Urban Hinterlands (8/10): Keeping Cities Gritty


In the early 1990s a 158-page report was put out by the City of Portland Bureau of Planning to reflect on the history of the Black community as plans were made to revitalize inner North/Northeast Portland. Titled “The History of Portland’s African American Community (1805 to the Present),” it said, “Past redevelopment efforts have taught community planners that preserving social and cultural resources is a key component to any successful revitalization plan.”

The painful irony was that seemingly nothing was preserved. Inner North/Northeast is no longer a Black community. African Americans have been priced out and displaced. We continue to ignore history and push people aside just to make our cities livable.

We all recognize that unlivable streets, neighborhoods, districts, and city centers are not what we want. The age-old question then becomes how to make cities both livable and affordable? I’m not talking about a few token “affordable” units in each new mixed-use building. We have that here in my building and in my neighborhood. Sure, on some level it is helpful, but the reality is that most of those who live in this building could never afford to stay in the building. While they could get away with renting a tiny apartment, they don’t have any long-term anchor in the neighborhood. To buy a house is out of the price range of most everyone in this building. Otherwise they wouldn’t live here.

From time to time, since living here is a revolving door, we get word that one of our neighbors is moving out to find a cheaper place to live or to actually buy a home. Usually that means they’re moving pretty far from the urban core.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying all the new amenities that keep popping up in the neighborhood, from new coffee shops to restaurants to infill which brings more fun vibrancy to the neighborhood. But I’ve long since given up becoming part of the neighborhood association. I have no long-term investment here.

The problems are obvious, but what are the solutions?

Church planters need to know about these changing dynamics of cities. Otherwise, they may actually do more harm than good. New worship gatherings may be launched and small groups implemented, but not planting with an awareness of the story arc of the neighborhood or city is negligence and bad contextualization. It is not loving our new neighbors well.

In our desire to be relevant and plant churches among people like ourselves, we often do so at the expense of people in transitioning urban hinterlands. A neighborhood could be in the midst of transitioning from a minority blue-collar neighborhood into a hotbed for bohemians and other cultural creatives. To many church planters, this is a gold mine for where to plant a new church. This is “cutting edge.” But what happens when your church of White twenty-somethings gathers on a Sunday drinking specialty coffee and the surrounding neighborhood is still at least 50 percent blue collar and drinks Folgers? They are watching the neighborhood they grew up in yanked out from under them as housing prices soar. Church planters may talk about “target audiences,” but perhaps we should stop and ask, “What is best for the neighborhood?” Or, “What is God’s vision for this neighborhood?”

This is where church planters enter the fray of the gentrification debates. It is a paradoxical conversation. On one hand, there is a need to preserve relational ties, community, and the cultural identity that has marked a certain neighborhood or community for decades (or longer). However, at the same time, it is a worn down and tattered neighborhood. More than peeling paint or rusty slides on the playground, but worn in the sense of a growing hopelessness and fatigue from violence, petty crime, declining schools, departing services, and declining businesses.

Church planters are then caught in the paradox of these urban hinterlands. How to be helpful? How not to be harmful?

It is more than making sweeping generalizations like “keep the city or neighborhood gritty” or “let’s see revitalization!” Many church planters have never thought about any of these issues. They feel stretched enough by gathering a core group, building up and working towards launching a public gathering, and then growing, shepherding, and leading the new flock. Once in these complex communities, church planters may see for the first time how the impact of context ought to determine (or at least influence) the how of church planting.

At times we can be too preoccupied with our weekend gatherings. How should the dynamics of the neighborhood or city shape the role of the church? What happens when the copper mine or paper mill closes? Yes, miners need Jesus, but they also need a job. Loggers need Jesus, but when the mill in town closes, how will they provide for their families when all they know how to do is fell trees or work inside the mill? It is easy to make fun of people who work at Walmart, but what happens when you’re an uneducated and unskilled laborer? And then your church full of middle-class environmentally-conscious vegans fight to get that same Walmart closed?

Welcome to the tension. To keep urban hinterlands gritty or not?


This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.