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.