"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gentrification in the City of Man

One of the clear and strong themes in the recent collection to which I contributed, and on which I have commented previously, The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century is that of the changing economics of our time, and the frequency with which such changes have left many large urban churches facing closure or having already closed because of people moving across the country regularly in search of employment. So parishes are changing and have changed, just as cities and their economies have changed and are changing, and this has occasioned no small commentary from Christians.

But what reflection has been done on the changing nature of the city as such? Apart from the doctoral dissertation of the Greek Orthodox scholar Timothy Patitsas, linking liturgy and Jane Jacobs, I know of no recent or substantial Eastern Christian reflection on cities and their changing nature.

But if parish life has been changing dramatically for decades now, so too have cities, this latter process often going under the heading of "gentrification," describing the apparent return to once hollowed-out urban centres. Alas, some of what has passed under this banner has been merely the triumph of toffs and hirsute hipsters hawking their overpriced mocha-chinos and designer hotdogs out of re-purposed steel mills or foreclosed brownstones, driving up prices of real estate and doing nothing to address poverty or the lack of affordable housing. But gentrification need not result in such bourgeois triumphs as a new collection, set for release next year, suggests: J.J. Schlictman et al, Gentrifier (University of Toronto Press, 2017), 216pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
As urban job prospects change to reflect a more ‘creative’ economy and the desire for a particular form of ‘urban living’ continues to grow, so too does the migration of young people to cities. Gentrification and gentrifiers are often understood as ‘dirty’ words, ideas discussed at a veiled distance. Gentrifiers, in particular, are usually a ‘they.’
Gentrifier demystifies the idea of gentrification by opening a conversation that links the theoretical and the grassroots, spanning the literature of urban sociology, geography, planning, policy, and more. Along with established research, new analytical tools, and contemporary anecdotes, John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill place their personal experiences as urbanists, academics, parents, and spouses at the centre of analysis. They expose raw conversations usually reserved for the privacy of people’s intimate social networks in order to complicate our understanding of the individual decisions behind urban living and the displacement of low-income residents. The authors’ accounts of living in New York City, San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Providence link economic, political, and sociocultural factors to challenge the readers’ current understanding of gentrification and their own roles within their neighbourhoods. A foreword by Peter Marcuse opens the volume.
I have long maintained an amateur's interest in questions of urban development since a professor very unexpectedly assigned the reading of Jane Jacobs in an undergraduate ethics course twenty years ago. Her first and most celebrated work, The Life and Death of Great American Cities is one that often comes back to mind as I am wandering around cities and neighborhoods, whose layout and design I find fascinating.

I tried to read several of her other works, including Cities and the Wealth of the Nations as well as Dark Age Aheadbut in both cases I admit she lost me in the details of economics; neither book had the grand narrative thrust of her first book.

Jacobs has recently been the subject of two biographies, reviews of which I have read in several places. Robert Kanigel's Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs was released by Knopf this past September.

Earlier this year, Peter Laurence's Becoming Jane Jacobs was published in January. I hope to have a chance to read one or both as time allows.

I did, some time ago, read a third biography of Jacobs, written by Alice Sparberg Alexiou and published in 2006 as Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. It was moderately interesting.

Given this much attention, it is almost inevitable that certain revisionists and critics would push back, as Peter Moskowitz did last spring here and as Adam Gopnik did somewhat in the New Yorker. It is clear, then, that just as the future of city churches continues to come in for much debate, so too will the future of those cities themselves.

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