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Irvine's Many Avenues of Worship

The city puts religious diversity on the map as a variety of faiths find a home there.

January 26, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Irvine, a city once criticized as being so vanilla and bland it reminded one author of "The Stepford Wives -- perfect in a horrifying sort of way," has emerged as one of the nation's most religiously diverse suburbs.

Here, there's a Buddhist temple that can house 42 monks, a Korean church that boasts 4,000 members and a $50-million K-12 Jewish day school. There's a $4-million Islamic elementary school, the county's largest Greek Orthodox Church and a university run by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Ahead is a $37-million Jewish community center and a Mormon temple, which sits just outside Irvine's border on land annexed by Newport Beach in 1998.

The religious pluralism in Irvine reflects a national trend in which large institutions of faith are following immigrants to the suburbs, creating houses of worship that are also cultural centers for newcomers to America.

The construction of mosques, temples and buildings more exotic than a standard church and steeple have caused some consternation in suburban neighborhoods not accustomed to the sights. But experts say acceptance is growing, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era.

"The suburbs are becoming real communities with all the vanities of a big city," said Robert Fishman, professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And, he said, that includes a variety of religious institutions and the diversity and tolerance that travel with them.

"It's really the most impressive aspect of our society right now," Fishman said.

Irvine's rise as a center for religious diversity can be traced to an influx of affluent immigrants, a quirk of geography that puts the city at the center of Orange County, a major university in the middle of town that attracts diverse scholars and students, and master planning that designated large chunks of land for religious use.

"I'm not aware of anything else going on like this in the state," said Scott Anderson, executive director for the Sacramento-based California Council of Churches. "It's reflective of the religious pluralism in California. Where else in the U.S. would this cast of characters come together in one city?"

Joel Garreau, author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier" who likened Irvine to the movie "The Stepford Wives," said the religious diversity reflects a spiritual and communal need in what he sees as a sterile city.

"They may be about God, but they're mostly about community -- in an area that desperately needs it," Garreau said. "You can see the demand for this kind of thing right upfront."

The seeds for religious diversity were sown in the early 1960s, when Irvine Co. executives drew plans to convert 47 square miles of its fertile ranch land into the world's largest master-planned city.

"The idea of planning for religious institutions is no different than any other social entity that's important and vital to a community," said Ray Watson, Irvine Co. vice chairman and the company's original planner. "It's really not very complicated."

In Irvine's master plan, large ribbons of land were set aside for religious use, usually along what promised to be busy corridors or in more remote areas where traffic wouldn't affect residential neighborhoods.

Watson said the Irvine Co. often sold the land at discounts or offered attractive payment plans to draw an array of churches and synagogues to the city.

"At the same time, you had to show to us you have the wherewithal to build on the site," Watson said. "We wanted to make sure they weren't going to sit on the land for 15 years."

Reared in a Protestant family with virtually no exposure to other faiths, Watson said one of his first challenges was to wipe out the festering perception that Orange County's housing developments were anti-Semitic.

At the time, property deeds in many housing developments contained racial covenants that prevented minorities such as Jews and African Americans from buying the homes.

Because of his outreach, Watson became a hero in the local Jewish community. It's a position he cemented after he found a site in the early 1970s for Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach near the border of Irvine, then used his business contacts to help the congregation raise money for the property and building.

An emphasis on education in Irvine, whether in the public school system or at UC Irvine, helped attract diversity.

The city's high-achieving school district became a magnet for Asian immigrants, and the presence of a UC campus attracted a wide range of scholars and students.

"The university made a big dent in the hard-line politically conservative image of Orange County," said Rabbi Bernard King, who headed Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine for more than 30 years. "Things became more multicultural because of the university. It set the tone."

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