This semester we read To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City by Mark Gornik in my missions class. Gornik was one of the founding members of New Song Community Church in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood on Baltimore’s West Side. Over the past two decades or so, New Song has been heavily involved in the revitalization of Sandtown through their urban ministries and Habitat for Humanity. Gornik’s book makes a theological argument for Christian engagement with the inner city, not as a “mercy mission,” but as faith in action that seeks to revitalize urban spaces and communities.
My reservations with the book are not so much what Mark Gornik writes, but what he didn’t write about. Gornik describes three historical periods of development for inner city neighborhoods — the Segregated Inner City, the Post-Industrial Inner City and the Global Inner City. However, I think we may have entered a fourth stage, the Gentrified Inner City.
To Live in Peace was published in 2002, just as the so-called “Baltimore Renaissance” came into full swing. Until the crash of the housing market, some of Baltimore’s inner city communities were in the midst of rapid gentrification and redevelopment — Inner Harbor, Pig Town, Fells Point, Patterson Park, Dundalk and Canton all experienced a demographic shift as the yuppies moved in and property values rose. I live in a tiny row house in Fells Point, a traditionally blue-collar neighborhood now transformed into a tourist attraction with boutiques and condos. My landlord purchased the property for about $50,000 in the mid-80’s. Last time I looked at the tax records, the property was valued over $300,000. The vast amount of development in Baltimore City over the past decade has not been in the realm of affordable and middle-class housing, but luxury condos, hotels, a new conference center and expensive office space. The urban wasteland around Johns Hopkins University Hospital is being cleared away to make room for hospital expansion and a new biology research park.
The problem with all this growth is that the poor are being driven out of the city and (ironically) into the suburbs. I am concerned that we are facing a future of revitalized urban centers surrounded by poor suburban communities. In some ways, this is worse than the current situation — the car-centric nature of the suburbs may add additional burdens to the poor. However, Gornik doesn’t address this problem, in To Live in Peace, the revitalized neighborhood does not lead to additional displacement.
So my question is — are churches involved in urban ministry and revitalization ultimately a solution or part of the problem? Are we victims of our own success? A neighborhood that improves due to revitalization becomes more attractive to private developers. These developers begin to build not affordable housing, but luxury housing that drives up property values. First the neighborhood becomes unaffordable for lower-class renters and then the higher taxes drive out the property owners.
As far as I can tell, Sandtown has not experienced this yet. As part of the “Outer Harbor,” it’s too far from the water to attract the yuppies, but I wonder that if the housing market had not collapsed, whether it would be a matter of time before rising property values displaced the community.
Am I correct or wrong about this? What can we do to bring stability to a revitalized neighborhood?
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