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Friday, October 26, 2007

Return to the City


As I sit in 7A, on USAirways flight 471, I regret not bringing something to read. With the last two weeks filled by hundreds of pages of reading and grade determining assignments, I decided to leave all things school at home. The result? Plane boredom.

You all know the feeling. And what do you do? First, you look at the movie options only to realize that its Shrek or perhaps even better, Air Bud. After ringing your call button to ask if perhaps they had made a mistake by showing Shrek 3 for the last 4 months, you find yourself in the same pickle.

After some to-do list creating, a cell phone game, and a half-ass attempt at conversation with the guy reading a Danielle Steel novel, you give in. It’s time for the in-flight magazines. You look at the SkyMall magazine, but you have been there and done that. This was my 4th trip in two months, so I had already oooo-ed and awwww-ed at the portable ice rink and nothing in that thing has changed for over 3 years. So you move to the monthly airline magazine. In my case, it is the glossy, robust US AIRWAYS MAGAZINE.

As I flipped through the magazine (this month includes an article on Seattle. It simply reinforces all stereotypes by taking about the market, indy rock, coffee, and rain. Is that truly all we are Seattle?) and skimmed articles and advertisements, I saw a theme.

All of the real estate adds were for urban developments. Big city, small city, west coast, or east coast…it just didn’t matter. The advertised housing projects were all urban. Charlotte, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Tempe. Las Vegas, and even Cleveland were inviting bored, caffeine injected US Airways passengers to return to the city.

This “return to the city” is something that fascinates me but what perhaps fascinates me further is why we ever left. Many label WWII responsible for the tsunami that is suburban sprawl. In an excellent text describing the phenomenon, the author says, “Far from being an inevitable evolution or a historical accident, suburban sprawl is the direct result of a number of policies that conspired powerfully to encourage urban dispersal. The most significant of these were the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loan programs which, in the year following the Second World War, provided mortgages for over eleven million new homes.” (Suburban Nation p. 99) Taking out farming communities, planting strip malls, and secluding the youth and elderly, suburbs have slowly replaced US urban centers and have done so with government support.

This will not become a political rant as I do not know nearly enough to continue this argument from that paradigm, however, what fascinates me (especially after a weekend in suburban USA) is that while the sprawl may have been initiated by the government, the suburban dream has been embraced by millions.

At the heart of this suburban spread is the desire for individualism, which is often fueled by our country’s consumerist mentality. In this notion of the American dream, the ideal is that every individual family has their own plot of land, yard and picket fence to separate them from their neighbors, thus defining mine as mine and yours as yours. Growing up in Phoenix, the land of brown brick fences, I understand this dynamic too well. I was so unfamiliar with my neighbors that if a basketball went over the fence, rather than knocking on their door or hopping the fence, I would leave it and hope they would kindly toss it back over.

As illustrated above, with the suburban dream came the longing for a life of safety removed from others. This longing shows the immense amount of control that is desired by those in the post WWII generation. By no means is this conversation an attempt to demonize suburbia, I am simply noting the cause for the flight from urban centers. In a time of chaos and war, the American community was seeking safety, security and refuge.

As a follower of Christ, I then take interest in how the church responded to this move out of the city. How did the church respond to this sprawl, you eagerly inquire? They followed. Some may argue that the church was pushed out of the city or backed into a cul-de-sac, but it appears as if they followed the American Dream right into Mayfield. The illusions of individualism (which I understand is not a suburban specific phenomenon), wealth, and escape have lead to community churches and cheesy marquees on every corner. Again, this is not to say that this was a bad shift (in some ways the church made a culturally relevant shift) however, the suburban values mentioned above have limited the churches presence in today’s growing, bustling urban centers. These suburban churches often struggle because the health, wealth, safety, and purpose driven gospel that is being preached in between strip malls is absent of the poverty, suffering, and sacrifice found in the story of Jesus and the life of urban streets.

In recent months the UN estimated that over 51% of our world’s population is found in these dense urban centers. Others speculate the top 20 US cities will grow by as much as 70% in the next 15 years. Our world and our country are in the midst of a return to the city. These cities are hubs of creativity, poverty, education, and diversity. These cities demand our voice. These cities demand our interaction, These cities demand our patience. These cities demand out tolerance. These cities demand that we live together with one another.

Yet, I worry about our church in these demanding circumstances. I worry that, in the face of an urban renewal fueled by gentrification, we will hop in to our SUVs, plug in our Bluetooth headset and coast our way to the safety painted picket fences. I worry that we will see density and the reemergence of urban centers as a threat rather than an opportunity.

Since the beginning of the Christian church, ecclesial leadership has gathered believers in centralized, visible locations. Perhaps this has changed in the last fifty years as suburban sprawl wipes across America (and you can broadcast/podcast your influence), but with the recent rise in urban density it is time to make a strategic change of course back to our cities. Just as the prophet Jeremiah declares to the Israelites we must we must seek the welfare of the city into which we have been sent. Be it Belgrade, Montana or Manhattan we must seek the welfare of the place we find ourselves in.

Yet as I look at the pages of my in-flight magazine, I can’t help but notice, there are some nice condos for sale in downtown Charlotte…and they are going to sell. The question is, will the church follow?

TO PONDER: What’s your take? What does your (sub)urban experience look like? How do you see the church entering yet another cultural change? Do you have a city you want to call home? How do you seek the welfare of the place you find yourself in?

Photo taken by Joshua Longbrake.

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Jordan said...

I think the United States is arguably the loneliest country in the world. Sometimes I dont think it is a matter of where we live, but our perception and approach to our given circumstances. Look at the two largest cities in the US. LA is sprawling and no one knows each other. NY has the most occupants per square mile than any other city. Maybe even China. And still individuals walk the streets without beginning conversation with strangers let alone friends.

"American Community was seeking safety, security and refuge", I find it interesting that after tragedy America grew together to end the war and then quickly ran from each other. We moved away from one another in time in which we needed someone to care, someone to help heal the wounds of war. The same can be said after 9/11. Every Americans nervous system was shocked the moment the first plane hit. We all rallied together to begin a war. Now, our nation is more divided than it has ever been. Not to mention individuals began moving out of major cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Ect...)

do we just not want to know each other? are we afraid of other people? Or are we simply afraid of ourselves? Do we fear vulnerability or change or conversation so much that we force ourselves into a situation of isolation.

In the January 2007 edition of Adbusters: The Magazine, a media activist periodical, columnist Jenny Uechi addresses the failure of big city communities: "Forty year old Joyce Vincent had been lying dead in her London apartment for two straight years before the badly decomposed body was discovered by her landlord in April 2006. The story, quietly tucked away in British newspapers, profoundly upset readers around the world who saw her isolation as a failing of modern communities…"

we are so distant that we have become ignorant to the lives and, in this case, the deaths of others.

I dont know if suburbia is the cause...I think it is a large contributor, yes.

I believe the Church also has made another cultural shift. Many churches do not focus on community anymore. It is about rules or witnessing or the other things many non-believers complain about. And I am hoping in this sense the church is no longer following the culture to place of community, but rather leading it. Churches have the power to include and grow. We must be at the forefront of a charge towards togetherness.

Derrick Fudge said...

"We must be at the forefront of a charge towards togetherness."

Whoever this jordan guy is, he should write more often. J, you should pay him to comment, and then all your posts would be EVEN better.

I agree that there is a problem. I don't know why and I am very uncomfortable saying the government or business or suburbs caused our extreme loneliness, but I have to agree there is a major problem. And I echo Jordan's voice. the church should be leading the charge of community and acceptance.

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