Sunday, July 20, 2008

City Sense...

You'd like to think that it's something you get when you live in the city - a transformation caused by some of the pollution around you that gives you an innate and super ability to live, work and play in a city.

But really, it's just an understanding you come to.

Sure, after living in an urban environment, you develop some "abilities." For example, you should learn to parallel park a car - when I use the word, should here I don't use it in a suggestive sense, but in the sense that it's something that will happen as you park your car over and again on a curb in any populated neighborhood.

You learn how to feed a meter. Regularly.

You learn that bicycling is a more environ-friendly mode of transit and that it's generally faster than driving.

You learn (and this is something that I've hit on before) that amidst the beauty of a thing created (like a cityscape) comes the reality of a world that exists in brokenness caused by sin.

It's a funny place where everything can be simultaneously right and wrong. It is right for you to be where you are because you know, in one way or another, that you're called to be here. It's wrong because there are others calling you to move away.

It is right because in the confluence of ideas, art, culture, science, education, government and technology there is understanding that image bearers are able to imitate and reflect the God they may or may not know and recognize. It is wrong because in the confluence of crime, destruction, racism, discrimination, murder, greed and indifference there is an understanding that image breakers are willing and desirous of rebelling against the same God.

There's not really any one thing that got me thinking about this on this time out writing. If you've stopped here before, you know that it's something that comes up from time to time when I write; meaning that I'm thinking about this a lot. A few good examples would suffice to describe the sense that my city (Philadelphia) exudes.

When you're walking the streets here, you can experience two (or more) entirely different "cities," in the course of a mile or two. It's not uncommon to walk down a street and see a home valued at $600k+ next door to one that's dilapidated, condemned or (even worse) the base of a drug dealer. Center City is what you'd be familiar with if you came to visit, however. Center City is where all the large buildings are. It's where all the fun stuff is - the kind of things you do when you visit a city. While there, you'd probably also visit the Art Museum area and Old City. You'd notice that the streets in Center City are relatively clean, that there are friendly people to help you when you're lost and that there's a healthy police presence.

The sense of Philadelphia changes, however, if you go a mile north or a mile south of Center City. As you travel down Broad, away from the big buildings, it wouldn't be uncommon to see a neighboring car's window roll down and watch trash free float from there to the ground. Towards the fall, there are sometimes whirlwinds of trash as the weather gets a little more windy. The trash thing spans all colors of skin and economic status, apparently...

If you ride a train in, you might be awed by the striking beauty of the city (if coming in from the North or East, this view is to your left). Looking off to your right, it's easy to be sickened by the amount of garbage piled beside the train tracks - the amount of bad graffiti tagged on train tunnels and abandoned buildings.

The sense of a city, mine at least and I imagine most, is conflicted. The sense you develop in interacting with it is the same. It's easy to question trust in other people. You wonder when and how you should trust them. While in a town watch course, La learned that when you're walking the streets in any part of the city, you should always be aware of what's around you by turning your head every few seconds.

We've found too that there can be a cultural mistrust at large. It doesn't always seem like a good thing to some that younger people of a different color of skin or background would be moving to their neighborhood. Gentrification has detrimental ramifications and years of discrimination won't be left buried under the guise of hope and promise. In my mind and heart, I don't believe that anything apart from Christ can really work to heal this sense of deep sadness and betrayal that some (not all, trust me, not all) of our African American neighbors hold - it's complicated and ingrained in a few generations who have learned that you can't trust and that you'll never get anywhere for it.

City sense is not necessarily something you get, but something you become a part of. The sense of a city will exist with you in it, or with you away. It isn't a super power or ability, but it is something to interact with - something that can affect you and something you can affect.