Urbanicity…A Contrast Between Urban and Suburban

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May 23, 2012 by Kyle

One of the many blessings of city life in the summer

I live in the city and I love the city. I enjoy the diversity of neighborhoods and the access of city life.  A unique characteristic of urban living is that most things are just a bus or subway ride away. Just the other week I took a subway ride that took me across town in 15 minutes.  On the subway car there were young and old, educated and belligerent, Hispanic, African, African American, Anglo and Asian.  The varied ethnic and racial diversity on the sub reminded me of the diversity within my high school. I went to high school in the 80’s in a predominantly Jewish community. There were Black, Latino and Korean kids traveling out of North Philly, Olney, West Oak Lane, Mt. Airy and Hunting Park all to get a better education. High school gave us a preview of what society would be like.  One of the dominating traits of the city is the innate diversity displayed in various settings. The city is littered with artistic expression in the form of murals, ethnic landmarks (i.e., Italian Market, China Town, etc.), ornate buildings, music and the arts of every genre and food from around the world. My interests are in the urban community, the church and specifically how urban life is often misunderstood by non-urbanites.

The uniqueness of city life is often misconstrued by outsiders—where an urbanite sees culture the outsider sees only depravity run amuck. In my experience, I’ve heard the most disparaging remarks about the city by visitors coming from homogeneous contexts. Sad to say the views of individuals from White suburban churches visiting city churches on the occasional ministry expeditions describe their experience as a kind of visit to the urban jungle to rescue abandoned souls out of wayward lifestyles.  The account of the experience would play out as a colossal battle between the kingdom of God and the urban evil empire. I wish I were joking, but there’ve been too many accounts to simply discount as merely anecdotal. To assist those interested in a high level overview of urban I’ve tried to piece together some high level thoughts about urban culture.

A dominant characteristic of urban culture is diversity as highlighted in the first paragraph. For example, the neighborhood where my high school is located has changed from being primarily Jewish, Irish and Eastern European to Southeast Asian and Latino.  Another example is a major road in Philly named Girard Avenue. It is quickly becoming a place for urban hipsters and other young white professionals. The past 40 to 50 years the neighborhood around Girard Avenue above Broad Street was predominantly Black and poor. The nature of urban living is summed up in rapid change amidst increasing diversity.  Many of the rundown homes are being gutted and refurbished for computer programmers, architects and lawyers. I recently heard a quote from an old Law and Order episode describing change within the urban communities, “If you don’t like the neighborhood then give it 10 minutes”.  These words are so true.

The gentrification of Philly is an example of the quick turnover happening in many poorer communities in cities all over the US. Even with this rapid change, my appreciation for most things urban is tied to the ongoing change and authenticity of its residents. I look on the city with expectancy—what’s next, what’s new? Not all change is negative and simply because something is fast and convenient doesn’t mean that it is necessarily evil. Unfortunately, many people run when they hear urban. The city has been labeled as the place where the ‘boogie man’ lives and collects public assistance.  Even with all the stereotypical connotations that accompany the word ‘urban,’ the culture that comes out of the city has gone global.

South Philly

Let’s face it, the term “urban” carries various connotations.  Unfortunately, it is often associated with corruption, poor minorities and/or crowded space.  The definition of urban goes beyond a census[1] category to also describe a culture and way of life. Culture is described this way, “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.”[2] In a statement about cultural relevance within academia, C. Eric Lincoln says, “Perspective is an aspect of culture, and culture is by definition committed to values deriving from its own body of experience.”[3] To say that something is urban conveys something beyond location; it encompasses a way of life—it is more than brick and mortar. In one sense, city dwellers are rugged survivalist—they have to be. On the other hand urbanites have deep and affectionate connection to traditions, places and people associated with these large communities. The dichotomy shows up in the theme song from the 70’s hit show “Good Times” provides an excellent snapshot of urban life and culture,

Good Times.
Any time you meet a payment.
Good Times.
Any time you need a friend.
Good Times.
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hastled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can. [4]

The repetitive phrase “Good Times” is strategically worked into the lyrics suggesting that things could be worse, but we’re making the best of what we have. These lyrics capture the essence of urban life. The poor can connect to references about the dynamics of the street and thriving in difficult conditions. The song also underscores the optimism that urbanites must have in order to survive the hardships of life in the hood. If a kid in the hood can’t afford an aluminum bat and baseball they cut the business end of a mop stick and slice a tennis ball and let the fun begin. If fun is the goal then one figures out a way while it’s still daylight.

An early forerunner in the field of sociology, Louis Wirth defined the city [or urban], “For sociological purposes a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.”[5] Wirth further describes urban as more cultural than geographical.[6] Although Wirth’s use of “heterogeneous” is more along the lines of personality difference whereas my use is more along the lines of class, racial and ethnicity.

The urbanite defines their culture by pointing to events, places or songs because of the nostalgia it evokes. Even urbanites that have moved to the suburbs still carry the culture and in many ways they still practice urban ways even within decidedly non-urban contexts. The inhabitants of the culture will unintentionally define the culture. There is a shared experience within communities—I could have a conversation with someone who grew up around 22ndand Allegheny about the concept of penny candy or the Laundromat, Panati Playground or the wrench used to open the fire plug so we could get wet on a 100 degree day.  There is this subculture that you’re always a member of.  Outsiders have erroneously sought to define what it means to be urban.  Urban is not a term that’s synonymous with all things hip-hop, although hip hop is an important piece of the culture. Instead, ‘urban’ conveys an interconnected village where balancing the needs and goals of the individual and community requires constant creativity.  Too often the media and entertainers hijack terminology in order to suit their own purposes.

Between the city and suburbs

In most cases when the broader society refers to urban—they mean Black folk. There is no doubt that when you hear things like urban radio, urban flavor or urban problems most immediately think of Blacks and Latinos—we have become synonymous with urban culture. No doubt many of the ills of society are located inside the sprawling metropolises filled with minority groups and the poor—who are generally the marginalized and oppressed of society. It is vitally important to know that much of the uniqueness of American art, music, learning and commerce was birthed out of urban life.

In contrast, suburban culture has become synonymous with homogeneity.   Suburbia is considered a safe place where there is uniform placement—it is in many ways a slower way of life. It is the ‘moving on up’ that many talk about— schools are better, the streets are cleaner and it provides a more sheltered environment. I don’t want to minimize suburban culture; I’m only highlighting the subtle differences.  As with urban culture, the suburban way of life is not limited to a specific place, but rather a created mindset. The sameness of suburbia, White Suburbia in particular, can contribute to a kind of privileged outlook.  There are fewer negative variables to consider in one’s daily activities.  Generally speaking there are fewer concerns about life and death issues such as gun violence, poverty and poor schooling. This is not to say that there aren’t concerns, but ‘generally’ these things may be absent from everyday life outside the city. The concentrated diversity of the inner city provides those residents with an education second to none.  The idea of being ‘street smart’ comes from having to maneuver within complex obstacles—whether they are economic, familial, health or violence.  The street smart demeanor may come across to outsiders as aloofness, but it reflects the varied roles that city dwellers have to navigate in order to survive. [7]

My interest lies with how the church handles the city or urban issues. Is the city a problem to be fixed or a place where the church learns? I propose that the city is a place to learn and who better to receive this education than those who live and serve in homogeneous communities.  The mass exodus from the city or White Flight[8] produced a suburban culture complete with churches focused on being safe and uniform. The flight from the city contributed to the unique kind of programming characteristic of a church and community that is internally focused. The internal focus of many churches betrays the mission given by the Savior. (Acts 1:8) There are tons of Black, Latino and Asian pastors serving and loving on their community in very creative ways.  They must be creative in order to meet the urgent and complex needs that show up in their communities.

Much more could be said to communicate what the city is all about, but for me this is a starting point—a kind of spotlight on those things that have been pushed aside by popular Evangelicalism. If there is a transition within the North American church to return to the missional call of Christ, then it is my opinion that there needs to be a large exodus out of the suburbs into the city.  It first starts with getting rid of the ‘boogie man’ thinking about the city. Suburban churches need to connect with a pastor or ministry leader sacrificially serving their urban community and receive training alongside those churches who are meeting the complex needs of the city.

If you enjoyed this blog post you might like this one as well… The Storefront Church https://thecityrooftop.com/2012/04/24/the-storefront-church/

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[3] Lincoln, C. Eric (2003). The Racial Factor in the Shaping of Religion in America. In C. West, J. E. Glaude, C. West, & E. S. Glaude (Eds.), African American Religious Thought An Anthology (pp. 156-186). Louisville, Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Knox.

[6] Ibid…pg 5 Louis Wirth defines urban, “Urbanization no longer denotes merely the process by which persons are attracted to a place called the city and incorporated into its system of life.  It refers also to that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the mode of life which is associated with the growth of cities, and finally to the changes in the direction of modes of life recognized as urban which are apparent among people, wherever they may be, who have come under the spell of the influences which the city exerts by virtue of the power of its institutions and personalities operating through the means of communication and transportation.”

[7] Ibid…12, Wirth provides a kind of definition of street smart when he says concerning the urbanite, “The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face, but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory and segmental.  The reserve, the indifference, and the blasé outlook which urbanites manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others.”

[8] “The creation of predominantly white suburbs near inner cities that are populated by mainly people of color has been termed “White Flight” by sociologist William H. Frey” . Halley, J., Eshleman, A., & Vijaya, R. M. (2011). Seeing White; An Introduction to White Privilege and Race. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield.

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