Jane Jacobs, in her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, described what vibrant communities looked like – a good mix of people (age, ethnic, racial, economic diversity), a good mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment (the big box store had not yet been invented) mixed in with the residential area, and a pedestrian life. This kind of community was often chaotic and had layered complexity. What a concept! Jacobs had developed a lot of ‘street cred’ but no academic background in urban planning. At that time, the field of urban planning was a male-dominated field and her ideas were severely pooh-poohed. But enough people were beginning to see the writing on the wall about the rising suburban lifestyle and the decay of inner city life. She developed a following that continued until her death last week at the age of 89. In fact, the New Urbanism movement, which promotes more livable and sustainable communities in the face of the decline of cheap oil, definitely owes a lot of its vision to Jacobs.
I came across Jacobs’ work when I was a senior in college majoring in Urban Affairs. She excited me. I felt like I had just come across a visionary who would be important to me. Indeed, as I reflect, she influenced my life in ways that I had not understood until just now.
My first job after graduating from that Urban Affairs program (what a name!) was with a Model Cities program in a mid-size Eastern city that had exploded in riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There I worked with many citizens, mostly welfare recipients and the powerless in that ‘disadvantaged’ part of town -- along with city, state, and national folks who were instrumental or necessary to birth our vision of a Model Neighborhood into existence. This was an amazing program that truly gave citizens a big voice (not to mention huge sums of money) to reinvent their neighborhood. We planned all kinds of human services – free day care, additional public transportation, ways to enable people to buy their homes (we had the first urban homesteading program in the country!), child friendly parks, alternative schools, you name it. Plus economic development – trying to get old abandoned factories renewed with local owners. In short, we were trying to embody Jane Jacobs’ vision.
The Model Cities program was too successful and was designed to give money (and power) directly to the residents. Mayors didn’t like that one bit. So the program was re-designed and it lost its promise and eventually its money a few short years later. The hope embodied in that program died a bitter death. But that was one of my favorite jobs ever, helping people to define their community and put their vision into reality.
Ministry is a lot like that. We are always helping people to build a vibrant community that celebrates the totality and complexity of life and empowers everyone. We know that this is hard work, work that is not often honored in material ways. It is, however, honorable work that lifts up the human spirit in interdependence. It is holy work, and I count Jane Jacobs as being one of the saints that helped make the rough places smooth.
May you find the kind of community you always dreamed of beyond those pearly gates, Jane Jacobs!