They're Showing up in MY Community!

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Mile High Ministries in inner-city Denver was the victim of its own success. The poor were rapidly disappearing from the neighborhood and it no longer made any practical sense to keep bussing them back to the ministry center from the suburbs. When Jeff Johnsen started the program two and a half decades earlier, its location in the heart of Denver’s roughest neighborhood was strategically “on the mark.” He acquired dilapidated houses and commercial buildings for a song, rehabbed them using volunteers and donations, and created an array of excellent, life-reclaiming services. But much had changed in twenty-five years. Starbucks had arrived. Boarded-up storefronts now housed avant-garde eateries. Flop-house hotels had become lofts. The destitute, the addicted, the people of the street – they had simply disappeared. Denver’s mayor, of course, was delighted. Mile High Ministries had done a remarkable job of cleaning up the area. Its school for street kids had intervened where the public school system could not. Its drug treatment home had turned addicts into job-holding citizens. Its neighborhood crime watch helped make the streets safe again. Mile High was precisely the kind of front-line ministry needed to reclaim a devastated community. And it had been highly effective in its brief history. Perhaps too effective, its staff and board pondered.

The mayor of nearby Aurora was not so elated. Jeff had assumed that he would be pleased to have the support of Mile High Ministries. After all, Aurora was the suburban edge-city where many of the poor from Denver were migrating to. And besides, the mayor was an active Christian. “The poor are not coming here,” the mayor declared to Jeff as they drove together toward Aurora’s poorer side of town. Jeff knew differently, of course. His staff had been spending excessive amounts of time and gas money shuttling folks back and forth from Aurora to their Denver center. Attempting to tactfully correct the mayor’s faulty perception, Jeff proceeded to point out some of the apartment complexes and cheap motels the urban migrants were moving into. “You misunderstood me,” the mayor interrupted. “The poor are not coming here!”

It was his duty as mayor, he looked Jeff straight in the eye, to keep his city safe and prosperous. “As a Christian, I love what you are doing. But as a public official there’s just no way I can support your bringing this kind of thing to my city.” The influx of rabble with their vice, their pathologies, their propensity toward lawlessness was not welcome in his town. He would do everything within his power to keep these influences out. And no, he wanted no services, Christian or otherwise, that would make the troublesome feel more welcome in Aurora.

The incident is not unique to Denver and Aurora. The same scenario is being played out all over the country. After a half-century of disinvestment and decline, our cities are springing back to life. The idyllic promises of picket-fenced suburbia have lost their attraction for a younger generation. In-town living is in. Cheap urban land and decaying buildings are attracting developers like moths to a porch light. And with condos, lofts and gated communities selling like hotcakes to a moneyed gentry, eateries, boutiques and branch banks are rushing in for their market share. From abandoned warehouse districts to aging in-town neighborhoods the trend has spread and, like a swelling tide of new prosperity, it carries with it rich economic nutrients. It’s called gentrification – the return of the property owners.

It takes little imagination to understand why big-city mayors are thrilled by gentrification. For decades they have struggled against overwhelming odds to keep their cities alive, even as their tax bases relentlessly eroded out from under them. Smoggy, congested urban life could not compete with the lure of half acre wooded lots in pleasant suburban communities. And money followed the market out of the city – en masse. The resulting decline in urban property values became an immediate attraction for the less-advantaged who were drawn in by cheap housing, public transportation and accessible human services. Meanwhile the prosperous edge-cities were enjoying the security and abundance that a vibrant economy affords, largely immune to all the woes that were plaguing the city. By the latter years of the twentieth century the situation had grown so dire that many cities despaired that recovery would ever come. The urban plank had disappeared from the political platforms of state and national politicians, social programs were bankrupt, and a post-industrial economy seemed to be doing just fine without city centers.

And then, almost magically, the giants began to stir. The cities were alive after-all! There are doubtless a dozen valid explanations for the awakening. But the short answer is: the market woke up to an opportunity. Devalued real estate coupled with the appetites of a younger generation for the stimulants of urban life became an irresistible combination. Gays, artists and gutsy urban pioneers were first to venture back, followed by waves of educated singles, professional couples and empty-nesters. By the dawn of the new millennium it was a full-fledged movement. And for the first time in decades, mayors were confronted with issues of density rather than disinvestment – a challenge they were delighted to accept. The tax-base was returning!

What is good news for the Denver’s of the nation, however, means bad news for the Aurora’s. Or so it would seem at first glance. Poverty is suburbanizing. As urban real estate values escalate, rising rents and condo conversions push low-income residents out to the periphery of the city, out to 30 year old class-B apartment complexes now owned by real estate investments trusts (REIT’s). Because many of these properties have impersonal owners (you and I may own minute pieces of them in our retirement portfolios), they are valued for their bottom line rather than the quality of life they provide. As persistently as water finds its way to lower ground, little rivulets of the displaced trickle quietly into still-charming suburban communities, taking advantage of the reduced rates. These uninvited neighbors show up in the classrooms of affluent school children. They appear at the rapid-rail stations where once only commuters in business attire and their in-coming maids passed. The very presence of these unwelcome intruders triggers fears that the problems of the big city are invading the serenity of the suburbs.

Suburban paranoia is understandable. But the arrival of these new neighbors need not signal trouble. Change, yes, but not necessarily trouble. Rightly planned for, these new-comers could mean the arrival of a much needed labor-force. A host of important, difficult-to-fill jobs (food service, construction labor, landscaping type jobs), unattractive to the children of the affluent, beckon eager workers. And for the people of faith who have spent millions on mission trips, there is now an opportunity to serve the culturally different right in their own back yards. The stranger, the uprooted, the very ones in need of kindness and care, have appeared at the doorstep of comfortable Christians, hoping against hope to find acceptance.

This Diaspora of the dispossessed, now a recognized demographic shift of inner-city residents to the edge-cities, signals the need for new paradigms in ministry. Inner-city ministries are at a crossroad – either switch to active community development work that creates opportunities for the poor to remain and share in the benefits of reviving communities, or become passive migrant ministries with vans and mobile satellite centers that follow the steams of displaced poor out of the city. The suburban church, which has led the way in constructing volunteer-built homes in the inner-city, now faces the need for affordable housing in its own communities. And it will take more than youth groups and paint-bucket brigades to get the job done. The kind of mixed-income housing strategies that will adequately accommodate the need requires the talents of the church’s real estate developers, and its bankers and property managers. The church, above all institutions, can lead the way in creating healthy, affordable, well-managed apartment communities where its members extend hospitality and enter into neighborly relationships.

Significant changes are upon us. Exciting changes for the new urban gentry. Fearful changes for the displaced. And much ambivalence for those whose protected lifestyles are about to be changed. It is one of those defining moments in our history that presents us with the opportunity to get it right. I hope we are up to the challenge.

Bob Lupton

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