Spatial Succession of Sacred Space in Chicago

By Tillman, Benjamin F.; Emmett, Chad F. | Journal of Cultural Geography, Spring-Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Spatial Succession of Sacred Space in Chicago


Tillman, Benjamin F., Emmett, Chad F., Journal of Cultural Geography


Abstract. Religious landscapes tell much more about a place than just religious adherence. The oftentimes strong correlation between ethnicity and religion means that a religious landscape can also be an ethnic landscape. In urban centers like Chicago, ethnic neighborhoods have long been identified by their central places of worship. The ethnic composition of neighborhoods, however, is not static. As one group moves up and out, another moves in. As a result, places of worship built to accommodate the original ethnic/religious group become places of worship for new residents. In the transition, new and growing groups may choose to share sacred space with the older and declining group. Through spatial succession of sacred space, sharing of sacred space, and converting profane space into sacred space, the ethnic groups of Chicago have created a fascinating and ever-changing religious landscape that tells much about the many different groups who live and worship in the city.

The urban landscape of Chicago tells many tales. But since urban landscapes are always evolving, little remains to testify of early periods of occupance. Gone are the Indian encampments, the military forts, and the farms. Gone, thanks to the famous fire and urban renewal, are the original houses and offices of the central city core. Gone too are the stockyards, many of the factories, and some of the railroad lines. In their places have emerged parks, expressways, airports, housing projects, and corporate headquarters. These ongoing changes are often viewed in neat little epochs, best identified by separate chapters in history books. In Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, Mayer and Wade (1969, viii) use photographs to document the "physical growth and internal spatial patterns" of the city, for in no other way "can the successive stages of development" be seen. Their chapter headings illustrate these successive stages: Prairie Seaport, 1830-51; Railroad Capital, 1851-71; The Second City, 1871-93; The White City and the Gray, 1893-1917 (referring to the white Colombian Exhibition and the gray industrial city); War and Prosperity, 1917-45; and Revival and Crisis, 1945-69.

Chicago has indeed experienced sequent occupance, but it is more of an evolution than a series of epochs. Hornbeck, Earle, and Rodrigue (1996, 50) describe sequent occupance as a "well known approach in human geography" used "to describe spatial and landscape changes by reconstructing the character of landscapes at specific moments in the past." The problem with this method, they suggest, is that its proponents "adopt a slicing procedure that reveals a series of static landscapes that have reached their apogees." They continue:

This series of static slices is then put into motion, creating a cinematic portrait of landscape change. This motion, however, is more illusory than real for the simple reason that this sampling procedure obscures transitions and all of the confusions and complexities that attend them. Sequent occupance thus portrays landscape evolution as an inexorable, inevitable, and unproblematic process in which geographies evolve in ways that seem as though they could not have happened otherwise.

While the chapter headings and even individual photos used by Mayer and Wade (1969, 464) may indicate static slices, their work, when viewed in its entirety, does reveal the many transitions and complexities associated with sequent occupance. This process is noted in their conclusion:

The new skyline astonished people who had come to think of Chicago in static terms. Like every previous generation they lamented the passing of old landmarks and found much of the new shabby and pretentious. But those who know something about history realized that American cities have always been changing and dynamic; and Chicago, especially had been the most brash and audacious of all. As Carl Sandburg once said:

   "Put the city up; tear the city down put it up again; let us find a city. … 

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