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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Community ain't what it used to be: neighborhood challenges to churches and schools (part 2)

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 3, 2008

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Yesterday I wrote about a seemingly endless series of challenges to development activities, even relatively minor ones, proposed by churches and schools in and around my neighborhood.  This bothers me because, if we are experiencing hostility between neighbors and even our most basic community institutions, the viability of multi-functional, sustainable neighborhoods and cities is called into question. 

a neighborhood church in Cleveland Park, DC (c2008, FK Benfield)While I don’t believe that nonprofits deserve a carte blanche to do anything they want without being questioned, my perception is that there is a level of distrust and defensiveness in these cases that is out of proportion to what is being proposed.  And, frankly, it seems most prevalent in upscale neighborhoods.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that some of the greatest success stories concerning development within communities, sometimes with faith-based support, have occurred in recently downtrodden or relatively modest areas like Dudley Street in Boston, Old North in St. Louis, and Geeensburg, Kansas.

I don’t think it has always been this way.  Are we as a society less communal and less trusting, more defensive than we used to be?  If so, why?

I have a few theories.  First, air conditioning.  I’m serious.  It makes more people spend more time indoors than we did, say, 50 years ago, which means less interaction.  How many people sit on their front porches in the evenings now, if they even have them, in wealthy neighborhoods?  Second, our addiction to automobiles.  Hearst School, in my neighborhood (c2008, FK Benfield)As my co-author Don Chen memorably wrote in our 1999 book Once There Were Greenfields, some people, particularly in low-density suburbs, “tend to interact with their neighbors mainly through their windshields.” 

And, of course, we’re a more mobile society in other ways, too, with communities being more transient than they used to be.

Whatever the reasons, there has been a decided downturn in Americans’ affinity with both churches and schools.  In his classic book Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam notes that, although the US continues to have more houses of worship per capita than any other nation on earth, “religious sentiment in America seems to be becoming somewhat less tied to institutions and more self-defined.”  Weekly churchgoing remains popular in the US but has declined over the last half-century, as has church membership.

Bowling Alone, by Robert PutnamWith respect to schools, Putnam notes that “participation in parent-teacher organizations has dropped drastically over the last generation, from more than 12 million in 1964 to barely 5 million in 1982 before recovering to approximately 7 million” in 1995.  Putnam also uses survey data to document declining socializing with neighbors and the declining portion of people who say that “most people can be trusted,” which had fallen sharply to below 40 percent by the mid-1990s.

In my youth, neighbors were more accepting, I believe, because they were usually among those who attended the nearby churches and schools, or were friends with people who did.  Today, given the decline in identification with these institutions, and decline in neighborhood social ties, neighbors see the local churches and schools not as part of their own kind but as other people, at best representative of a minority in the neighborhood.  They are much less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

I also think that, at least with regard to neighborhood defensiveness with regard to development activities, including those undertaken by churches and schools, we in the environmental movement have played a role.  For good reasons, beginning in the 1970s we created a system of laws and procedures, and a culture, that over time has made it relatively easy to challenge proposed development of all types, and to defeat proposals or delay them until proponents give up.  People now consider it their right to fight proposed development wherever and whenever it occurs, and it has become an expectation in many places.

another neighborhood school, the Eaton School, in DC (by: FK Benfield, c2008)While there are important reasons to be glad for this – many, many bad projects have been halted because of environmental challenges, some of them litigated by yours truly – I think that, as the creators of this system, we now bear some responsibility for making sure that it is not abused.   It is time for us as a movement to become more discriminating in what we challenge and what we applaud, and to speak more publicly and forcefully for as well as against things.  Indeed, I believe it is irresponsible of us to say no without also indicating what would prompt us to say yes.  We also must challenge those who oppose environmentally benign or beneficial projects in our name. 

Many of my colleagues at NRDC agree and are now vigorously advocating reasonable, pragmatic solutions to our environmental problems.  I’ve asked NRDC’s top leadership and our communications team to join our smart growth program in helping our constituency tell the difference between good development projects and bad, and to help them speak in favor when they are good.  That is certainly what this blog will stand for.

Back in the neighborhood, it is a long walk, about a mile, from my house to what is without a doubt the greatest asset in our portion of the city:  Washington National CathedralWashington National Cathedral (by: mj*laflaca, creative commons license)interior, Washington National Cathedral (public domain)The foundation stone was laid in 1907 and it took 83 years to build.  No matter what your religious or social affinity, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved and inspired by its majesty.  Renters and homebuyers pay a considerable premium for being located nearby, especially if they have a view.  The cathedral, one of the world’s largest, opens its doors to people of all faiths as they gather to worship and pray, to mourn the passing of world leaders, and to confront the pressing moral and social issues of the day.  I can’t imagine our city without it.

We are lucky that construction began a century ago.  Would Washington National Cathedral be allowed in its neighborhood if it were proposed today?

Read part 1 of this two-part essay here.

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Elizabeth SchillingJul 3 2008 02:51 PM

So much to think about here. I'm really sad about the attitude towards children implicit in these NIMBY battles. A quiet church is one thing, but how dare they consider allowing a bunch of screaming 3-yr-olds to inhabit it (during the weekday, no less, when most of those NIMBYs aren't even home)? They're noisy, messy, and that awful playground equipment is so...well, tacky.

I think any of us who invest in a home have had that gut reaction to something or someone new coming into "our" space. It takes some effort to see the neighborhood as a bigger whole, a trick that is definitely easier when you know a few of your neighbors and their diverse interests.

Along with NRDC helping some environmentalists to be FOR development, maybe some of us who care so much about smart growth could take it upon ourselves to meet our neighbors?

john norquistJul 3 2008 04:37 PM

During the time I was mayor of Milwaukee( 1988 to 2004) I encountered church nimbyism and some times sided with it. For example a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in a largely African American middle class neighborhood wanted to tear down two homes to add to their parking lot. Most of the congregation was white and had fled the neighborhood long ago. It was nice that the suburban Lutherans were still attracted to the city location to worship, but on balance I felt that that benefit was outweighed by the loss of houses.We fought for about a year, but finally settled with one house dozed for parking and one saved.
Another Missouri Synod Lutheran Church also had a space problem. St Emmaus operated a popular school in the heart of Milwaukee's low income inner city. All, but a few of the students were African American. The parents loved the school and when it wanted more room for a playground I supported it as a net asset for the neighborhood.Milwaukee has about 15 Lutheran schools operated under the school choice program. They are all fundamentalist Christian schools. I don't subscribe to that brand of religion; I'm a fallen away Presbyterian, but these schools and the Roman Catholic schools are considered assets to their neighborhoods.One of my fellow liberal friends confronted me pointing out that the Lutherans were teaching Creationism. I countered that while I don't agree with creationism, I was pleased that the students could spell "creation".
Another issue was the sudden proliferation of storefront churches. Nimbies opposed them seeing them as a sign of commercial decline. Others, including me, saw them as place holders until healthy retail could replace them.Now that urban real estate has entered a more prosperous phase I think I was right. Buildings were saved by the holy rollers and are now returning to their original retail uses.
New churches in suburbia represent a dismal branch of architecture. Most are Big Boxes with vast parking lots.The degradation of religious architecture may merely reflect the degradation of religion into a forum for self satisfied materialism. Perhaps the challenges of energy scarcity and global warming will enliven religion and religious architecture as well.

Kaid @ NRDCJul 3 2008 04:51 PM

Elizabeth, thanks for reading and for sharing those very human insights.

John, I think that, as usual, you got the nuances right in those cases. And you're right about the dismal architecture of some of the new suburban churches, too, unfortunately - not all of them, thank goodness.

I am encouraged by a sort of alter-evangelical movement in which more socially inclined evengelicals are starting to speak up on behalf of climate, human rights, and other great causes. I hope the trend continues - I remember how important Bishop Pilla's voice was in speaking for urban reinvestment in Cleveland. The right does not have an exclusive claim to the moral pulpit.

Have a great holiday weekend, both of you.

Jessica MillmanJul 6 2008 02:53 PM

The examples of community opposition to churches you explored in these posts do illustrate the short sightedness of the neighbors. These are examples of church expansion/use that compliment the neighborhood. I spent many hours fighting the building of (mega) churches in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. These churches sought to locate on "cheap" land used for agriculture far from the homes of their members.

Churches can add value to the community when appropriately located and built/expanded in a pattern that compliments the scale and architectural vernacular of the neighborhood.

Merry RabbJul 6 2008 04:53 PM

Yes activists of the 70's did begin creating the system of laws and procedures, and the culture as you put it, that has made it easy to challenge development of all types. But I might take it a step further, expanding on your comment about "culture". The environmental movement has always sought to galvanize constituencies, neighborhoods etc. as a means to the desired environmental outcome even if the participants are not environmentalists in general. In many situations we've gotten the local residents involved to become politically active based on pride in their town, or to maintain their current way of life and preserve the good qualities of a place that made them want to live there in the first place. To use a completely different example than one involving urban development, some residents may want to preserve a lake in their small town because their parents taught them to fish there and they want to be able to do the same with their kids. Or maybe the lake is part of the town's identity in their eyes because of community celebrations always held there like fireworks on the 4th or a Christmas holiday boat parade. Activists figure out the issues that matter to that community and get them involved, even if the community members have no interest in a specific rare aquatic species or concerns about watershed preservation in general.

That approach isn't/wasn't unique to the environmental movement obviously. For a long time there's been this idea that if you get people involved in politics on a specific issue based on their own self interest that at some point they will transcend self interest and view things in terms of the common good. More specifically I think we environmentalists thought if we got people to be on our side for one environmental issue that they'd learn things from that and be more likely to support a completely different environmental issue in the future. I'm not sure either of those things has happened to any significant degree.

So now we have these urban neighborhoods opposing development of churches, daycare etc. These people are simply trying to "preserve" their neighborhood so it will be the same place with all of the same attributes they liked when they moved there. They or their predecessors learned in the 70s that if you stay informed and are active in local issues then you can prevent things from happening that you don't want and get things you do want. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say we are reaping what we have sown, but it does seem to me that we were naïve in thinking that a lot of people would use local political empowerment for the common good versus their own perceived individual self interest.

Kaid@NRDCJul 6 2008 09:27 PM

Those are excellent insights. I would add a couple of points:

First, the way we protect places like the Montgomergy County Agriculture Reserve and childhood lakes is to allow a reasonable additional amount of growth and development in our already-built commuities.

Second, I don't blame people for wanting to protect what is dear to them within cities and towns, too. But I don't think it's so much failing to yield to the common good as it is failing to develop a sense of proportion. There is no way the Wisconsin Avenue church, or the National Cathedral, or the schools in our community are threatening anything - they are making our neighborhoods better.

I won't back down from my point that we enviros bear some responsibility. We've been great at exposing and teaching a lot of important things, but a sense of proportion isn't one of them. It's time for that to change.

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