The Other Side of the City
The Other Side of the City

The Other Side of the City

The city is good AND broken.
Appears in Summer 2014

I would never have imagined that the city could get into my bones and under my skin. I grew up in a tiny village of 600 people. We didn't even have the proverbial "one stop light" or "one horse," though our house backed onto an empty horse pasture, and the pond in the cornfield was our ice rink in the winter. We were bussed ten miles to go to high school in another town where we were known as "the Embro boys"—which was just a way of calling us coarse hayseeds. The metropolis of Toronto, two hours away, was a foreign country we visited for field trips or a Blue Jays game every once in a while. It was not a place where one imagined living.

So when Deanna and I ventured to Philadelphia in 1995, we were not only emigrating from Canada to the United States; we also emigrated from our rural enclave to the urban buzz of the city. On our first day, we drew a straight line on the map and drove to centre city, through North Philadelphia, past Temple University and the bombed out "bad lands," into the shadow of William Penn and the boulevard that would take us to Rocky's famous steps at the Art Museum. By the time we found ourselves on Pine Street we were hooked: we loved the city. Its energy, its diversity, its beauty, even its daunting heights all captivated us. "So this is where things happen," we thought to ourselves. We wanted to be part of it.

Is your investment in your neighbourhood simply "a Christian hipster attraction to cool cities"?

Having since lived in Los Angeles and now dwelling in the urban core of a medium-sized city, we can't imagine living anywhere but the city. We're energized by the city's diversity and invested in the city's renewal. We cheer those who take the risks to plant themselves in spaces that once seemed hopeless. We're grateful to patrons who have kept their promises and stayed put. The city is our home, and one we share with others. Indeed, our small group at church worked its way through books like Eric Jacobsen's Sidewalks in the Kingdom, which encouraged us to cultivate an appreciation for the goods of the city and a new intentionality about how to be a neighbour. In this sense, our story parallels many others over the past generation, including a generation of evangelicals who have grown increasingly skeptical of the suburbs and embraced cities like Manhattan and Vancouver, Austin and Denver.

Sometimes that Christian interest and investment in "the city" has been framed as strategic placement for evangelism and urban mission. In other cases, it has been a Christian hipster attraction to "cool cities," a kind of evangelical desire to join Richard Florida's "creative class" and be at the centre of cultural influence. (This might also explain why some other Christians are equally concerned when they see a younger generation moving to the city. There is a kind of gravitational pull the city exerts that can seem as if it pulls the faithful away from healthy practices of piety. There are a million counter-examples to this fear, but the perception is its own reality.)

There are all kinds of good reasons to embrace the city. But "the city" can be mythologized, too. Like any new convert, we can romanticize our newfound home. I remember some jarring wake-up calls our family experienced in this respect. A decade ago, newly embedded in the East Hills neighbourhood of Grand Rapids, we were taken with the farmer's market around the corner, the front porches that lined the street, the blessing of public transit, and the eclectic mix of folks we encountered on walks. But illusions of some urban Mayberry were unsustainable. The realities of the city made themselves felt: the afternoon that our kids' lemonade stand was robbed; or when Deanna was jarred by a loud bang that turned out to be a police battering ram bursting into a drug den right across the street; or when, slowly, our neighbours Jo and José, and then Greg and Darlene, and then Sue and Melissa were all displaced by foreclosure. The city is not all music festivals and farmers' markets, cafés and creative energy. The city is good and broken.

That's no reason to avoid cities; rather the very brokenness of the city is a call to move to cities in order to invest in them (the same could be said about the penumbra of our cities, too: the crumbling suburbs). This includes a commitment to building—which requires first noticing—the infrastructure that is the scaffolding of urban environs. That requires turning our attention from the spectacular aspects of the city that so easily capture our imagination to the unnoticed web of institutions and relationships that actually make it hum. These features are often invisible, even though they are essential—like the sewers and cables running under the streets. We can't leverage the creative power and influence of cities without being indebted to the borrowed capital that make cities possible. So this issue of Comment invites you to consider what it looks like to participate in the renewal of North America's urban social architecture—to see the city from the other side, in a couple of senses.

...the very brokenness of the city is a call to move to cities in order to invest in them...

First, the voices in this issue press us to look beyond the glitz and gleam of the city as experienced by the bourgeois "creative class"—those of us who enjoy the social status and mobility to make a choice to move to cities in search of professional opportunity. While we delight in the latest museum exhibit or the new beer garden around the corner, we have neighbours who will visit neither, who were here long before us, and will likely be here long after we leave for our next opportunity. They've been around long enough to see what's wrong. Too often we have neighbours who inhabit the other side of the city we hardly ever see (or choose to avoid). Milton Friesen sees this pictured in sobering ways in the Baltimore portrayed in The Wire. And Mark Mulder asks uncomfortable—but necessary—questions about the church's complicity in white flight in a city like Chicago. These are sides of the city we don't always consider.

Second, this issue also invites you to consider the unseen side of the city, the social infrastructure that undergirds it—the web of institutions and systems that make it possible, like the hidden girders and encased skeletons that hold up our skyscrapers. The city isn't just a mission field, a dense audience for Gospel proclamation; it is also a human cultural creation, born of necessity and desire, a way that humans seek to live together. But such a reality is not magic, nor is it merely "natural;" it is an astounding cultural feat that requires constant maintenance, renewal, and reform, especially in a fallen world. Infrastructure isn't sexy and doesn't get much press. Nobody moves to the city for the sewers, sanitation, or the municipal master plan. And yet these invisible skeletons of the city are what sustain its life.

The recent collapse of a city street in Baltimore might be a parable in this regard. When flooding rains inundated the East coast, we learned a stark lesson: infrastructure is easy to ignore, right up to the point that it collapses. When the untended retaining wall gave way, swallowing the street and the cars upon it, mundane matters of infrastructure immediately seemed more important than whether city council will grant us permission to raise urban chickens. There are very hard choices to be made here, and some of our cities (Detroit looms in the foreground) are a testament to what happens when we kick such decisions down the road. It's fine to ask, "How can I build community in my neighbourhood through urban gardens?" It's more difficult to answer the question, "Should Detroit have an emergency city manager? And what should he do? Should he honour pensions or protect the museum's art collection? Should he open the pools or turn on street lights?" Would you want to make those decisions? If you inhabit a city, somebody is making them for you.

The answers to such questions are not self-evident. Scripture doesn't dictate whether we should support light rail, or privatize city parking, or cut the parks & recreation budget in order to cover the cost of snow removal. And yet all of these concrete issues are just the sorts of behind-the-scenes challenges that make cities possible. The work of renewal is often on the other side of the city.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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