietly.

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