LIVING FOR THE CITY
by STEPHANIE MITCHEM
I am a city person. Un-asphalt-scented air makes me nervous. I still
shudder from a childhood memory of a week spent visiting an aunt's rural
home, especially in the evenings, smothering in the too-dark, bug-noisy,
neighbor-absent countryside. I am aware that I view the
"pastoral" as another alien life form, yet I recognize my
narrow-minded city-biases. These prejudices are probably shared with many
others in the United States, for the Census Bureau informs us that the
majority of citizens, 79 percent, inhabit metropolitan areas.
"Metropolitan" usually refers to both urban and suburban, yet
the city remains the central component of the mix.
I am also sharply aware that, as a long-time resident of Detroit, my
attitudes have been shaped by parameters of race, and the insidious
connections made between race and poverty and lawlessness. After Detroit's
black civil disturbance of 1967, white flight went into fast forward. A
local newspaper ran an infamous headline: "Will the Last One Out of
Detroit, Please Turn Off the Lights?" These biases bleed over into
this century, with suburbanites refusing to let their children cross into
Detroit's environs. This entwined Detroit and suburban history, with my
own biases, have influenced the meanings of "the city."
Cities were part of the economic development of the modernist
industrial complexes I call home. These cities are often viewed as dumping
grounds for the unwashed, holding pens for labor, or residences for the
wealthiest. My father's family migrated to Detroit from southern states
throughout the 1940s and '50s, escaping farming and sharecropping, seeking
American dreams of wealth and equality. As with my own family's fortune,
the micro-agrarian economy has been displaced. Today, agribusinesses suck
the life from family-owned farms, which have become endangered species.
The small farmer sells out and moves, often into urban promises of
employment. The problem is bigger than the United States: economic engines
driving toward globalization have changed the meanings of wealth,
relationships, and community around the world, forcing families off farms
and creating larger cities.
Our faith lives and religious institutions were shaped, not many years
ago, by the contrast between the ratchety, raucous city and the peaceful,
spiritual countryside. If we ever needed an authoritative source for this
information, we could refer to Augustine's City of God or any
biblical passage praising flora and fauna.
Our religious imagery is full of unperfected ideas of lambs and doves
and trees. We have been deluded into maintaining the myth of heaven as a
pastoral scene. Toni Morrison, as keynote speaker at an American Academy
of Religion conference a few years ago, asked a question I still ponder:
what is paradise for us today?
Our religious and social understandings of the city are influenced by
strongly negative interpretations throughout the West's intellectual
history. The negative is rooted in the bifurcation of life -- the sacred
from the secular, the profane from the holy. This is an insight from which
to begin rethinking the religious meaning of the city, of which we have
only told partial tales. But to tell the story we need new language.
Today, even as the shapes of cities are rapidly changing, our informed
reflection about what is occurring remains sparse. Architects,
environmentalists, industrialists, politicians are more likely than
theologians to proffer urban dreams.
Political pundits cry for "remaking" cities. Commerce is the
way to do that, they claim. Land development and tax-free zones raise
property values. Economic shifts and new businesses destroy established
but poor neighborhoods. Regentrification has a much different meaning for
those of us who have been in the cities all along.
Land use is driven by dollars while environmental concerns multiply.
Urban planners seek to recreate the cities. The problem with most urban
planning is that it is usually driven by government agencies, run by and
for the city. Their tax bases drive most cities; therefore, businesses of
all kinds are natural partners of this type of urban planning. Lyn Lewis,
colleague and noted sociologist, is African American and a Detroit
resident. She states that neither the macro management approach or the New
Urbanism offer real choices. Instead she calls for holistic planning that
involves the citizens, cutting through urban planners' pretensions:
"Have y'all forgotten about me?"
Her complaint is heard within city communities where we know that red
lining still happens by zip code. We know that we pay higher prices for
insurances. Mortgages and consumer credit, with higher interest rates, are
less available to most city residents. We suspect higher prices for many
items, even in the few chain stores in the city, where it is more
difficult to pay by check. Occasionally, a church group will try to start
a boycott; businesses have learned another form of defense. One pastor,
who had led a protest of a nearby company's business practices, began to
question how relationships had shifted when the congregation accepted a
large donation of computers from the same company. How can a church
community maintain a prophetic stance and keep the doors open at the
The sad news is that new sources of money for city revitalization have
been discovered. Leisure production has brought a boom to cities' growth;
stadiums and casinos provide large profits to the owners, displace the
communities, and offer minimum-wage jobs for the former residents. These
profit opportunities have expanded as consumer gold mines in black and
ethnic communities are recognized and tapped. In this entrepreneurial
spirit, the new Disney store in Harlem opened in March 2000.
U.S. cities become the sociocultural bar to which other countries are
expected to measure up in their efforts to develop their own industrial
complexes: Subsistence farming? How primitive! Where are the free trade,
the use of fossil fuels, and the art museums that indicate advanced social
This portrait points to the insidiousness of city as a location of
power and powerlessness, excess and oppression. Yet something more is
needed in this picture, for religious and ethical thinkers have something
to contribute to the analysis of meaning. How do we reflect on the quality
and meaning of religious life in the city? Where is the presence of the
divine? Does holiness have a city address? What is on a city's religious
The contributors to this issue explore some aspects of the United
States urban religious scene. Are there tales that need exploration in the
architectural marrow or in the city sights before our eyes? Do we need to
map the religious terrain of cities in new ways? What are the dynamics of
thinking theology in the city?
Too often, religion in the city is identified as a choice between the
street-corner fanatics, or the wrong sized (too small or large) church
that cannot address the needs of the community. Ministry might be
identified in terms of looking for poor people. But there is so much more.
The city is a site for exploring our humanity, which is at the heart of
our religiosity. Exploring city meanings enriches our religious imagery.