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What If You Live in a Bad City?

A commenter asked this thought-provoking question on my post, “Why Cities Need Localists“:

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This is something I’ve thought about a lot. And it applies to living in a “bad” town or rural area, as well. What if you live in a place that is ugly, broken-down, dangerous, bereft of community? Is it better to leave? And if you stay—how do you help transform such a place?

There are different kinds of “bad” cities, and thus different ways of trying to involve oneself in the betterment of those cities. If any commenters have thoughts on “bad” cities or towns they’ve lived in, and how they’ve worked to get involved in those places, I would love for you to share your thoughts.

One of the first sorts of “bad” cities that comes to mind would be the dangerous one—a city that has enough crime and hostility within it to make inhabitants feel uncomfortable and alone, a city in which it’s difficult to trust people. There are rural areas like this, too—indeed, cities aren’t any more dangerous than rural areas, according to the numbers. How to build community here is a difficult question, one that I don’t have a holistic answer to (and it’s probably a question that doesn’t have a perfect answer). But one potential answer comes from Why Place Matters, an excellent book recently published by The New Atlantis. William A. Schambra, director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, wrote an essay for the volume about “Place and Poverty,” in which he tells the story of Family House, a ministry in inner-city Milwaukee.

Family House began when Cordelia Taylor, a professional in elderly care management, left her work at a large institution and launched her own senior-care facility at home. She started with just 12 residents—but as she purchased and renovated neighboring houses, people of all ages became more attracted to the neighborhood. Children started showing up on the front porch, and Taylor’s son organized a homework club and martial arts classes for them. A little later, Taylor began teaching meal classes to the children’s mothers, and hired several to work as aides. The neighborhood became “a safer place for families and children, a seedbed of personal responsibility and moral principle, and a venue for self-governance,” writes Schambra:

The example of Family House speaks to the critical difference between fighting poverty with place, rather than with programs. Trained to run large, impersonal programs, Mrs. Taylor instead felt a call to exercise her vocation back in the place where she had reared her family and which she had come to love, no matter how unlovely its deterioration over the years may have rendered it to outsiders.

Taylor’s persistent care, her decision to use her work in a way that blessed her community, produced incredible long-term benefits in her neighborhood—benefits that far surpassed her original goal. She chose to return, and to love her neighbors, no matter what: and this sort of commitment does not return empty-handed. Her story reminds me of  a piece published in The New Yorker a few months ago, by Rollo Romig, who talks about growing up in a Detroit neighborhood. “There was a real anxiety that we needed everyone to participate if the neighborhood was going to continue to thrive,” she writes. “The most anxious among us formalized their commitment to the city by joining a group called the Stayers. Needless to say, not all the Stayers stayed.”

Sometimes, for some families and in certain situations, leaving may be necessary. But we must ask ourselves: if everyone leaves, then who will stay? Who will carry on the important work of place-making, like Cordelia Taylor? There is a fine balance between putting oneself and one’s family in danger, and choosing to serve a community, no matter what. In some cases, our commitment to stay must be rooted in a sense of vocation and calling, an understanding and awareness of what we’re committing to. But if there’s one thing Romig’s piece makes clear, it’s that Stayers—real Stayers—are desperately needed in these vulnerable or difficult neighborhoods.

There are other sorts of “bad” cities and places—ones that aren’t dangerous, but also difficult to build community within. In some instances, it’s a matter of the city’s architecture and layout: perhaps you live in a high-rise apartment building, on an incredibly busy street, surrounded by parking lots. There are no downtowns, no local mom-and-pop stores, no parks nearby. How do you begin to meet people, to get invested in the community?

Or sometimes, it’s a matter of societal norms: some cities (D.C. included) are not particularly friendly. This became clear to me one day, when my sister—visiting from small-town Idaho—rode the metro with me here in D.C. Looking around at the somber, expressionless faces, taking in the utter silence around her, she turned to me with wide eyes and said, “What’s wrong? Why is everyone so sad?” It was difficult to explain to her that, in this place, seriousness and quiet are the norms. People don’t expect you to be friendly or talkative—indeed, such behavior is often seen as annoying.

Part of this aloofness, I think, comes from the fact that D.C. is a very transitory city: few people who live here grew up here, and few who currently live here intend to stay. This fosters an attitude of consumeristic stand-offishness: people don’t expend the energy or time necessary to build community, or to meet strangers. They don’t see it as worth their time. This makes D.C. a difficult city to build community in—especially for introverts.

How do we combat these sorts of urban isolation? I think voluntary, private associations are essential: whether joining a church or a gym, a local sports team or a choir, it’s important that we reach out—consistently—in whatever way we can. Regularly going to a specific point at a specific time—Sunday services, Saturday afternoon soccer games, etc.—enables us to meet people and build the fabric of a community.

Also, I think we forget the simple goodness of meeting and reaching out to our neighbors, the people who live next door. We may not like them, or think we have much in common. But that’s not what neighborliness is about. Dropping off a plate of cookies, inviting them to come over and watch a football game, offering to help carry groceries: these are simple ways to be neighborly, and to cultivate community. My friend Chelsea told me a story of this sort of neighborliness: she and her husband live next-door to a retired elderly man. Not long after they had moved in, they came home from work to a freshly-mowed lawn. The man next door had mowed their lawn, in addition to his own. This became a regular ritual: whenever the man mowed his lawn, he would also mow theirs. Chelsea dropped a note in his mailbox, to thank him. He told her, in reply, that this was just his simple way of blessing his neighbors and using his time wisely.

At the heart of it all, in order to really build community, we have to be willing to stay, no matter what. Wendell Berry once explained in an interview why he didn’t intend to ever move away from Port Royal, Kentucky, and his thoughts sum this up perfectly:

We’d been here since 1964 and in that period of time we’d sort of solved a whole set of problems that faced us when we started. We’d become almost self-sufficient as far as food was concerned, and had begun to understand the significance of this place in our lives and in the lives of modern America. Suddenly the farm next door to us was sold to a developer. He brought in bulldozers and dumped tons of gravel onto the land to make it some kind of ideal landscape for a trailer court. … We could see the smoke from our neighbor’s fire, so to speak; we could see the dust from his bulldozer and we could see his signs.

One of our first thoughts was that we should leave, we shouldn’t put up with it, we’d get out of here and go someplace where it was quieter and where we could live the way we wanted to. We’d go west, as they used to say. And then we realized that that impulse went against the current of our lives up to that point.

A farmer, who’s a neighbor of mine and probably the oldest friend I’ve got in the world, had told me, “They’ll never do worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.” That’s the most important thing that’s been said to me in the last couple of years. It illuminates the meaning of marriage. When you believe in a thing enough so that you eliminate the second choice, forsake all others, then you’re married to it. So we decided that this place would have to be our fate and that we’d stay here no matter what happened as long as life was possible.

We will never be good place-makers if we’re always entertaining a notion that there’s somewhere else, somewhere better, where we could move. We become good place-makers when we decide that this place will be our place, and we will do our utmost to make it a beautiful and neighborly place. What we do with our front porch, how we tend our gardens, how we love our neighbors: these are the primary steps to transforming and loving our cities and towns, no matter what they look like—and no matter how desolate they may feel.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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