After seeing Amanda Burden’s Ted Talk about public space, to which I linked on this blog last week, I took closer notice of this article about the proliferation of vacant land in American cities. Who would have thought that such a large percentage of urban land –often as much as 12% –lies vacant most of the time? What a great opportunity that land might create to make the sort of public spaces that Burden talks about. It makes a person think.
I was also happy to discover what is for me a new website about cities: The Nature of Cities. I will be following its stories in the months to come, and I will let you know when I see something interesting. In the meantime, check it out. I found this, by the way, through the City Lab emailings that I regularly receive.
What makes a city work? What makes a city worth living in, worth staying in? In this TED Talk, Amanda Burden makes a strong case for the importance of good, usable public spaces that are green, user friendly, and fun to visit.
Her insights are reminiscent of that great section in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jane Jacobs talks about urban parks, and what makes some safer and more usable than others.
As Burden observes, public spaces are often overlooked and they are always contested. It is hard work to create and maintain healthy public space in a city, especially one like Manhattan in which the price of land is so sky-high. But, Burden makes a compelling case that the effort is well worth it.
Every weekday I get an email from a website connected to The Atlantic, called Atlantic Cities, which provides links to about five or six articles about all things urban. It’s really interesting, and it is the source for some of the trends, ideas, and developments that I share with you on this blog.
Recently Atlantic Cities announced a new title and a new look to this site: CityLab. I encourage you to take a look at the site. Its goal is to serve people interested in urban living, urban problem solving, and effective urban development. It’s a great resource.
What makes for a flourishing city and flourishing citizens? There are hundreds of ways to answer this question, of course, but I am reminded by Ian Frazier’s “Talk of the Town” piece in the June 2 New Yorker that a significant answer to this question is “public libraries.” Frazier concludes with this statement:
“New York City has created visionary civic projects in the past; its public library is chief among them. America now has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and New York’s is among the worst in America. The public library has always been a great democratizer and creator of citizens, and a powerful force against inequality; it must not retrench, especially now.”
You may wonder why a shout out to public libraries appears in a blog about urban ministry. Two reasons: (1) I have a broad understanding of ministry, and believe that our public library system is to some degree the fruits of Andrew Carnegie’s religious vocation and the vocations of others less well known. The impulse to make ideas and resources available to the public resonates with open minded Protestantism at its best. (2) In these days of diminishing public resources and deepening inequality, the church should exercise its voice about issues like the allocation of resources to libraries, because the church has a role to play in promoting open and broad access to intellectual resources and in cultivating civil and informed dialogue about what makes cities flourish.
 Ian Frazier. “Buildings and Books.” The New Yorker (June 2, 2014).
In my Introduction to Urban Ministry class, the primary project that students do is making a map of a Chicago neighborhood. Mostly what I ask them to do is to produce an organizational map that identifies the institutions that exist in the neighborhood: other religious entities, schools and libraries, museums, health clinics, businesses, food pantries and homeless shelters, etc., etc. It’s a great project, if I do say so myself, and even people who have lived for years in a particular neighborhood learn something new about the place they call home.
This is a sort of long introduction that explains why I’m interested in mapping, thinking geographically, understanding how institutions inhabit their space, and how these same institutions might influence and be influenced by the world around them.
Last week, at a meeting of the International Visual Sociology Association, someone mentioned the Stanford Spatial History project, so I looked it up in the hopes that I can learn something new about mapping from them. Suffice it to say that these folks are light years ahead of me, and the work they are doing is really interesting, so I thought I would tell you about it.
The project explores how space is constructed, understood, transformed, and practiced. I think these issues are important for urban ministers to understand, because we make our own spaces, and many of us commit significant energy to transforming the spaces around us. As people invested in this sort of work, we need to understand its subtleties and dynamics.
If a church hangs around long enough, sometimes it rubs up against cultures that trumpet different values than it cherishes. In the Netherlands the Old Churches in Amsterdam and Delft, which I visited a few weeks ago, exemplify this reality.
The Old Church in Amsterdam is the city’s oldest building, and dates from the early C13. It’s a beautiful old building, filled with idiosyncratic expressions of spiritual life and artifacts from the Protestant takeover of a building built for Catholics. For a church geek like me, it was a wonderful place to visit and in which to sit for a while and meditate. It is also plunk in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district (prostitution is legal there), and one cannot get to the church without passing by windows in which live, generously endowed women are offering themselves for pleasure and sex. The juxtaposition is jarring.
At the Old Church in Delft, which also dates from the C13, we attended a vespers service that featured a performance of a Bach requiem. We looked forward to ending our day with the soothing sounds of voices ringing in a cathedral, and were nearly as dismayed as the pastor was when the service opened. The bar next door had a live band outside, and the band was loud, the patrons were enthused, and the pastor indicated that the most polite requests to tone it down had been repulsed. He shrugged as he talked about it, and the worship leaders did their best with rock music in the background, Reformed liturgy and Bach in the foreground. We in the congregation had to pay closer attention than usual to block out what seemed like noise.
Europe is secularizing, as we all know, and so is the United States. Lots of our churches express values or offer programs that juxtapose awkwardly with the world around us. That reality is part of what makes ministry so interesting. What about church and church life are important to preserve, as we rub up against cultures that increasingly view us as irrelevant? How do we need to adapt and change and embrace the world as it is evolving? Who are we? Who is our neighbor? And, so what? What do you think?
The community garden at Matanzas Seminary in Cuba.
I found my way to Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman quite by accident, while I was looking around for book gifts for my 8 year old nephew, Nathan. After a quick read, I’ve decided to keep this for myself and use it the next time I teach my class “Food: From Table Grace to the Politics of Food Distribution.”
Seedfolks is a book written for young people ages 10 and older. It’s a fictional account of thirteen people who, one person at a time, plant the seeds that become a community garden on a garbage-filled lot in Cleveland, OH. The stories are short, quick accounts of people of different ages, ethnicities, and abilities. It is touching, tender, and also full of insights into the human dynamics of urban loneliness, immigrant dislocation, aging, and the serendipity of community. It’s quite lovely.
Fleischman’s website says that Seedfolks is now also available as a play. Check it out here.