Friday, February 15, 2008

I am the Lorax; I speak for the trees

I was selected as one of ten first-year students in my program to take a non-credit class that studies Chicago leadership. A few weeks ago, in the course of discussion of what would make Chicago a Great City, I listened to people talk about railroads and the Olympics and the maintenance of financial markets.

When there was a lull, I raised my hand and said that I want Chicago to be considered a Great City because of the way it treats its poor and that it would be a model to other cities for how to help its under-resourced citizens pull themselves out of poverty rather than simply ejecting them in the name of gentrification.

One of the discussion leaders pressed me a little bit and together we came up with the statement that diversity in the city is entwined with poverty. And socio-economic diversity is important for making a Great City. I explained that I don't live in Lincoln Park because it's boring. It's full of wealthy, educated white people who spend much of their time shopping. I live in Logan Square near Humboldt Park because it's a Puerto Rican neighborhood with a mix of bohemian artsy types. My friend Jeffrey told me when he was visiting that all the interesting people got off the El at my stop.

Interestingly, one of the other students (who specializes in urban planning) raised her hand and argued that economic development is necesary before social development can take place.

I didn't argue the point because I didn't want to dominate, nor do I want the label of seditionist. Also, it's possible that this response didn't occur to me until later when I was falling asleep. The thing is, that if you don't develop community and the economy of a place at the same time, you will necessarily push out folks who can't afford to live in your shiny, new city. And you can't bring them back in later without people thinking that you're ruining a good thing and feeling threatened.

We have always looked to new technologies to advance Chicago. We used to dig out the river mouth until we just changed the direction of the flow. We convinced the whole country that we were a better hub than St. Louis for trains. We jacked the whole city up a couple of feet to get it out of the mud. We convince the whole country that we're a better hub for planes despite the freezing rain that delays flights for a good portion of the year. But what about social technologies? Surely, it can't be that hard for a city of innovators to develop our human capital the way that we have our physical capital.

At the turn of the last century, the words, "explosive, reckless growth" described Chciago after the fire and it made much of the city unlivable with crime, slums and graft. How do we avoid becoming unlivable at the turn of this century as we work to grow our financial prosperity again?

Jane Addams' solution at the turn of the century was to move bring her privilege with her and live in the slums alongside the poor. In Christian community development circles, we call that incarnational ministry. Repeatedly, people of privilege learn that what they thought was best for the poor was not actually helpful once they actually become neighbors. I got to sit in on a meeting about 10 years ago in which the most prominent community developers in the city explained to Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, that the reason Habitat was not successful in the top ten cities in the country was because Habitat commuted into the neighborhoods they were trying to serve. To this day, Habitat has not changed this policy and still do not make much difference in the city.

What is really interesting about this discussion is that my friend Don, who was the other discussion leader, said that in the whole discussion of trains and Olympics, only about 8 people out of 40 actually talk. He told me that when I spoke up, all sorts of new people had something to add to the conversation in response.

Although I don't want to become a bore, because I think that will limit my effectiveness, I do what to be a catalyst, getting people to think of who is paying for the reforms they are proposing. I can't think of it all myself and the more people I can get in on the conversation, the better our solutions will be.

Last weekend, I attended a meeting hosted by Arloa to discuss a housing development in North Lawndale that would be both a co-housing intentional community and a La'Bri style place of hospitality for folks to come and study theology. Since Arloa lives in the ghetto as an incarnational minister and runs a holistic homeless shelter, I had just taken it for granted that this development would have aspects of neighborhood development. I mean, why wouldn't we take advantage of the fact that our neighbors would now be the very people that Christ commands us to love? But as I listened to the developer talk about an enclosed parking garage with indoor passage to the condo complex and as I looked around at the white group of people that were interested in buying in, I realized that I wanted to do what I had done at school. So, I did. And the resulting conversation was fantastic. I wasn't the only one who wanted service to others to be part of the theological study. I wasn't the only one who wanted to make sure that we involved the existing community in our plans. I wasn't the only one who wanted to diversify the participants in the co-housing.

I could get used to this!

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