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Good post, Dave. Coincidentally, I just finished _City Life_, by the architectural historian Witold Rybczynski. It's a good book, which hits on many of the themes you set out here, plus he mentions Salt Lake City, briefly. I have a post about it rattling around in my head if I ever get around to it.

This absence of a strong spiritual center to most modern cities is, as I recall, one of the reasons he gives for the decline of the modern urban core.
Not being a Utahn of any sort, I don't have any first-hand observations of the Mormon cities you describe. But aren't some of them deteriorating at their urban core, as well? That would counter the above thesis, wouldn't it?

Thanks for the summary & analysis. I tried (and rejected several), but couldn't think of any cities settled by religious orders that are still cities w/ a central role played by the founding religious order. Nice insight.

What about civic religion? Washington D.C. itself is a shrine, for example, not for any particular denomination, but to the spiritual ideas of the founding and other important moments of the national life.

New York has always been a monument to religious pluralism. Within one block's distance from my apartment are a synagogue, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, the Roman Catholic church of the Incarnation, and the United Church, also known as Rev. Ike's Prayer Tower, in the former Loew's Palace Auditorium. With countless such gathering places, large and small, New York probably doesn't have a religious center. Its spiritual center, the place where citizens come together, has often been Central Park.

Good point Bill — I think the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam War Memorial provide a spiritual center to Washington DC, but as you note it's a rather secular spiritual center. I suppose the Alamo (for San Antonio) and the Arizona memorial (for Honolulu/Hawaii) work for Texans and Anglo Hawaiians, too. It's tougher to come up with specifically religious symbols that compare to LDS temples. Maybe the Crystal Cathedral (in Orange County), but it isn't really a civic landmark that well known or that dear to most residents, unlike the SLC temple, undoubtedly well known to all SLC residents.

Interesting ideas, Dave. On a related front, the church seems to view the Main Street plaza purchase as a way to strengthen SLC's spiritual center. The church also sees its purchase of Crossroads Plaza and its plans for downtown renovation and development--which include new housing, new office space, and a new complex for BYU-Salt Lake and LDS Business College--as attempts to strengthen the city's urban core.

You might be interested in:

Steve Olsen, The Mormon Ideology of Place: Cosmic Symbolism of the City of Zion, 1830-1846

It was originally a Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago, but has since been published by the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute. See here

Ann (#2) asked if some of the Mormon cities are "deteriorating at their urban core." I think the answer is no. Such deterioration started in downtown Salt Lake City near temple square, and the Church started to spend large amounts of money to stop that from happening. They bought up a section of Main Street and made a pedestrian park out of it. The ACLU is still screaming bloody murder about that one. And then they bought up the Crossroads Mall across the street to make sure that it didn't deteriorate. And they have done a lot of other building in the area too, including the new Church Office Building and Conference Center.

The smaller Mormon cities, such as Provo-Orem, have not yet started to experience urban rot in their city centers although the recent move of the Provo City Library to its new location in the completely renovated Lower Campus of BYU could be considered an urban renewal effort.

It irritates me no end when critics of the Brethren point to the Conference Center and other Church building projects to suggest that the Church is falling into apostasy. These cities are needed to last throughout the Millennium. Do they expect the Savior to let their temple environs become inner city slums? I worry about the Los Angeles temple where I was married in 1978. That neighborhood is really getting disgusting.

Interesting thoughts. That's something I'll have to think more about. You might find interesting an old book (originally published in the 1860s!) that is still being used in college classes on the classical civilizations called "The Ancient City" by Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges. It talks a LOT about the religious aspect of a city being key in ancient times. It would make for an interesting comparison to modern cities.

JRW, I served my mission in LA and boy is that true! It was amazing to see the contrast from the beautiful, peaceful setting of the temple block, to stepping out back into "the world."

JRW and Bret, I don't get what you mean about the area around the LA temple. The homes around it are all kept up. The businesses are ordinary things like dry cleaners, donut shops, pool supplies, furniture, etc. The billboards are a bit much, and I remember a drug paraphenalia shop on Westwood Blvd, but that's it. What is disgusting about the area?

I believe that a lot of Utah cities were rather consciously based upon the classic model of the city — especially the Roman version.

John M.
Oh, I suppose I don't mean it quite the way JRW did because you're right. I guess I mean like I described in that it's such a contrast from the temple grounds back into "the world." I guess it seems so weird because the LA temple is somewhat unique in that manner of being where it is.
Also, maybe it was accentuated to me as a missionary there.

Ann (#2): I guess it depends on what you mean by deteriorating. Compared to other mid-sized cities, Salt Lake's cycle of vibrancy to malaise to renewal has been pretty mild. But if, by deterioration, you mean a steady spiral into irrelevance and lifelessness, then yeah, you're right about most cities and towns in the state.

*Tangent alert*
SLC is struggling to bring life back to the downtown, through all sorts of condo and office building and other urban renewal projects. This has been going on since sometime in the 80s (wink to Kashoggi fans).

I think the biggest improvements have come through "urban pioneers"--artists and small businesses who have repopulated the west side of downtown, and young homebuyers who have bought up houses in run-down areas and willed them back to life.

It's frustrating to look at a town like Boise and think "what's wrong with us? We couldn't do it and *Boise* can?" But SLC is also subject to the ongoing schism between Mormon and gentile. I believe the church is honestly interested in improving downtown, and that's why they're spending so much money on this uber-project. But Mayor Rocky Anderson is practically begging them to allow activities of interest to folks who are not Mormon--nightclubs and restaurants that serve alcohol. The church owns about half of the Main Street corridor and therefore has the leverage to practically shut down these types of activities in downtown proper.

In Boise, the bands and the beer are a big part of why the downtown has come alive again.

Perhaps a more interesting question is this: Why is it that the neighborhoods in and around downtown SLC tend to be dominated by non-Mormons? Why do Mormons almost systematically eschew the urban for the suburban?

I would say that 19th C. Mormons were city builders. But 20th-21st C. Mormons are suburb builders and dwellers. I wonder why that is.

It seems to me that SLC revival took place primarily because of the Olympics. A lot of deserted, undeveloped, or worn out areas became condos, art museums and so forth. The problem was that while this was great for the Olympics there just wasn't the population for that many restaurants, clubs and so forth. So I notice many went under when the Olympics were over. Of course the new Mall on the west side helped tremendously. But then that made there be an even bigger danger for the malls to the south of Temple Square. Thus the church's attempts at renovation by effectively making an other BYU campus there.

Just to add, I think there simply is too little space for growth along the Wasatch for any area to remain impoverished too long. The growth here is amazing. But we're about at the stage where older developments will be torn down for newer developments simply because there isn't that much farm land near SLC left and the growth on the west side of Utah lake has limits as well.


The reason Mormons shun the urban for the suburban is simple, really: in the suburbs, the lots are bigger, the houses are cheaper, and the public schools are better. For families, especially those with more than one or two kids, it's tough to make a go of it in the city. I've lived in urban areas for the last 7 years, but now that I have a child close to kindergarten age, my commitment to urban living is cooling a bit.

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