Banks, Reborn

When banks become funeral homes, churches, and strip clubs.

Traditionally, urban bank buildings occupied busy commercial corners. Built with expensive materials in classical and renaissance revival styles, they were designed to impress and reassure. But this appearance of stability was misleading, as banks consolidated and folded.

By the late 1970s, when deindustrialization and urban decline pushed middle-class city residents to the suburbs, it was difficult to find a functioning bank in now-ghetto neighborhoods of cities like Chicago. Poor urban neighborhoods became, in essence, “de-banked.”

Old bank buildings can accommodate all kinds of new activities. In Newark, N.J., for example, former banks have become crack dens and homeless shelters. In the South Bronx, N.Y., and Chicago, they have been reborn as funeral homes, stores, and community organization centers. In Detroit, many are now churches. In South Los Angeles, the Pacific National Bank became an office for the city’s housing authority.

The expensive details that gave banks their power and dignity complicate efforts to adapt them to other uses. Bronze grillwork, marble counters, and massive vault doors have to be ripped out. Old banks don’t make good retail stores because they typically lack windows in which to display merchandise.

Since modern banks don’t generally house huge vaults filled with money, they don’t need to be so heavily protected. “Capital One Bank Coming Soon” reads the sign on a former Kentucky Fried Chicken in Newark. No longer needing to appear solid, permanent, and respectable, a bank now can be housed in a flimsy former fast food outlet.