Magazine article Cross Currents

The Construction of Sacred Space in the Urban Ecology

Magazine article Cross Currents

The Construction of Sacred Space in the Urban Ecology

Article excerpt

Entering the old furniture factory, Muslim worshippers quietly slip out of their shoes before finding a space on the prayer carpet. Not far away, Mennonites silence their animated greetings as they move into the renovated iron works factory and enter into private meditation in preparation for worship. A few blocks away, the simple altar in the small storefront church, adorned with plastic flowers around the wooden cross, inspires no less reverence than a majestic Basilica, as these Pentecostal worshippers whisper, and then shout, their adoration of God. On one city street, ordinary space becomes holy ground--all without the assistance of the architectural forms that normally demarcate space as being sacred. Here, the Divine is not encountered in ethereal stillness but as sirens screech up and down the street just outside. Spirits soar, not under vaulting ceilings with dim lighting but under drop ceilings and neon lights found in every other store on the block. That which is sacred is not apart from, but seemingly embedded in this city street.

Theoretical considerations of "sacred space" have rarely looked closely at the importance of sacred spaces in the complexity of the contemporary urban context. Traditionally, discussion of the sacred begins, and sometimes ends, with Mircea Eliade (sacred as "divine irruption") and Emile Durkheim (sacred as "inviolability")--foundational ideas which differ on whether sacred meaning is ontological or inherent in an object or space, or is socially constructed. Either way, the sacred is defined by a religious group as being distinct from that which is secular (or "profane")

Those within the social constructionist stream argue that space is not inherently sacred but becomes so through the work of sacralization--human agency which constructs sacred meaning through defining and protecting the pure (or transcendent) from desecration (violation). (Wuthnow, 1994; Nelson, 2006; Chidester and Linenthal, 1995). Particularly through ritual, spatial design, control of land, memorializing shared narrative and iconography, spaces become inscribed as sacred through the cultural production of the groups which claim them (Nelson, 2006). Yet even the more recent work on sacred space has not focused on how and why in densely populated streets, where cultures mix and re-mix, often unassuming buildings can become holy ground within their context. City streets bear the booms and busts of the economy, and the demographic turnover of immigration patterns. Buildings along those streets are adapted and readapted to new uses over time. Space and the meaning of space is contested within these ongoing social changes. The claim and construction of space as sacred, therefore, takes place in the context of complex and colliding social and cultural dynamics within the urban ecology.

In this article, I will look particularly at urban buildings whose original purpose was secular, but have now been reconstructed as sacred. I will argue from this research that what becomes sacred is not constructed as over-against the secular/profane but in fact in relationship, or negotiation, with it. I will further try to tease out the social dynamics of the processes of construction and deconstruction of the sacred in the urban context.

This study comes out of a larger ongoing ethnographic research of one historic street in Philadelphia, Germantown Ave. "The Avenue" is a major thoroughfare, which runs through the city of Philadelphia and extends into the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas beyond. My research focuses on the 8.5 miles of Germantown Ave. within the city limits, and the houses of worship which have long punctuated the street, providing sacred space for believers for over 300 years (Fig. 1).


The religious ecology here is crowded and dynamic. Currently there are eighty-four houses of worship (two mosques, eighty-two churches) on this one city street, about 10 per mile. …

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