Living and loving locally
Entrenched populations versus migrant ones. How can we prevent neighbourhoods that feel like battlefields?
Recently, I donned my clerical uniform and stood behind a podium to proclaim a message to more than 200 people from my neighbourhood. Now, I am a preacher. I do this sort of thing on a regular basis and, though it's still not exactly comfortable, my body and spirit have become familiar enough with the regimen to cooperate.
But not on this occasion: my palms were sweating, the room swam. Anxious and insecure, I had little idea what to say and even less confidence about what might make any kind of difference. The deep divisions in the group I addressed dismayed me: Two intractable parties had been jockeying for enough power to achieve their objective. They had incompatible visions for the way forward, and this meeting was in Town Hall one week before the final vote. Individuals and families had accused one another privately and online of slander, indifference, racism, and political manoeuvring. Both party leaders had received death threats. Small children, parents, community leaders, and local politicians were involved in the conflict and in attendance. Technically, I was a committed member of one party. And now I had to address the entire body.
As shorthand, let's refer to the parties as the old-timers and the newcomers. On one side of the divide were (mostly) black families who had given their time and energy to maintaining an institution and building that had faithfully served its neighbourhood for decades but had come recently into hard times: diminishing funds, decreasing involvement, and Byzantine bureaucratic entanglements. On the other side were (mostly) non-black families who were new to the community and hoped to see the building liberated from these constraints through creative repurposing, to be enabled by their political, cultural, and economic resources. New to this congregation myself, you might assume I was a member of the newcomer party. But in fact, I was an adopted old-timer, because my kids were enrolled at Public School 20, the zoned elementary school, six blocks from my apartment, under question.
At this gathering, we were discussing the proposed expansion of a middle school academy that had been recently sharing P.S. 20's building into a K-5 school. The Academy is a privately funded non-profit organization with a Department of Education partnership and the freedom of selecting teachers and serving students from a broader geographical area whose parents master New York City's lottery system. P.S. 20 is a sixty-year-old institution embodying the strengths and weaknesses of its age and the burden of serving any child in its zone with whatever resources the city might grant or withhold. And the Academy's proposal would swallow up much of P.S. 20's best remaining resource: space.
But I don't want to discuss education policy here. Here I'd like to address living and loving locally. And I am newly aware that notional perspectives forged on high (in any discipline) usually need the chastening of local, even parochial, concerns in order for those perspectives to become practices that are beneficial for entire communities—and vice versa.
It seems my neighbourhood's fight over schools—though probably more public and rancorous than many other neighbourhood conflicts—is representative of the dynamics at play when people with differing resources and experiences come to share a particular place.
I believe we can expect urbanization to continue apace, and so it stands to reason that increasingly smaller localities will continue to play host to both entrenched populations and migrant ones. What might it look like for both groups to live and love locally in neighbourhoods that too often feel like non-violent battlefields?
To the old-timer I have little to say—never having been one. (I suspect Comment readers who've lived in the same neighbourhood for over a decade are in the distinct minority.) What I can share is an ethos some kindly old-timers have displayed to me.
That ethos looks like this. Celebrate your place: its unique glories, its funky idiosyncrasies, its sad stories, and its festive rituals. You know your place like a lover knows the gossamer hairs on the small of his beloved's back. And you know intuitively that no honeymooning newcomer could possibly love the neighbourhood with the wisdom you do—that some only use it for cheap satisfaction. So make your life a loud and living poem that trumpets your love. Invite others into it and give them time to grow from naïveté or indifference into the depths of mature love. As a proud host, welcome these strangers into your home and set the feast. Your greatest temptation is parochial tribalism, so be not too proud or intractable to exercise hospitality, to incorporate creative change, to allow your vigour to be renewed by your neighbour's presence in your shared place.
To the newcomer I have more to say. The burden is ours to be attentive to the radical and rapid manner in which our presence is able to make over a place. We often share in social movements with the power to profoundly effect change, for good and for ill. It will not do to be unthoughtful about our responsibility with this power to others—we start out as guests in someone else's home, after all. Your presence might not feel to you like hostility, but as we learn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, indifference while pursuing your personal agenda is its own form of violence. Our greatest temptation is to mindlessly remake a place in the image of whatever our universal affinities may be, regardless of their relationship to the local. And while your open loft may be a blank canvas, a neighbourhood never is.
In the Scriptures, man is intimately related to the ground from which he came: Adam from the Adamah. Reflecting on the entire narrative of this biblical-theological theme, someone has said, "Geography is soteriology is geography." God's work of salvation is to renew and reconcile people and places to himself and to one another; it's about the entire cosmos being redeemed to dwell in shalom—the harmonious flourishing of Adam and adamah. And God determines the exact places and seasons where people dwell. Christians, then, must see their own neighbourhoods as the primary arena for the pursuit of God's healing shalom.
If so, then we must understand that change to a neighbourhood for someone who's made it home is more like the crushing of a snail's shell than the switching of seasonal garments. Like a snail to its shell, we are created, as Adam, for place to be an extension of our bodies. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself; that is, to love the people who live near you as you love your own body. Even science has also begun to catch up with this biblical perspective. In the most fascinating article on the city I've read in years, physicist Geoffrey West compares cities to the bodies of organisms, with boulevard-blood vessels and back-alley capillaries.
A diagnostic: Is your body a neighbourhood? Or is your love circumscribed to smaller (or too much larger) spheres?
I don't mean to suggest that every nail salon or bodega deserves your equal attention. If all institutions are not created equal, it stands to reason that they will not all be redeemed equal. But how can we, with our finite and broken perspective, make that judgment? Salvation will hold a few surprises, and the kingdom sure seems to be a place for the marginalized and counted-out. God's surprising renewal promises to include unsung institutions as much as ignored individuals.
That's why Tim Keller has said that the city needs intrepreneurs as much as it needs entrepreneurs, and I think this may be doubly true on a local scale. Intrepreneurs are those who operate with an entrepreneurial spirit within existing institutions. One stay-at-home-mom I know acted intrepreneurially when she used her free time to partner a prestigious art university in our neighbourhood with P.S. 20, which had lost its art funding. Both organizations are the better for it, as the elementary school received an art program and the university received teaching opportunities for its students and new neighbourhood connections and good-will.
While entrepreneurs are certainly needed, they run the danger of engaging existing neighbourhood organizations as competitors to be dominated. Intrepreneurs are forced to work collaboratively and patiently with long-term staff and neighbours, allowing their creative ideas to be chastened and prepared to benefit different demographics than they might have otherwise chosen. I suspect we have fewer intrepreneurs in parochial institutions with little prestige because of the patience, lack of acclaim, and long-term sacrifice required for marginal gain. Plus, differing cultural values are felt more intimately. But if we love our neighbours better with such efforts, perhaps we lose a cultural splash but gain the world.
Of course, it is not always possible to be an intrepreneur. (I am a church planter, after all.) But we need more than we have currently. How should the rest of us proceed?
Here are a few practical suggestions: Be truly present in your place. Walk as much as possible. Use your sidewalks and public spaces. Meet people unlike yourself. Go out of your way to befriend those who've lived in and served the good of your neighbourhood longer than you. Listen to them—then listen some more. Allow your values to be shaped by the hopes and loves they have—loves you have overlooked, but may come to share. And while not all of us can guarantee a lifelong commitment to a particular place, we can usually stay rooted longer than we'd planned, even when it means sacrifice. And more importantly, it is possible to engage in sanctified imagination and live as if you'll be present there forever, for the sake of your neighbour.
So what did I say in the fretful two minutes I was given to address that divided gathering? More or less, a very brief version of what I've written here. I argued that all of us seeking our neighbourhood's good compose a body. We have diverse gifts and strategies, and we need one another. But we must work in concert to move forward. If one member is crying out that another is doing it harm, then it's time to slow down, talk, listen, and learn to work together better for the sake of our body—and the world. Living and loving locally demands nothing less.