Gurdwara Expansions and Community Relations

On the topic of gurdwara construction, the El Sobrante Gurdwara here in the Bay Area recently had its on-site expansion authorized by the county Planning Commission [link]. The gurdwara is located in unincorporated territory, so it’s not controlled directly by city government, and it’s petitioned for expansion plans to be approved for almost 10 years. For a sense of geography, the gurdwara was the first Bay Area facility for a large (and ever-growing) Sikh community, and it’s located on a relatively large site on the face of a huge hill with residential properties above and a commercial and transit corridor at the foot of the hill.

Gurdwara Sahib, the Sikh Center of San Francisco Bay Area, plans to build a community center, performing arts center, museum and parking garage on its 6.5 acre property off Hillcrest Road in unincorporated El Sobrante.

The expansion would add about 70,000 square feet, not counting the garage, to the existing temple’s roughly 22,000 square feet.

I have my own mixed feelings about the expansion, it’s enormity, and the capacity of the site/land to sustain the traffic and population, particularly during an earthquake. That said, the part of the article that really stuck out to me were complaints from local residents, who have opposed the expansion since its first enlargement in the mid-1990s:

Henderson said the commission failed to address his neighbors’ and other El Sobrante Valley residents’ concerns about traffic, noise and the area’s history of landslides, among other environmental concerns.

He also has said that the temple expansion would obstruct homeowners’ views of the Bay among other aesthetic objections, and has called for a full Environmental Impact Report.

“America has elected a black president but it is still business as usual,” Henderson wrote on Wednesday. The commission “has decided that the reasonable requests of the Quail Hill residents are of no concern. “Could it be because the people most affected are primarily black? [emph. mine]

I was really taken aback by these comments. The Fremont and San Jose gurdwaras, also Bay Area based, have also had similar trouble, with their neighbors complaining of the “noise and smells” from the gurdwara, in addition to blocking expansion plans. These complaints are often rooted in a xenophobic uncomfortability with Sikhs — both for our appearance and for our predominantly Punjabi background. However, in those cases, the disagreement has largely been between white homeowners and desi Sikhs.

I found it jarring that this was framed in the context of race, particularly because the gurdwara has requested an expansion for growing its civic/cultural programs (e.g., English Language lessons, youth programming), not to put in some terribly ugly or health-damaging nuclear waste processing facility. Further, the sangat at El Sobrante is predominantly Punjabi and mixed-income — in many ways it reflects the class diversity of its surrounding community.

Now, I don’t know if 70,000 feet is an insane amount of space to expand, but I wondered if residential community members would make similar complaints if a church requested an expansion on its own grounds. There are at least three other places of worship on that same hill and in that same immediate neighborhood, three of which are located on large sites and who have expanded (without objection) in the past 10 years. Does this underscore a deep tension between the gurdwara, which has slowly sought to “normalize” its relationship with the region and become a civic neighbor, and its local neighbors? For all the positive work the local sangat has done, it’s really troubling to me that Sikh gurdwaras are not treated as other places of worship or locations for communities of faith, but rather, as anathema.

I don’t really know where to go from here, but I wanted to open the conversation to thoughts and ideas from our readers on how to challenge these truly hateful comments, while balancing or identifying the legitimate concerns of neighboring, non-Sikh residents.


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5 Responses to “Gurdwara Expansions and Community Relations”

  1. kaptaan says:

    More the merrier I say… I have no problem with however big the sangat decides to build a Gurdwara, its up to them…

    The fact that non-Sikh religious communities were able to build large facilities just shows the underlying racism and/ or religious bigotry of the people making the complaints.

  2. kaptaan says:

    More the merrier I say… I have no problem with however big the sangat decides to build a Gurdwara, its up to them…

    The fact that non-Sikh religious communities were able to build large facilities just shows the underlying racism and/ or religious bigotry of the people making the complaints.

  3. essayheaven says:

    We should respect all the religious building even the belong to any religion. Thanks for sharing this story with us.