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Church Bells and Gospel Choirs Under Gentrification

Can religious liberty protect black churches from an invasive species of buffered selves?
gospel choir

This story begins with the mundane, the bureaucratic even: a local noise ordinance complaint.

Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. recently received a notice from their city’s administration, noting the filing of a complaint claiming that the church’s evening gospel choir practice violated the local nuisance ordinances. The city’s letter indicated that fines of up to $3500, with $500 more accruing each day, could be imposed upon the church should it prove noncompliant.

Oakland church leaders were outraged, and Pleasant Grove Baptist pastor Thomas A. Harris III said, “Kind of hard to believe because we’ve been here about 65 years in the community and all of a sudden we get some concerns about the noise.” Harris and his fellow pastors see this challenge from the Oakland administrative state as just one more intrusion by gentrification. Lawrence Van Hook, the senior pastor at nearby Community Church, said, “We’re being bought out. We’re being moved out. We are being priced out of our own neighborhood” by the influx of well-off tech workers from across the bay in San Francisco.

While West Oakland has indeed seen a surge in home values in recent years, the small case of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church noise complaint may point to a much bigger force at work alongside the raw economics.

In his epic work A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor posited that a central difference between contemporary Westerners and those of centuries past is the rise of the disenchanted “buffered self.” Taylor summarized this a few years ago:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. [Emphasis added] We have changed.

A church’s bells—or the carried amplification of an energetic gospel choir—are not respectful of our selves’ “buffers.” Their enchanted sounds penetrate the neighboring air, and the neighbors. When a church is the heart of a community, the center around which the built environment is ordered, such penetration can serve to strengthen a place. When those neighbors start to be displaced, however, perhaps especially by the super-buffered moderns of the tech industry, the “joyful noise” may pierce the new neighbors unbidden, and unwelcomed.

This would not be a problem in a typical suburban neighborhood, of the sort that populated Silicon Valley in its earliest days. Take St. Raphael the Archangel in Raleigh, NC, for instance:

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m0!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1445827561170!6m8!1m7!1sDrfSXat8RIJmEXImXxr23g!2m2!1d35.85947864728934!2d-78.61763182489112!3f229!4f0!5f0.7820865974627469&w=554&h=350]

St. Raphael, nestled in a thoroughly suburban neighborhood in North Raleigh, is surrounded on all sides by woods, and fields, and parking lots. Almost all of the homes in the area were built after World War II, and are well-insulated single-family lots. Were St. Raphael to conduct a late-night choir practice at full volume, the only ones possibly disturbed would be the Jesuit priests living on-site.

Now take a look at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, in West Oakland:

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m0!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1445828527099!6m8!1m7!1sLm3Hdddty8WBt4CI6_WPUA!2m2!1d37.80761743032036!2d-122.2868371860577!3f101.75!4f0!5f0.7820865974627469&w=554&h=350]

Pleasant Grove Baptist is embedded in its neighborhood, surrounded by residences on all sides. A strong plurality of area homes were built before World War II, and many are multifamily dwellings. It is precisely that urban building pattern, populated by turn of the century Victorian homes, that is drawing the Bay Area’s tech population away from Raleigh-style suburbanism, and into possible conflict with still-enchanted neighborhood institutions.

Conflicts between existing (especially black) urban churches and the new generation of millennials moving into city centers can especially be found in those areas where churches spill out of their buildings’ bounds into the public space. As Taylor continued in his summary, “the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” And so the reshaping of city centers along the lines of best practices urbanism can serve as a very physicalized manifestation of the buffered self’s reordering of its world in a way that conflicts with that outspilling nature of urban churches.

Here in Washington, D.C., that can be seen in a conflict between an attempt to expand the city’s network of protected bike lanes and the surge-parking capacity of streets surrounding the city’s (again predominately black) churches. As Eric Jaffe relates, significant D.C. churches like Metropolitan AME and United House of Prayer sought for new bike lanes crossing in front of their churches to have a gap in protection (plastic barriers that shield bikers from car traffic), so that on Sundays those churches could have diagonal parking available to their parishioners. Metropolitan AME received an accommodation, which the United House of Prayer is seeking.

Jaffe calls such a compromise an “example of appeasement will encourage many more attempts to subvert public interests for private gain.” To Jaffe, it appears the (disproportionately young, white, and relatively well-off) cyclists that the bike lanes protect are the public, in whose interest the regulations and built environment of a city should be constructed, while a church is a private institution invading the community’s space.

Bike lanes may put the conflict into the starkest relief, as there is competition for the physical space of the street, but the regulation of a church’s auditory emanations may be the strongest test case of the struggle for a city’s soul between the returning, buffered moderns and indigenous urban church-goers.

When Princeton historian Emily Thompson cataloged the advent of city noise regulation in New York about a hundred years ago, she collected six years of complaints from 1926 to 1932 on a dedicated multimedia website. Several complaints centered around newly installed church bells (public religious melody has never found unanimous favor), but Thompson notes that “Like all who wrote to complain about the noise of church bells, Mr. Wolf received a form letter indicating that, since the ringing of church bells was protected as a religious freedom under the Constitution of the United States, no action could be taken to alleviate this noise.” A Health Department inspector continued with one citizen, explaining “it is not and never has been the policy of the Health Department to do anything that might be construed as interfering with ones [sic] religious liberties in the slightest degree.”

The question to monitor closely in the coming years is whether that official deference to the place of religion in the public ear is maintained, or whether the penetration of public space by churches begins to be seen as the subversion of “public interests for private gain.” As city neighborhoods are filled with an influx of young new nones giving “autonomous order” to their lives, will the tools of urban regulation rest with a city’s traditional residents, or be seized to defend the buffers of modernity from enchanted invasion?

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.



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