Sunday, October 15, 2006

New Mood Downtown

A really really old one, spunoff some from our very first assignment when I decided to begin a second bachelor's degree. The course was introductory sociology; we got to go to the university library and choose an article from journals the professor had on reserve. Of course I had to choose something very urban: Society, v. 16 no. 6 pp. 4,6-7, September-October 1979

New Mood Downtown: internet link
• Wolf Von Eckardt, New Mood Downtown
• Society: v. 16 no. 6 pages 4, 6-7 September-October 1979

This article is concentrated and conclusive regarding positive aspects of the current migration back into the cities as a place to live. Von Eckardt shows a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for city living. Reflecting on contemporary trends, he cites everything now [1979 for the article's date] happening in a most positive light, taking negatives exclusively from the 30 to 40 years preceding the back-to-city-living trend. Although the article is only three pages long and therefore limited in scope and depth, the author seems almost obsessively intent on proving his point and extending his own enthusiasm to the reader.

The essential thesis appears to be that use – or misuse – of architectural space is the prime humanizing or dehumanizing factor. Beginning with the fact of the physical return of people from suburbia to cities, and ending with the observation that it is people who are beginning to make their environment livable and workable, the writer lists a series of factors that contribute to the neglect and decay of the city:

  • residential exodus/flight to suburbs
  • suburban shopping centers
  • freeways
  • exit of industry
  • poorer people remaining in the city
  • suburbs receiving a lot of tax money
  • "urban renewal" attacking the apparent, visible problem of substandard housing rather than the real problem of limited employment skills and opportunities

Von Eckardt sees the extensive implementation of housing modeled after Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse as the worst mistake, observing that the concept of stark concrete slabs surrounded by air and light in reality was unable to provide the casual, routine social interaction needed for development of a healthy community. Again, in negative terms, he indicates that unique architectural style not so much reinforced and perpetuated whatever sense of alienation already may have been present, but was a major contributory factor in its emergence, as the style allowed for no functional neighborhoods.

Among positive forces now at work – presented both as a response or reaction to Corbu's style of architecture and as an awareness that possibly we were in danger of losing the "good old" things about the city – the author mentions particularly the rediscovery of the neighborhood as a social setting and the multitude of creatively revived downtown shopping centers. His only reservation seems to be the suggestion of a need to find a solution for the problem of gentrification of lower-class housing and the subsequent displacement of people already living there.

The limitations of a short article better serve the purpose of either a general, broad overview or of a concise unilateral view as presented in this article than that of a thorough presentation of multiple aspects of a situation. Although Von Eckardt's bias comes through forcefully, he also succeeds well in portraying the renewed cities as most attractive and as definitely the place to live.

Because of the relative terseness of Von Eckardt's exposition of the urban revival phenomenon, and because it is well documented by specific examples of decay, demolition, revival and rebuilding, the article is both informative and convincing. Written in easily readable non-technical language, it incorporates virtually all of the observations I've read in popular literature over the past two or three years.

Though never stated overtly, overlaying the focus on architecture as the apparent major factor in the city's crisis/rebirth is an implied awareness that life happens and can be lived only in community. The architectural accidentals that at first seem to be Von Eckardt's central concern thereby can be seen as enabling and facilitating community.

© Leah Chang

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Main Street for Preservation Project

In ages past I've posted versions of Main Street on two of my other blogs: this far by faith and suntreeriver. Although in the wake of yesterday's graduation from Design School I'll seriously be getting back to my theologian identity, I also want to write some new blogs for this site and revitalize some of my old blogs and other articles. Here's Main Street for suntreeriver verbatim:

Main Street experiences?! I love this topic and the Main Street/Church Street sign that was on the United Church of Christ homepage a while ago was wonderful! First, I'll confess I've never read Lewis'Main Street, so I'll run with some images and impressions. BTW, many years ago I spent an interesting citified summer on West Main Street.

That particular urban locale aside, for me the name "Main Street" kindles a generic picture and a general metaphor. My picture is from New England or somewhere in the American Midwest; it's a single central street lined with shops: hardware store, drugstore with soda fountain, flower shop, curio shop, bookstore, coffee/sandwich shop and maybe a down-home-cookin' restaurant. Ages ago a poem I wrote included the phrase, "The Colonial's a restaurant on Main Street" Hudson, Ohio. This Main Street sports one or two branch banks, the town offices and - at one end of the commercial strip - the absolutely requisite iconic white-steepled church building, most likely UCC or Congregational, possibly PC(USA) Presbyterian or ELCA Lutheran, but you'd better believe it's big "P" Protestant!

My Main Street picture has featureless people, but my Main Street metaphor is primarily a lifestyle that includes a describable type of person. Here's a start: this Main Street Person [MSP] wants to belong: to be homogenous yet stereotypically distinctive and noticeable; trendy and up-to-date about ideas, politics and general styles of everything like attire and apparel, vehicles, home furnishings, recreation pursuits and vacation venues without being on the cutting edge of much of anything; spiritual, but without real commitment to institutional religion or to the radical way of Jesus ... this MSP is anything but counter-cultural and not remotely willing to disengage from whatever society's mainstream conventions have become for the moment, the particular moment that's (very) close at hand. Do you remember Charles Schulz's Lucy as psychiatrist with her, "The Doctor is in ... The Doctor is Real in?" Well this MSP is real, real "in!"

Last summer we talked online about "evangelism in the vernacular," in a twist on Luther's insisting on "worship in the vernacular" as a mark of the true church. Peculiar people as we're supposed to be, we also need to be appear enough like everyone else that they can identify with us and therefore with the reasons we're in Christ (aside from God's calling and election of us, but that's a different subject for another day).

Recently I've been reading again Walter Brueggemann's Biblical Perspectives in Evangelism (I originally read it a couple years before the UCC E-Forum became so active, and I wanted to see how my perspective had been changing). In that book he talks a lot about living "gospeled" lives, which include keeping covenant, keeping the Sabbath and keeping the tithe. During Lent 2004 I participated in a live(!) discussion of Lauren Winner's book, mudhouse sabbath. And some time ago I read Marva Dawn's, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Eerdmans, September 1989). So I'll conclude by saying one of the distinctions and contrasts between the MSP and what my lifestyle as a Christian needs to be involved the way I keep Sabbath! And I'm planning to continue this topic some other time.

© Leah Chang

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Culture Bound

Part Cleveland, part Shaker Heights,
the Larchmere District has community, commerce,
and plenty of urban grit

Culture, identity, home, belonging, etc.

As those cultural anthropologists insist, each of us inhabits a range of cultures; more than a single culture encumbers each of us. We see, hear and feel; we remember, dream and hope through the senses our cultures have given to us and we've inadvertently received; and to some extent, our cultural identities constrain and limit us.

Wednesday evening, August 18, 2004, I watched The Reunion, on our local ABC affiliate, KGTV Channel 10. The subject struck me extremely: present-day interviews and retrospective reminiscences of the experience of some Shaker Heights, Ohio residents who'd been part of an intentional racial integration project beginning with their kindergarten class and continuing through high school in the Shaker Heights public schools. Those were the identical years I spent experiencing blockbusting, white flight and redlining in Boston; those same years some of the neighborhoods around me blazed with anger and rage at the same time Watts, Detroit, Atlanta and too, too many U.S. inner cities became furious conflagrations and locales of supercharged and globally publicized citizen/police interactions.

But that's almost a digression, since lately I've been thinking I need to go home, and although there's no way I can return (or would return) to Big Tree Place or any of those other physical dwellings, no way could I return to First Mariner's Church (especially since it disbanded a while ago), I can return to my *home* culture, the culture that's my Muttersprach, my cultura franca - to invent an idiom - and I need occasionally to do so! Besides, in the same way you never step into the same river more than once, because both of you and the river have changed, the home you return to cannot be the home you left, so even if I had a physical option to go back there, I still wouldn't be able to relive something that's no longer there, a location that even in terms of my heart's identity I've rationalized, streamlined and simplified.