The church around the corner from my house has been turned into condominiums. They held an open house last week, on Sunday, of course, and we attended.
The congregants were well behaved, respectful of property rites, awed by interest rates. The ritual was presided over by an agent of real estate.
The transformation of the church was rather a miracle. Built of 19th century self-confidence and boulders, the huge structure had been saved from bulldozers by being christened a historic landmark.
But there was something so odd, awed, awesome about it. A giant white elephant of a church turned into a bonanza of real estate. An expensive assembly house subdivided into profitable units.
The gargantuan staircase that once led my neighbors up to worship led us up to private doorways. The stained-glass windows, which once filtered out the world, have been replaced by clear panes to let the world in. The only remaining pews provide a decorative accent for a study alcove.
As for the prices, only the rich could inherit this kingdom.
Walking through it on this Sunday, I wondered what the former ministers would say about this event. Had as many people come regularly on past Sundays? Had they listened as attentively to the sermons as to the tax-break information?
It seemed to me that there was something too symbolic in this secular conversion. Another meeting place had been lost. Another private living space had been created.
It looked like part of a pattern, away from the communal world to the private. A pattern in which people value what we share less than what we own. p
There are, already, so many converts to that.
In my state and others where people voted for propositions on lower taxes, the early returns are in. It is our joint education, safety, recreation that is being cut.
Isn't this what is happening? People seem more willing to spend money on burglar alarms than on police. They seem less interested in public parks than in private gardens, less interested in community recreation than in private vacations.
Last week the Reagan administration sounded more concerned with the price of a car than with the cost to the air. The same people would, if they could, offer tax credit to private school families, even while they cut funds for public school families.
It is all part of some Revival. The cult of privatization can be read in every public building that's closed down, in every mass transit system cut back. Soon, I suppose, we will begin to make police stations and fire houses into condos.
The 19th century was no model of virtue, but there was a philosophy of public life, of community, that stood up against the rugged individualism.
In Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward," he described a utopia that had an enormous impact on 19th century city planners. One character explains the ideal society like this: "We might, indeed, have much larger income individually, but we prefer to expend it upon public works and pleasures in which we all share. . . . At home we have comfort, but the splendor of our life is on our social side, that which we share with our fellows."
It was this spirit that built the public libraries that are now being closed. It was this spirit that built the public parks that are now neglected.
In my own town, I walk through the Emerald Necklace that Frederick Law Olmstead designed around Boston after he finished creating New York City's Central Park. Weeds are untended, and public pleasure is uprooted.
As our sense of community diminishes, we retreat to our private spaces. As we retreat, our sense of community diminishes. Public space becomes a burden on the private dweller, a white elephant on the market.
So we no longer meet on public ground but subdivide it. We sell the church and buy a living unit. We call this conversion.