One of the more interesting pieces in the series discusses churches and other "houses of worship" that are being mostly lost to redevelopment. According to the article, many religious organizations are making deals with developers, choosing to avoid historic landmark status, in favor of new construction that allows for mixed use architecture. A big part of this is the inability for these organizations to fund the costly rennovations that are required of historic landmarks.
Much of the arguments for historic preservation focus on the desire to save some kind of cultural heritage, believing that the material presence of the architectural form is a link to a shared past. Likewise, nature preserves are believed to serve the purpose of protecting some natural space from the process of human encroachment, freezing it in some specific moment in time. Of course, both forms of preservation take extreme amounts of capital and social energy to maintain. What is interesting to us in the articles is the conflict between utopian values. Both the preservationists and the developers are realizing an aesthetic vision laden with ideological value - mythic-historical for the preservationist, mythic-futurist for the developer. And where do those who just need a space to practice their religious services fall in this conflict? Well, they seem to be threatended by both sides:
A year later a bill was introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly exempting houses of worship from local preservation laws. The measure was defended by the New York Board of Rabbis, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Council of Churches of the City of New York. But it faced fierce opposition from preservationists.It is important to note that the buildings most preservationists want to preserve are usually (though certainly not always) extraordinary examples of building, rather than exemplary of common forms. And their significance is in their connection to some mythic and formal narrative of the past - the architecture embodies some kind of classic or novel tradition that can be placed on a timeline. The activities and values of the church are not what preservationists want to save. It's not even the history of the church's values that preservationists are interested in, only it's aesthetic connection to a mythic past. The church for them is a building, not a living group of people and their shared ideas.
At West-Park Presbyterian on the Upper West Side, the active membership has dwindled to 20 who now worship at a church nearby, and homeless people camp out in the building's doorways. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Brashear, said he simply wanted to see his congregation endure, even if that means worshiping in a new, more modest setting. "It's not just saving one small little church," he said. "It's preserving a place of active and vital ministry for the future."
We don't mean to suggest that preservationists are bad and developers less bad. The developers could care even less about the values of the church, except that they might become clients for new construction. And certainly, the homeless camping on the church's steps won't find any sympathy from developers and city planners.
We also don't mean to suggest that the values of religious institutions should be preserved. But an important question for us to consider is what it is we are preserving in architectural form (or nature, for that matter) when divorced from its active use. What preservationism seems to do is locate cultural significance in formal permanence, meaning that narratives that can be embedded in concrete, lasting form are privileged. And as preservation policy workers and critics, such as Antoinette Lee and Angel David Nieves, have pointed out, the ideological link between permanence and cultural significance in historic preservation poses problems for stories originating from minority and oppressed perspectives, where celebrated architectural forms are less common.
This is one reason why we were so excited by the Spectres of Liberty project's form of memorializing histories that recalled the architectural structure of a church, while placing emphasis on speech and action as what made the church a narrative site. Spaces and places were obviously an important aspect of the Underground Railroad - people had to gather, organize and move safely in real, physical space. But the materials that composed these places didn't become an unquestionable, fetishized replacement for historical narrative in that project. That the church building no longer exists is part of the continuing history of remembering the Underground Railroad and slavery, not as a discreet past, but something we still live with and recreate.