The Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple (Mormon Newsroom).

The Urban Church

Mormons should be paying more attention to downtown cores.

Last night I read the surprising announcement that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is financing the development and construction of a 32 floor residential and commercial building in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. The Church has owned this property for a while, and has already begun construction on the adjacent Philadelphia Temple, to be opened in 2016.

The Church is no stranger to urban development. A central doctrine of early Mormonism was the idea of Zion, a city where the faithful would gather to prepare the world for the return of Christ. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young each built their own cities, in Nauvoo (Illinois) and Salt Lake City, according to ideals of community participation and ideal civic life. As Mormons colonized the intermountain west, they invariably placed at the center of their cities a temple or chapel of some sort (see: Provo, Ogden, Logan, Saint George). In the past decade, the Church has constructed a string of urban meetinghouses or temples in places such as Hong Kong and Manhattan. The Church also has a great deal of experience with urban commercial land development, having completed the City Creek project in downtown Salt Lake City early last year.

Why would any church invest in commercial properties at all? Surely some would say (and have said) the money would be better spent on church operations, or on humanitarian and welfare missions. When City Creek was announced, Church

President Gordon B. Hinckley said

Renewed vitality at the head of Main Street will result in increased vitality throughout the entire city. We of the Church have wanted to keep our city youthful and attractive. People come here to Temple Square from all over the world in ever-increasing numbers, and it is important that we keep the Square and its environs beautiful and inviting.

I think that this is some of the rationale behind the Philadelphia investment. I’ve never spent time in Philadelphia, but my friend (and Penn alum) James Wong confirmed “that part of Philly has been in need of some love.” Perhaps the Church is hoping to ensure that the temple is in the best neighborhood possible, and is willing to make that neighborhood itself if it must.

If this is true, why is Philadelphia the first city (outside Utah) to get this treatment? Are other temples not in need of similar protection? I’ve noticed several periods and styles of temple placement (without clearly defined beginnings or ends and with plenty of exceptions):

  • 1836-1900: temples are planned to be the centerpieces of new Mormon communities (Nauvoo, Salt Lake, Logan, Saint George)
  • 1900-1995: temples are built in suburbs of cities where there are strong Mormon congregations (Sandy Springs (Atlanta GA), Silver Spring (DC,MD), Glenview (Chicago IL))
  • 1995-present: smaller temples are built in suburban areas where there are active congregations “far” from an existing temple (such as the temples “in” Louisville, Nashville, Raleigh, Columbia, Birmingham, and Orlando).

Philadelphia will join Salt Lake City, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, and New York in the elite club of cities with decidedly urban temples (perhaps the new Provo City Center Temple should count?). But Salt Lake fits clearly in Phase 1, and the other three (4?) are all outliers built for special congregations. Does the Philadelphia Temple represent a new phase for the Church? Here’s a thought exercise: if Philadelphia had gotten its temple in 1996, would it not go in Norristown? Or if London were getting a temple today (instead of 1958), who would ever put it in Newchapel?

A suburban religion?

There is a strong trend in wider North American society to reclaim central cities and make them pleasant places for people to live, work, and socialize. Millenials are buying cars at much lower rates than our parents’ generations, and are much more likely to live in urban areas. With college-aged and young professional people far more likely to join the Church than older, more set individuals, it seems obvious that the official “I’m a Mormon”” advertising campaign should be aimed primarily at these young urbanites. But if the nearest Church building requires a half-hour drive out of the city, a young investigator who gets around on her bike is going to find showing up on Sunday difficult.

I had a conversation with a college classmate about a month ago, where he expressed his reluctance to apply for a job in the Salt Lake valley, citing the “way politics in Salt Lake is going.” It was clear he didn’t like that Salt Lake has a democratic mayor and a liberal city council. I think the recent (albeit temporary) legalization of gay marriage in Utah also frightened him. Cities generally are overwhelmingly progressive, and in suburban-oriented thought can appear as harbors of sin and villainy. And short of iniquity, the benefits sometimes attributed to urban life — sustainability, a wider range of dining options, a vehicle-free lifestyle — may not be valued by traditional suburban Mormons.

So what are we, as Mormons, to make of the Church’s investments in central cities? Surely the Church is not frightened of Salt Lake City, and is going to great expense to make the city “youthful and attractive.” The investment in Philadelphia shows that the Church is reaching out to other areas as well. Perhaps the Latter-day Saints should take note.

Avatar
Gregory S. Macfarlane
Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering