The bulldozers finally began rolling yesterday on Shepherd's Temple Baptist Church--nee Anshe Kenesseth Israel synagogue--in the city's North Lawndale community.
An emergency demolition order issued for the vacant and dilapidated structure last December finally claimed the building, 3411 W. Douglas Blvd. Built in 1913, the old temple survived almost a century, housing three different congregations and two separate religions. The Rev. Martin Luther King spoke on its now-crumbled front steps when the building was home to the influential Friendship Baptist Church in the 1960s. A young Golda Meir, who lived at 1306 S. Lawndale, either worshipped at the temple or attended early Zionist movement meetings there during her brief stay in Chicago after coming here in 1917, according to some reports.
But in the end--and despite all that history and architecture--Shepherd's Temple was a big, neglected and deteriorating building located across the street from a school, no less. The admirable effort by preservationists bought the building a little time and a lot of attention--but ultimately no cash.
In truth, efforts to preserve this structure and pass it into capable, capitalized hands should have begun at least a decade ago. So what should rise from the rubble Shepherd's Temple? How about some kind of early-warning system developed by the city and faith leaders to get current and future Shepherd's Temples on the radar of thriving congregations looking for more space? If the city can market old retail and industrial areas in order to entice businesses, why not old churches?
The city can't force sales, of course, but it could identify and catalog these historic structures--much as it does for non-religious buildings. Maybe the information and the partnership with faith leaders could create marketplace and a grapevine for those who are looking to buy and sell.
For instance, Nefrette Halim, an Egyptian American and a preservationist who does battle on the North Shore, believes the old churches could be marketed to new immigrant Christian communities before falling into peril.
"There are Christian communities that are thriving and growing at break neck speeds," she said. "Obviously, the example I know well is the Coptic church. I do know, however, all the Middle Eastern churches are the same case: Iraqi churches, Syrian, Assyrian, Ethiopian, as well as many Asian Christian communities. The advantage is that many of these communities have built in networks [such as] preschools, English lessons, daycare, and are socially active and can immediately stimulate struggling areas if given the proper opportunity and introduction to a community."
That's one idea. What's yours? Feel free to comment below.
ALSO: In circumstances that mirror that of Shepherd's Temple, a housing court judge in December issued an order to demolish an historic, but ragged, synagogue-turned-Baptist church in a once-predominantly Jewish area of Buffalo, New York. The 109-year-old structure--the oldest synagogue building in the city--hangs on, though, and the great fixBuffalo blog has the story.