Re-Centering the Parish (Part #1)
Indianapolis: early morning tv news, April 12, 2022. In the predawn shadows I recognize it. The tower of The Centrum, formerly Central Avenue United Methodist Church, greets the dawn. The Twelfth and Central intersection pictured is blocked off with yellow “crime scene” tape.
The story of Central Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church is a tale of great success, ending in a disappointing closure. It concerns the loss of a true center – for a community and a denomination. A familiar and oft repeated pattern across cities in the Rust Belt, this. A similar plotline has played out around the nation over the past century. At one-point, Central Avenue was a civic and cultural center and then, abandoned by the Methodists. “Redundant” as the Brits say. This is the tale of a faith group’s loss of clear identity, mission, and vision; a loss of “true north.” A building was “redeemed;” a parish was lost.[i]
Bill Cook, medical device inventor and visionary, from Bloomington came to the rescue in 2008. With Indiana Landmarks, restoration began on the grand old Romanesque-Revival structure. Good thing. Fine for the grand old facility, and the neighborhood. The Centrum is now a center of civic activities. The abandoned church captured Cook’s imagination — and dollars. Bill and Gayle Cook gave careful attention to preservation efforts in dozens of locations across the Midwest. Lovely this.
Central Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church was built in the horse and buggy era (1891) in one of Indianapolis’ first suburbs. It stood only a mile-and-a-quarter, twelve blocks, from city center – the Circle. Soon automobiles came to town. Following decades saw the Great Depression, two World Wars, and accompanying urbanization. Central Avenue prospered. An influential center of civic and social service efforts in the city and beyond, it offered much leadership and support for fledgling institutions. For example, the Methodist Hospital opened in 1908 a short distance to the west carrying with it the undergirding of several congregations, but Central Avenue was a leader. However, in the following decades, the prominence of the congregation changed.
Economic patterns shifted. Employment and housing ecologies were re-sorted. Newer neighborhoods in more distant suburbs were built. Depending on location, real estate values spiked or plummeted. The actual and perceived quality of various public schools was altered. Urban parishes, like Central Avenue, faced decline and redundancy. In the early decades of the 20th Century urbanization brought “improvements” and fresh investments, especially for those living further out from Center Township.
Thousands more workers were needed. While most in the working class lived on the south and west side of town the addition of even more hands and heft required finding additional living space. New migrants found this near the church. There was also an expanding racial diversity. Those leaving behind grand old homes and churches were moving on to newer, more prestigious addresses. It was the early-and-mid-century American Way; a prevailing residential and economic wave was playing out across the nation. Apartment buildings began to dot nearby streets and avenues. Folks moved into town from farms across the Midwest to find work; soon, to support “war efforts.” Others, from Appalachia (mostly Kentucky and Tennessee) and a greater number of African Americans (from the deep South) came to the city. Manufacturing, especially on the south and west side was booming and a robust pharmaceutical industry expanded.
The need for a low wage workforce of clerks, secretaries, cooks, janitors, and food service workers meant that many poor families were competing for a place. They arrived seeking shelter wherever it could be found. Near Central Avenue church, most single-family homes were slowly but steadily transformed into rental properties. Former one-family houses were sectored into three, four, five or even six apartment units. The carriage houses and garages, off the alleys nearby, were turned into one-room residences. Often, a family with several children might reside in these conversions. There would be a little coal-burning cookstove in one corner and a shallow loft for sleeping. By the early 1960s many of the graceful residences along Central, Park, Broadway, Alabama, College, Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets had fallen into disrepair. Apartment units, built to handle the migration during the World Wars, became roach and rat-infested, places of squalor.
Tree-lined neighborhood streets were widened into bustling three-and-four-lane, one-way thoroughfares. No longer was parking allowed along many of these byways. Commuters could speedily travel to and from work or entertainment downtown. Many who formerly resided in the neighborhood, now rushed through it, past it. This “transition” accelerated and expanded during the 1950s and 1960s.
The fabric of neighborhood relationships and human commitments, often overlooked or beneath the surface, suffered. Fear of the “stranger” shaped social and spiritual underpinnings. Like tectonic plates quaking beneath the earth’s crust, the Central Avenue parish was shaken, broken. By the early 1960s the neighborhood and congregation were seen as places of decline, even danger. This quaking left this congregation (and thousands of others like it across the nation), facing an existential crisis. Church members transferred to other congregations, primarily Methodist or another mainline denomination, mostly on the northside.
Some unethical real estate speculators, “slum lords” truly, invested little and extracted much. Like their cousins, still out on the farm, these real estate strip miners couldn’t resist the impulse to turn-a-quick-profit. There was an ignoring of the stewardship of a neighborhood’s fabric, just as farming malpractice fails to properly steward the land. The impulse, in too many cases, was to accrue ever larger profits, skip over best sustainable practices, ignore the long-term health and stability of the ecology of the farm or human residences in the city. Like the erosion of the soil of a farm, an erosion of the parish around Central Avenue was underway. It was the depletion of neighborhood institutions, shops and churches, community pride and a sense of commonweal.
Prevailing myths “explaining” why these neighborhood changes were occurring grew out of the individualistic notion that such patterns were the necessary, unfortunate, but unavoidable stages in urban progress.[ii] The resulting poverty surrounding the church was said to be “inevitable,” tragic perhaps, but essential to the larger success of the city. The poor would have to “make their way out” by individual hard-work and bootstrap initiative. These newly arriving poor ones, “the industrious unfortunate” could one day “escape” their plight through hard work – and perhaps a little luck.
Congregational assistance/charity programs to meet the needs of these new arrivals were commonplace and included a usual array of efforts – food pantry, a thrift shop, rummage sales, recovery groups, summer programs for children and youth, and emergency assistance. So it was, at Central Avenue Methodist in middle years of the century; so it was, in core city congregations across the nation.
The neighborhood ecology was believed to be rooted in a biological model, like the human life cycle: neighborhoods were born, grew up, then declined. Low wealth persons who lived around the church in the 1950s and 1960’s were understood to be “born to poverty,” or ones who suffered some misfortune, or were destined to their circumstances due to some individual human failing. If they had sufficient imagination, initiative, or opportunity they too could join the upwardly mobile path to the suburbs.
In some places, in other northern Rustbelt cities, the abandonment of lovely neighborhoods was even more dramatic. Banking practices of red-lining and racist government housing mortgage guidelines aided and abetted the decline. Lost, were opportunities for poor and minority persons to benefit from home ownership. Richard Rothstein’s excellent book the “The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” documents the multiple ways local, state, and federal governments incentivized this deleterious turnover in neighborhoods, all the while limiting or outright blocking opportunities for homeownership for racial minorities and the poor.[iii]
By 1961, other voices, like Jane Jacobs and Gibson Winter offered alternative views of how urban neighborhoods might thrive[iv] and urban congregations might give witness.[v] Alternative urban parish models were emerging in the mid-century. Places like the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., and in Chicago, Woodlawn Mennonite Church, and the Ecumenical Institute were challenging old assumptions.
There were a few attempts at incorporating alternative approaches to the traditional congregational life emerging in Indianapolis. As one observer commented, “Indianapolis is a city that is long on charity and short on justice.”[vi] Mainline congregations confirmed a preference for charity as the primary hallmark and missional goal of urban parish life.
However, the story is more complex, isn’t it? It turns out to be more circular. Today a fuller view of the development cycle of economic, housing and neighborhood vibrancy is clearer. It is “wash, rinse and repeat.” Decline and decay were not inevitable. Indianapolis is more fortunate than many other cities where the loss of entire neighborhoods was and is more profound. It only took a few short decades, along with the vision and resources of folks known as Urban Pioneers for this cycle to be obvious.
Still, a blindness remains. Congregations and neighborhoods once benefitting from the population turnover and changes around Central Avenue now face their own demise. They now experience the loss of any sense of parish cohesiveness. False options offered by the prevailing view of inevitable development and/or decline persist and shape understandings. Today Indianapolis’ Old North Neighborhood has mostly been “gentrified.” There is good in this. There has also been harm. The Centrum, is a symbol of a neighborhood rediscovered and being “preserved.” One wonders for how long?
It is one thing to restore buildings and houses, quite another to re-establish (or perhaps rediscover) a parish.
This leaves one today (and hopefully future leaders of congregations and denominations) with three questions: why? what if? and why not? Future installments will seek to address these three queries. The hope is to better understand and offer suggestions as to alternative futures for faith-based communities. Might there be multiple ways to “re-parish” the urban landscape?
[i] This story is one I know well, as I lived much of it. My father was pastor of Central Avenue, 1962-1966. He was a good and respected pastor. Prior to moving to Indianapolis, he had served growing congregations with predominantly working-class memberships. However, sixty years ago, Central Avenue was viewed as a “dying inner city congregation.” This work proved to be tough duty for my papa. He seemed to age too rapidly over those four years with speedily graying hair and the burdens of such a parish spiraling downward he seemed to stoop in his shoulders. He was one of five or six talented younger pastors across two decades of the 1950s and 1960s who were sent to “turn the place around.” It was not to be. ++There is more. As it turns out, just twenty years later I was appointed pastor to nearby Broadway United Methodist, just seventeen blocks to the north. The story of Broadway and the surrounding neighborhood was not unlike the story of Central Avenue. A once prominent congregation had fallen on hard times. In 1986 my family bought a home near the church, and I became one of those younger white professionals (urban pioneers) fortunate enough to own a home in a neighborhood that was beginning to regentrify.
[ii] Much of the work of the University of Chicago sociologists (e.g., Robert Park and Ernest Burgess) assumed that such patterns or variations thereof, known as the “Concentric Zone Model,” were predictable and normal in every city. Their book, The City, was published in 1925 and the model they offered, based largely on Chicago, shaped understandings of an inevitable pattern in all American urban ecologies.
[iii] Rothstein, Richard, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Norton Publishing, 2018.
[iv] Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
[v] Winter, Gibson, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in the Expanding Metropolis, Doubleday, 1961.
[vi] This perspective, of Indianapolis being a city “long on charity and short on justice,” was discussed on several occasions by this author with Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut III, mayor from 1976-1990. Hudnut had been pastor of the influential Second Presbyterian Church in the city. He was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary. Among his seminary classmates was his friend and mine, Dr. Carl Dudley, a leading observer, researcher, and proponent for new models of urban parish life. (Dudley was an urban pastor in St. Louis who later taught at McCormick Seminary in Chicago and Hartford Seminary.) “Mayor Bill” also knew the history of neighborhood decay and renewal set down in this piece. Hudnut knew the alternative approaches to urban parish life emerging in other cities. He did not disagree that individual charity was the preferred norm for the city and as such, the challenge for urban pastors was problematic. Even so, he offered cautionary counsel about “moving too quickly” to organize opposition that would confront underlying assumptions held by leaders in the city or denominational bodies.