Post Date: October 8, 2014

Renewing Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal is a phrase that, for the last 50 to 60 years or so, has referred to the government program intended to revitalize urban slums. The renewal process included demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing newer housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium. Urban renewal is usually undertaken for the purposes of persuading wealthier individuals to come live in a particular area where, years earlier, landowners left the neighborhood but held on to their property.

In the 1940s this government program became a nationwide push to clear, rebuild, and redevelop slums. Although good things have come out of this program, critics have contended that although urban renewal programs bulldoze slums, they have often led to their replacement by office buildings and apartment homes for the well-to-do. In hindsight, critics have seen that “renewal” was seen through the lens of a Western capitalist mindset that paid little attention to culture, personal needs, and aesthetic beauty.

For instance, you may have heard government housing in “rough” neighborhoods referred to as “the projects.” These are apartment buildings intentionally built to be simple, the same, and lacking any character at all. The plan was to demolish old buildings and houses, move out the poor, and build new buildings for them without any of the frills. In some cities, you can see “the projects” built in rows, almost like corn fields, where all the people who were presumably part of the crime and poverty of one neighborhood have been relocated to start a new community.

The idea was that a new place with a new building was going to stimulate the neighborhood’s poor to live differently. This has not been the case. The projects have not only uglified neighborhoods, but have also destroyed the cultures of so many diverse groups. This is because when renewal is understood to be brought about by new physical buildings, we have terribly misunderstood the heart of what renewal is. It was also a bad project because no matter who the people are, when any neighborhood is made for only those who have little to no resources, you will always end up with a “ghetto.”

An older mentor of mine who has lived in the “ghetto” most of his life shared with me a dream he had one night. He said that he was speaking at a large church in a wealthy part of town, and he asked everyone who has a broken family to stand up, whether they had experienced divorce, abuse in the family, chemical addiction, porn addiction, addiction to needing material things to feel happy, homelessness, or other forms of brokenness. The whole congregation in all of its courage rose to its feet, and he declared, “The ghetto is everywhere my friends!” Then he walked off the stage and sat down. Sounds like a profound dream to me; the ghettos are indeed everywhere.

The motivation behind this post is a desire to share my heart for true urban renewal, which has to do with material things to a certain extent, but has even more to do with learning to address the issues of the ghetto. These are the issues that find their origins within all of us—namely, issues of racial, social, cultural, political, and spiritual prejudice. Renewal begins with us, challenging what we think, desire, and believe.

I believe urban renewal must address the whole person, the whole neighborhood, and the whole city, including all the issues that accompany people, neighborhoods, and cities. But the starting place is confronting within ourselves the presuppositions and lenses through which we interpret life. No one has a neutral lens. Because of that, renewal begins with the willingness to ask: What kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices create? What are the virtues of true renewal?

In the series of posts to come, I want to make a case for the kind of thinking, believing, and desiring that must take place in our minds and hearts if we are ever to experience the renewal in our lives and cities that we are longing for. I will spend more in-depth time talking about the virtues of peaceableness, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, community, and wisdom.

Here’s to renewing what urban renewal was always meant to be.

Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, where he will be continuing the series of posts on renewing urban renewal.

Jeff Skeens

Jeff is an urban missionary with CityServe AZ. His family lives in the historic Garfield neighborhood.

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