As I drove over Oxford Rd., I couldn't help but notice how incongruous St. John's Church is from the surrounding neighborhood. Juxtaposed by a melange of late 19th and early 20th century architectural styles, the ultra modern design of the church and it's placement on the corner is visually jarring and out of place.
I am sure that before the church and it's vast acres of parking were constructed sometime in the 60's, the site was home to numerous small, quaint village homes. Now, the lots are cleared of any evidence of the families that used to inhabit the humble residences located there.
I could not help but wonder, why? Did the people of New Hartford really need this church? Was Historic St. John's downtown just to far to drive every Sunday? What a wonderful thing it would be if the suburban parishioners of all denominations of churches would have stayed in the original city parishes that not only served the urban neighborhoods but the entire region as well.
Now, before I get calls and e-mails from members of St. John's New Hartford, I am sure that the parish has done charitable works and is a credit to the diocese. Fair enough.
My problem is that most suburban development was redundant to what already existed in the city. Sprawl without growth. We have traded the urban resources for replacement in the suburbs, and that has created the economic disparity between the two.
But sadly that's not how we roll here in America. Unlike Europe, we abandon our churches located in urban neighborhoods because now, their location is "inconvenient." Once we attain wealth and status, we don't want to be seen in the city of Utica.
My home parish, St. Francis de Sales on Eagle St., was a victim of this mindset. A magnificent structure designed by noted architect Fredrick Gouge, it was closed by the Syracuse Diocese several years ago and merged with St. John's Downtown.
Now, St. John's alone is responsible for the ministry once shared by the staff and parishioners at St. Francis. The Hope House, Health Friends, all the outreach and ministry to the sick, poor, and forgotten people of our community-these are but a few of the things that this humble parish once did. The magnificent doors of St. Francis are locked, its vibrant frescoes flaking away into oblivion, the artifacts destined to be stripped and sold at auction to the highest bidder.
A "for sale" sign is attached to a building that for over 100 years was a beacon of hope, comfort and solitude to hundreds of people.
The suburbs have their big, modern, maintenance free monoliths that bad planning practices allowed to be constructed during the 60's and 70's. No poor or forgotten people here! Lot's of wealthy, mostly white members with plenty of surface parking. And you don't even have to lock your cars!
The shift of all denominations of parishes from the city to the suburbs is no different than the retail exodus from downtown to the malls. This narrative has been repeated time and time again throughout our nation. Unlike the old European countries that had landlocked urban centers, we have plenty of space to develop. Dairy farm? Apple orchard? Who needs 'em! Our development mindset has for 50 years has favored the destruction of the urban to be replaced by development in the sub-urban.
To do that, we had to obliterate acres of wetlands, natural habitat and 200 years of agrarian culture. In exchange we got destroyed city neighborhoods, racial inequity and a have-have not society.
But hey, we got lots and lots of surface parking! And, you can practically drive your car right into the store.
Thankfully, the trend today across our country is moving away from natural habitat destruction in the areas around urban communities. We have discovered that the amount of money it takes to build and maintain the infrastructure to support this kind of sprawl-without-growth development model is not available any longer.
But not in the Utica area! No sir, we are gonna keep building in the suburbs. A recent OD article quoted the New Hartford Town Supervisor as saying, "There is no end to the growth of development in New Hartford."Even EDGE, the premier (only) real development agency in Oneida County has a zero urban development model. We are still stuck in the '80's business park concept.
Lucky for us. Fortunately, there is an end to the amount of resources needed to support this type of growth. Hopefully, we will realize that before it is too late.