On Returning Home to Find That An Attractive Church Has Been Demolished and Replaced with a Wal-Mart

I generally avoid Florida, for the usual reasons. However kind it may have been in raising me, the state and I have long passed the point of being useful to one another. Forever shall I feel caressed by the mneumonic remnant of its gentle palms, but I have no desire to spend any more of my life scorched and salty in the parking lots of various Paneras.

Occasionally, though, I do return home, disregarding all the common warnings about how doing so is impossible. And on my most recent visit, I was overcome with the sort of indescribable feeling that can only come when one discovers that an attractive church has been demolished and replaced with a Walmart. 

Of the four corners at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Beneva Road, three had already been strip-malled long before. But on the fourth stood the Rivers Edge Community Church, which despite being multiple miles from the edge of any river, was a humble and appealing place of worship. In its place is now a “Walmart Neighborhood Market,” a green-splashed cube with the gall to feign heartland community-spiritedness and Main Street affability. In a sane world, reactions to it would range from guffaws to suicides. Instead, as far as I can tell, its opening (and the vanishing of the site’s prior occupant) has been met with indifference and bouts of shopping.

This is perhaps a problem of historylessness. Florida really grew up at the wrong time, during the era of ill-advised architecture and the heedless unfurling of highways. The instinct to preserve may be met with a justifiable “Preserve what?” The Rivers Edge Community Church, while I call it attractive, was not an overlooked gem. Its main charm came from its shadiness; it had some very good trees and a well-kept lawn. It was also built in the type of 1960’s architecture that is more airy than aggressive, with the light and natural feel that redeems “Sarasota school” design from its regrettable Brutalist slippages.

But it was not precious, because very little that is manmade in Florida is precious. We did have a precious building when I was young; the John Ringling Towers, a rambling, storied hotel from Sarasota’s years as a circus town. I remember the fascination I felt as a little boy looking up at the building’s looming empty carcass, with all its precarious balconies and mismatched arches, all its garish pseudo-Spanish eccentricity. It invaded my dreams for years. They flattened the place, though, offering lame efficiency justifications that I still refuse to accept.

This is partially a story, then, of my abstract sadness at the lack of a preservationist temperament, and of places worth preserving to begin with. But there is a far deeper outrage. I am not a religious man (although I am), but I have never quite felt so strong a sense of sacrilege. I mean to say, well, it’s hard to imagine a more literal case of tearing down God’s house and erecting a temple to Mammon. Even as a parable, it would be too heavy-handed. I mean, Joni Mitchell wasn’t exactly unsubtle, but this is ridiculous.

In reply, I’m sure all of the familiar laissez-faire justifications would be trotted out. The church got a good deal, a valuable patch of property was put to its optimal use, and the shoppers seem content. Who are you to impose your judgment about the people’s good over that of the people themselves? What’s your problem, Stalin?

And I’m powerless there. I know all of these arguments back-to-front; people get in my face with them every time capitalism devours something I treasure and I issue some faint lament. Replying is hard, because to persuade someone, I’d have to convince them to join in my most heartfelt nonrational feelings. I can’t help but feel that a church is a beautiful thing, and a Walmart is an ugly one, and that the argument should simply end there. Such positions are not reasoned to, they are axiomatic products of one’s inner disposition. If others don’t share my disposition, that is hard to alter, although they could at least grant me my right to sigh.

To state this differently, and more strongly, I feel as if defenders of a pure free market approach are missing a piece of their brains. Every evaluation occurs on a single axis: whether the parties have engaged in mutually agreed commercial exchange. (What’s strange to me is that while radical libertarianism is a fringe position in the United States, the public rhetoric around a Walmart-versus-church question seems to assume the complete validity of the libertarians’ reduction of all value judgments to questions of market efficiency.) But to me, that’s one trifling matter amid a vast matrix of assessment critera. And to foreground it so thoroughly means abandoning so much that is important to life. There ends up being no room in the acceptable debate for discussions over what kind of city we are dreaming of building. Even if we find ourselves steadily producing someplace unsightly and uncomfortable and dispiriting and formless, we have eliminated the vocabulary with which we could deliberate on a way to reverse course.

One of the reasons I’m fairly certain that defenders of church-eating capitalism are wrong is that they do not understand why anyone could disagree with them. They do not know what I mean when I say that a Walmart is an ugly, alienating, lifeless place. They do not understand why some people think concrete and trees create discernably different experiences from one another. They do not see why praying together and shopping together do not produce the same kind of community-feeling, or what the difference is between a neighborhood market and a national chain store with the words “neighborhood market” emblazoned on it. And so while I am capable of understanding their perspective, they do not truly understand mine. And what this means is that they do not know the full value of what is at stake, and are therefore unaware of what they destroy. If I am deaf, and somebody eliminates music, no matter how much I might try, I will not grasp the true nature of what has been lost. You’ll demolish a church, put up a Walmart, and won’t even know why some are horrified. (Though I am sure they have identified some culprits: political liberalism and an irrational sentimentalism.) I do think this feeling is essentially spiritual, or of a similar quality. The same way I have never understood what people mean by God, nobody understands what I mean by “beautiful.” Our rapacious atheistic capitalism assumes that neither God nor beauty exist, hence Sarasota’s new Walmart Neighborhood Market.