February 19, 2020

Hooray for Holy-wood

When the media or politicians chatter about Los Angeles’ urban resurgence, they usually refer to such things as $700,000 lofts in downtown Los Angeles, grandiose projects like the proposed Grand Avenue development, million-dollar postage stamp lots on the Westside, clubs on Sunset Boulevard or perhaps glittering new cultural institutions like the Getty Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But perhaps a better reflection of Los Angeles’ overall civic health might be to look at Temple Israel in Hollywood. There, a $20 million new building program — this being Los Angeles, an expanding parking lot is one centerpiece — will soon be tearing down aging adjacent apartments to make way for an expanded campus, including a new education complex and chapel.

Just two decades ago, Temple Israel was floundering like many shuls in more urban parts of Los Angeles. Membership was down to about 500 families, and there were thoughts that perhaps this synagogue would go the way of so many urban religious institutions, becoming increasingly isolated and rarely attended.

Over the past decade, however, membership has grown to more than 900 families today. What Temple Israel provides, suggested Rabbi John Rosove, is “a community” for its congregation, “a home away from home.”

This is all the more remarkable because of the horrific events that overtook Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“The earthquake, the riots, the disaster years, but still the Jews didn’t leave,” Rosove said with some pride. “Things were supposed to be shifting away.”

What turned this around? Rosove suggested it may have been a need to find roots and a safe place, a critical shelter in the urban storm.

“A lot of people are coming back to the synagogue for a lot of things,” he explained. “There are young people looking for schools, and there are people who want a spiritual community.”

Critically, this resurgence in religious activity is not confined to Jews, but is a citywide, multiethnic phenomenon.

Religious affiliation, according to one recent study available on the Internet at www.nazarene.org, stands at nearly 60 percent in Los Angeles, compared to barely 40 percent in the Bay Area or in the Portland and Seattle areas.

In contrast with many regions, particularly in bigger cities, Los Angeles’ religious growth is keeping pace with its population expansion, up some 700,000 since 1990. The number of congregations has grown to over 4,000 from roughly 3,500 a decade earlier.

Like Los Angeles itself, this renewal of faith has many faces. Among Jews it includes expanding synagogues in the Conejo Valley and scores of smaller, largely Orthodox congregations spread from Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park to Valley Village and North Hollywood.

The non-Jewish communities show similar diversity, both in terms of faith and location. South Central Los Angeles is home to some of the largest churches. There is the Faithful Central Bible Church at the former site of the 17,500-seat Forum in Inglewood and the West Angeles Church of God and Christ on Crenshaw. And the new $163 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown represents a major continued commitment to the urban center by the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.

You can also see this in the growth of relatively new religious institutions, including the North Hollywood Thai Temple, the Northridge Islamic Center, the Hindu temple in Malibu and the 1,600-seat Korean Valley Christian Presbyterian Church in Porter Ranch. In many ways, these new buildings, many of them quite impressive, suggest the scale of renewed religious sentiment throughout the region.

“What is happening among Jews is not an isolated phenomenon,” observed Rabbi Mark Diamond, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “People are looking around for something, and the more successful congregations are those that are providing for the needs of their flocks.”

Immigrants Drive L.A. Revival

Perhaps most heartening has been the restoration of religious life close to the historic heart of the city. Among Jews, this has been sustained largely by the growth of the Orthodox shuls around Hancock Park, but now there are signs of life even among the less observant.

For decades, the venerable Wilshire Boulevard Temple has been shifting west along with its membership to its $30 million Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus. But now, the congregation is developing a plan to restore and expand its original facilities in Koreatown, hoping to draw a new generation of Reform Jews moving to the increasingly fashionable neighborhoods of Hancock Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz, as well as the Hollywood Hills.

In the same area near Wilshire Boulevard Temple, others of the city’s leading religious institutions are finding new life after decades of neglect and decline. Like the venerable temple itself, great churches are welcoming new parishioners in a way not seen for a generation.

Back in the 1920s, most of the major religious institutions moved out of downtown and to the west on Wilshire. Burgeoning with new businesses and residences, the boulevard, notes Kevin Roderick, author of the recently published “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles,” also became home to “the churches and synagogues of the L.A. power elite.”

The 1960s and 1970s — with the flight of the middle class outward, particularly to the Valley and the Westside — saw the decline of many of these once well-heeled congregations — Catholic, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, as well as Jewish. Yet unlike in many Eastern and Midwestern cities, where urban churches have been largely abandoned, Roderick notes, Wilshire’s have come back to life, largely by serving new immigrants from around the world in languages as diverse as Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Ethiopian and Spanish.

In the inner city, as well as elsewhere, immigrants have done much to power our strong religious revival. This process can be seen in virtually every religious community.

Among evangelicals, it has been driven largely by Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, Asian immigrants. Koreans, in particular, have been a force in the more mainstream Protestant faith. Many synagogues, both new and old, have grown to serve newcomers from Iran, North Africa, Israel and the former Soviet Union.

The immigrant desire to preserve one’s national culture, moral values and languages certainly represents one clear motivation. Take for example the rapid growth of day schools affiliated with the Armenian Orthodox Church, with some 5,000 students. Armenian Archbishop Hovnan Derderian believes his church, its 15 day schools and 30 Saturday academies provide a means to transcend a largely secular, morally relativist reality.

“I think somehow we help people hold on to our identity and culture,” explained the archbishop, spiritual leader of the region’s roughly 450,000 Armenians. “We try to continue the faith of our fathers — just like the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities. It’s a sense of security and a way to provide some authority over morality.”

Derderian added that this revival is broad based across many faiths and reflects to a large extent a growing unease with our public, secular institutions. It can be seen in the continued success of Catholic schools in the region, which serve some 13,000 families, according to a new study by the Pacific Research Institute, as well as scores of Lutheran, Episcopal and conservative Christian establishments.

The Jewish community has certainly also been influenced by this trend. There is today a revival across the city. Jewish day schools, once largely restricted to Orthodox yeshivas, are flourishing as never before.

According to Dr. Gil Graff, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, the number of affiliated Jewish day schools in the Los Angeles region has risen from 22 two decades ago to 37 today. The number of students attending these schools has almost doubled, to near 10,000. This is all the more remarkable, Graff suggested, since the total number of Jewish youngsters is believed to have dropped significantly in that period.

The reasons for this growth are varied. As Derderian suggested, there is a growing interest in traditional values and ethnic identity.

There is also the state of the city’s public schools, which, at least judging by test scores, are bad even by the poor standards of urban state-funded education. And finally, there are other reasons, such as concern for safety, that may be driving parents to the religiously oriented schools.

Cities and Religion: A View From the Past

The notion of linking religious faith and urban vitality goes back to great historians from the fifth century Greek Herodotus to the 14th century Arab ibn Khaldun but has fallen largely out of favor among contemporary urban scholars and commentators.

In the four months since my latest book, “The City: A Global History” appeared, the assertion that “the sacred space” has been, and continues to be, a critical element in the development of cities has perplexed, surprised and even infuriated many critics.

Most observers, like Alan Ehrenhalt, writing in Governing magazine, easily assented to my other two underpinnings of urban success — safety and commerce. But Ehrenhalt took issue with my third key urban component, “sacredness.”

It’s not that he doesn’t buy my argument through history, but he believes that applying this characteristic to today’s contemporary, decidedly secular metropolis may be problematic.

Others were less polite. One writer, an art critic in Dallas, thought my emphasis on religion was not only misplaced, but revealed a “longing for the old priestly class.” By even mentioning religion, I was violating the conception — popularized by urban theorist Richard Florida — that it is hipness, style and the arts that make cities great.

“It’s all about aesthetics,” this reviewer suggested at the end of his attack.

Such comments reveal precisely one critical issue for the urban future. Some see cities depending on creating hip, cool, aesthetically pleasing environments. Issues about moral order, and creating an atmosphere for raising children — things inevitably tied up with nonmaterial considerations — are left to the side as so much historical baggage.

This approach reflects the post-modernist interpretation of urban history, which sees humanity as shaped by largely predominant economic, social or environmental forces. Faith, moral order and religion — even in serious works like Peter Hall’s “Cities and Civilization” — have been all but blotted out as critical components of the urban narrative.

In contrast, in “The City,” I cling to the old idea that great cities, or regions, always have been inextricably connected to sacred spaces. The universality of this phenomenon is inarguable. It was expressed by the central location of temples in cities from Ur and Babylon, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the imperial shrines of ancient Chin, the mosques of Baghdad, the cathedrals of Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Protestant churches in the heart of Amsterdam, London and Boston.

The moral content of these places — the statement they made about the relationship between the city and the universe — was critical to making those cities great. The ancient Judeans may have admired the architecture and fine detail of David’s or Herod’s temples, but it was the symbolic foundation of the place, not the aesthetics, that gave them transcendent importance. Similar things can be said of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral or the great mosques of Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul.

As the commercial role of cities expanded with the rise of capitalism, this explicit religious role declined. Great cities, which had been primarily centers of government or religion, now arose largely on the basis of their commercial prowess.

In America, this was also necessitated by our founders’ correct desire to avoid any specific official religion. Still, over the past 150 years, churches and synagogues have played a critical role in pushing reform — from the abolition of slavery — as well as spearheading the progressive movement for urban sanitation and fair labor standards. More recently, it was churches, particularly the evangelical denominations — black and white — that did much of the heavy lifting for the hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

The Modern American and European Experience

Today, the ill-effects of a declining religious component in cities are clearly evident. In many older cities, many once-great religious institutions lie empty and abandoned, as their middle- and working-class parishioners have fled to the suburbs.

Perhaps most tragic has been the decline of black churches in many major metropolitan areas. The “suburbanization of the black church,” notes Jacqueline Trussell, president of the Web site BlackandChristian.com, has taken from some of our most troubled neighborhoods a critical bastion of security, stability, moral clarity and an important source of services.

Religion is also fading in many of the hip, cool cities so widely celebrated in the media, the political left and cultural communities. Attendance by parishioners at Catholic churches in greater Boston — once one of the bastions of religious observance in America — has dropped from 75 percent to less than half that today. Barely 5 percent of the people in San Francisco, once a largely Catholic city named after a saint, now attend Mass. Manhattan’s parishes, slipping in attendance, also appear to be experiencing a major downsizing.

Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas seem to be bucking this trend. This may be in part due to their high number of single-family homes. Or it may be one of the unintended consequences of a sprawled, multipolar city as people seek a center in a place without one.

This trend is even further advanced in Europe’s shrinking cities, where religion is now largely a matter of preserving the past as a tourist friendly museum piece. There, religious schools (except Muslim ones) are closing, while churches are converted to, among other things, discos, yuppie apartments and even carpet stores.

In both the old industrial bastions and the yuppie ephemeral cities, the waning of religious institutions signals a deep decline in civic culture, in part driven by the loss of the middle- and working-class families that once filled the pews. Whether the decline of religion is a primary cause or an effect can be debated, but certainly the erosion of spiritual centers — and the sustaining power of religious institutions for the sense of community — has contributed to the loss of population and, in particular, families in most of these cities.

Longer Term Implications

The interrelationship of the overall health of cities and religion should be a centerpiece in discussion of the urban future. Both sides of the political debate have politicized much of this.

Conservatives and many Republicans believe that churches could fulfill the needs of the poor and address deep-seated urban concerns better than public policy and government money. To some in the religious right, the city itself is seen as inherently evil and hardly worth the trouble of the divinely anointed.

Many liberals, on the other hand, fear that raising the role of religion in civic life suggests aligning with a kind of right-wing conspiracy. They consign religion, like suburbia, to the toolbox of the hated Bush, Rove and Cheney bogeymen, the secularist left’s satanic trinity.

On a policy level, liberal commitment to secularism is reflected in the anti-religious jihads conducted by groups like the ACLU. In Los Angeles, this was evidenced recently in the recent, ill-advised removal of an offending mission cross from the Los Angeles County Seal.

Yet in reality, it is difficult to pin a particular political cast on Los Angeles’ renewed religiosity. For one thing, the growth of affiliation in Los Angeles does not completely mirror national trends, which have tended to favor conservatives.

In Los Angeles, theologically and politically conservative groups like the Southern Baptists are losing ground just as badly as their more liberal Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian counterparts.

The religious growth comes here instead from very diverse quarters. Certainly the charismatic churches and the Assemblies of God, both of whom appeal to immigrants, have grown handily. But the big winners have been among the oldest religions, including the Catholics, whose numbers swelled by some 800,000 in the 1990s, and, surprisingly, the Jews who picked up more than 60,000 adherents. Much of this is due to the growing immigrant populations.

In sum, Los Angeles’ religious revival reflects not right-wing politics but a city that is demographically changing and vital. In fact, the big gains among many Jewish congregations — outside of the Orthodox and Sephardim — and Catholic parishes may well be more liberal than conservative in their orientation, at least on some issues.

“Jews in the past have thrown out the baby with the bath water,” observed Temple Israel’s Rosove. “You have a reaction against religion that sees it as oppressive.”

The instinctive anti-religious notion, Rosove believes, is beginning to fade, at least among some Jews. More, he said, focus less on narrow political categories and more on larger issues of family, morality and spirituality.

Yet none of this insures that Los Angeles’ religious communities will continue to expand in numbers. Diamond suggested we might focus more on the “qualitative” as opposed to “quantitative” aspects of this shift. He looks to a growing core of committed Jews, as well as people from other faiths, as having the greatest long-term effects on the health of both religious institutions and the city itself.

Healthy, dynamic religious institutions, outside of the intolerant fringes, suggest a unique and enduring form of commitment far more lasting than that offered by companies or political organizations. There are also sure signs that families — and multigenerational communities — can continue to be nurtured in an urban environment.

Far more than celebrity architect creations or fancy museums celebrated by our civic elites, these new patterns of commitment represent the real hope of Los Angeles’ future. It is they who provide the clearest sign that ours can still become ever more a City of Angels.

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The City: A Global History” (Modern Library 2005).