How can historic sacred places support civic engagement, social cohesion and neighborhood equity?
Churches, synagogues and mosques are among the many sacred places that have long served as anchors in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. They stand out for their distinctive architecture, large gathering spaces, cultural significance, strong sense of community and charitable works. Currently, Philadelphia’s historic sacred places are at a crossroads.
Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017) reports that nearly 10 percent of Philadelphia’s 839 historic sacred places have been repurposed as housing, offices, school and child care facilities through adaptive reuse. An additional 5 percent are vacant. Since 2009, 35 have been demolished to make way for new development.
Among those that remain, hundreds have congregations that find themselves acting as stewards of underutilized spaces. Yet their vacant sanctuaries, sparsely-used meeting halls, and mothballed Sunday School wings offer real opportunities for congregations to fulfill their missions and build stronger bonds with the surrounding community. Through the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces initiative, the Community Design Collaborative and Partners for Sacred Places teamed up to re-envision these underutilized spaces as community hubs. The initiative adds the design and development community’s voice to a growing dialogues about the intersection of historic sacred places and communities, showing that underutilized space can be activated to expand the civic commons, serve a larger secular purpose and strengthen communities.
Within these pages, we share the realities faced by congregations in stewarding historic properties. We challenge the notion that sale and subsequent adaptive reuse or demolition is the only option for struggling congregations and we introduce innovative models for co-locating multiple community uses in religious buildings.
Sacred Places/Civic Spaces is about beginning to re-envision and preserve Philadelphia’s historic sacred places. Let’s look at them with fresh eyes, consider the ways that they serve our communities today and imagine the ways they can serve them tomorrow.