… Cities are Babylon, they’re dangerous; we are often told that as urbanites, we’ve lost many of the instinctive responses that would have made Christ’s pastoral metaphors meaningful to us. We don’t know from shepherds and wine-presses, wheat-fields and weeds.
How then can I claim that living in a city can provide an extraordinarily good foundation for a local life, a human life, and a life of discipleship?
It’s true that the medieval world that conservatives often look back to with longing was not urbanized: but we have to look further back still, look to the classical world that the New Testament describes, in order to truly get a handle on just how pre-modern city living is, and just how compatible it might be with an embrace of pre-modern virtue.
Just think about how difficult reading the New Testament must have been for those who lived in the world after the fall of the Empire and before cities began once again to thrive and trade: Because the world that the New Testament describes is precisely a world of cities, not a world of feudal manors or self-sufficient farms. We hear stories about the crowds pressing on Jesus, of impressive buildings, of money and banks and complex political structures, of public speeches to five or ten thousand people, and we find these easy enough to imagine, if we’ve been in Times Square or Wall Street. What would an eighth-century monk have made of the word “crowd,” of the idea of a place that was full of people you didn’t know, of a marketplace that was a sea of strangers?“
Christianity,” points out James Schall in Another Sort of Learning, is “a ‘city-oriented’ religion.” This city-orientation, this orientation to Jerusalem in the life of Christ, and to the new Jerusalem in the life of His followers, is paralleled in the other strand of the culture that conservatives love and defend: Schall notes that “Hostility to the city, so deep in part of our tradition and often in our contemporary sociological and development theories, easily makes us forget that Socrates barely ever left Athens.”
This can be overstated: it is not that the Bible doesn’t present eschatalogical images that are agrarian: we are told of building houses and planting vineyards in a way that would warm the heart of Peter Maurin; we are told of lions lying down with lambs; and while I can picture the latter happening in a city, on the steps of a fountain in some Italianate courtyard in the New Jerusalem, it does seem like a stretch to imagine the former in an urban setting. The vineyards of the New Earth are not in windowboxes or modest raised-bed gardens, I suspect. Moreover, there are implications that I think I see in the New Testament that part of the life of the world to come will involve precisely venturing out into the wilderness, and making it fruitful, as Adam was intended to do. It’s not that I’m claiming that the agrarian has no place in the Bible’s picture of our future lives; it’s that I’m claiming that the urban does have a place, and that that must mean that conservative rejection of the urban can be challenged.
What’s the root of this rejection? I think it has to do with a set of associations we have with cities, which cannot on examination be sustained. There is a conflation in our minds between the urban and the disembodied, the crypto-gnostic, the non-local, and it’s this conflation that I want to challenge.
The great virtues, the great human goods, that we here seek to preserve and celebrate are things like attachment to a particular place, and a deep personal engagement with the physical world, so that you’re able to work with skill to change where you live; to mix your labor with matter, with the ingredients of the soup you’re making, with the wires of the lamp you’re repairing, with the galvanized steel of the gutter you’re fixing, if not with the land in the sense of a forest or a pasture.
These things can be done, and done well, in cities. It is not urbanism itself that is dehumanizing, it is a corruption of urbanism. Good urbanism exists, and it invites a particular kind of activity that I want to describe as tinkering. People who live well in cities tinker with their cities. Not arbitrarily, but in a craftsmanlike way that takes account of the whole but attends to a part; respects the larger household that is the city and knows that the best way to serve it is to attend to the smaller household that you’ve got going on in an apartment on the Lower East Side. A kind of blend of Philip Bess and Jane Jacobs, is what we’re aiming at. You know what the city is, and you are responsible for this particular corner of it; you act in good faith, whether the corner you are tinkering with is a vacant lot you’re trying to turn into a garden, or a political machine that you’re trying to reform.