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?
You couldn’t be more right. Wilkens avenue Assembly of God (Not far from Sandtown) was telling me how they bought an abandoned building and fixed it up to rent to low income peoples. But it was really difficult to charge little enough that lower income people could afford. In essence, even the crap parts of town are too expensive for the poor.
I knew it three years ago when I was buying a house. The combination of no-doc/sub-prime loans along with greedy Real Estate Investors and appraisers created a sort of false housing market. People were buying homes based on what they could afford per month not realizing these ARM loans would increase substantially on them in the coming years. The prices of homes went up because there was a false market on the price of homes. It was all a scam.
But I don’t think you need to worry. The price of homes will come down. Some estimate as much as 20%. That’s big. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them drop even further. They will come down and rental prices will drop with them. The poor won’t go far…………they can’t.
Thats something I’ve really wondered about myself. Our goals are to help the poor and improve the neighborhood, but if we do those, we make the neighborhood attractive to the wealthier. They buy houses from landlords and the poor get displaced. Its a vicious cycle, but I don’t think we should necessarily try to stop it.
New residents bring with them neighborhood stability, less crime, and new businesses. These are all good things that will improve the quality of life for all the residents that remain. Jobs in the neighborhood offer poor residents a chance to gain employment and break the poverty cycle.
Thats my opinion, but probably a lot of people might disagree with me. I just don’t think we should hold down people in poverty just because we are obligated to help the poor.
Somasoul, you hit on an article that drives me nuts. What makes me mad is how the home prices have been artificially driven up by investors over the past several years. In some neighborhoods, you would see a shell of a house being sold and resold and sold again as property values “increased.” Basically investors were playing a game of hot potato with homes. Each time they sold they made money, and each time they bought they drove all the surrounding prices higher and higher. Hopefully this market crash will return home values to something closer to their actual value, so normal folks can afford them again.
You’re right about home prices dropping though. I sold my house in Pigtown for $250K less than 2 years ago and now it is listed for $189K. I miss that place and I’m very tempted to buy it back. I bet they would crap a brick selling it back to us for $60,000 less than I sold it to them though.
“Our goals are to help the poor and improve the neighborhood, but if we do those, we make the neighborhood attractive to the wealthier. They buy houses from landlords and the poor get displaced. Its a vicious cycle, but I don’t think we should necessarily try to stop it.”
You’re right. But I wouldn’t get hung up on it. Obviously some of the poor will be in the position you describe. But so what? Those people will go move to some other crap part of town.
But others in the neighborhood, especially homeowners, will see benefits. Benefits in neighborhood services, stores, and other homeowners. The neighborhood will become more stable and homeowners in bad parts of town will see their property values rise.
Of course, the downside to this is hoping that the new rise in property values won’t hurt current homeowners in property tax.
It’s funny, because I didn’t really “worry” about this issue while we were living in Pigtown, but now, as we consider moving back to a city, I really do wonder about the place the urban gentrification has in all of this. I feel like there are just too many variables in the mix to clearly predict what WILL happen to the people who have been living in the city in poverty. While I’d like to believe that bringing “money” into the city will help revitalize and stabilize urban economies and provide better opportunities for people already living there, I recognize that this is a simplistic and overly hopeful idea- particularly given the self-centered nature of humanity.
I just don’t know- but I’m curious to learn.
I’ve heard in this comment thread, the notion expressed that stopping gentrification might be a bad thing. This is a disturbing idea to hear expressed amongst folks claiming to be concerned with all happening to the mostly black and brown poor living in urban areas. As the saying goes, ‘With friends like these…’
Gentrification is simply a reflection of the inherent inequalities of capitalism that create the economic climate of haves and have nots and in the case of the gentrification dynamic of pushed arounds and pushed around nots. If you have money you won’t be pushed around. If you don’t, you will be. In US society, who has money and resources in the city is largely a function of what color your skin is.
Anyone who thinks gentrification shouldn’t be halted probably doesn’t have a functional understanding of what gentrification actually is. If you believe in democracy, you will support halting gentrification by any means necessary as one of the main functions of gentrification is that it diultes the political power of people by obliterating their neighborhoods and sending us in disparate directions searching for a roof to cover our heads. This is why cities like mine, Atlanta, are becoming increasingly right wing, politically. The white children of the white flight generation have grown up and apparently learned well the lessons of white supremacy. They are now moving back to the cities their parents abandoned giving their offspring the opportunity for a white suburban experience uninterrupted by people of color. Lessons learned, the kids are returning to the cities and reclaiming the land, while also displacing black residents and diluting black political voting blocks and black political power. As if black political power wasn’t diluted enough by the War On Drugs and all of the ex-felons who can’t vote. Gentrification steps in to finish the job.
Stopping gentrification is an endeavor that aims to do nothing less than bring an end to capitalist economics. This may sound lofty but it can, has been and must be done. Anything less than bringing about a new economic order will just be more of the same.
A good thread. Jeremy (who started it) actually lived in a semi-urban neighborhood near me in Evanston for part of his growing up, and saw some of these phenomena.
The hybrid solution that Reba Place Fellowship sort of stumbled into, in the Seventies and Eighties, was to BE the developer/owner, as a ministry. Thus ethical people, as owners, can *ensure* that a certain amount of housing is kept affordable. Of course, this takes capital, for a church or its members to buy and develop large properties with little intention of making a “profit” in the long run. But it’s a decent approach to the challenge, if we can pull it off in a few hotspots nationwide.
Some of the drops in crime and increases in social stability (that Jason J discussed in the context of gentrification above) has happened here also. But in many ways it was not so much the new (i.e. educated, rich and white) population that brought the neighborhood back from the precipice it was once on, but the mere presence of church members living with and relating to their poorer neighbors. Plus, while Reba is still mostly white, it’s not composed of “rich folk” in the way some suburban megachurches can be rich. Some of them (us?) are middle class, but live beneath their means,…remaining poor “on purpose”, to stay where they’ve been called and be a witness in their community.
I myself live on the other side of town now, so I can’t take credit for any of this. But as models go, perhaps some mixture of Gornik’s New Song approach and Reba’s “urban plateau” model is the best way to think about radical churches and urban living.
I hope this doesn’t sound like boasting. I just think practical, careful engagement by churches in the economy that surrounds us is an important step. And Reba’s model seems mostly to have worked.
Ingemar, what solution do you offer to stopping gentrification? Do you set up quota systems where the government keeps check on people’s incomes and only allows X% of rich, x% of middle class, and x% of poor? Do you exclude people of certain incomes or races from buying homes in certain areas? And lastly who gets to make those decisions on whats best for the people? It could not work. It would be tyranny to try and enforce any of that nonsense.
The context of the discussion needs to be what can we do in the face of gentrification? Should we treat them like invaders ruining our poor party or should we show them the love of Christ that they also need.
Also, I take offense to your simplification of things in the terms of rich whites and poor blacks. Money has little loyalty to any race and the poor whites in the trailer parks near where I grew up as well as inner city Baltimore, with were pushed around just as anyone of any other color. To cast things solely in terms of race makes demons of some and angels of others. Neither of which is the case.
Jason J said: “Ingemar, what solution do you offer to stopping gentrification? Do you set up quota systems where the government keeps check on people’s incomes and only allows X%…………yada, yada, yada……..”
I like you. Be my friend.
I appreciate the comments from everyone. I’d like to hear more from people who are dealing with some of these challenges.
Mark, I was thinking about Reba when I posed by questions about Gornik and I do think you’re right. At the same time, even Reba is not the perfect model. What struck me when I visited last August was the silence in the street. When I lived there, children were usually playing outside at all times of the day. Something has been lost. Also, someone I spoke with admitted that Reba’s ability to provide affordable housing was limited by rising costs — only a percentage of Reba owned housing was considered “affordable.” So I do think that Reba efforts are a successful model, but there are also much greater societal and economic forces at work here.
Anyway, I thought I’d list some of my further thoughts on the subject in (partial) response to the conversation —
We can’t stop gentrification. This trend is a reality of urban life. Gentrification is an expression of the underlying power dynamics and inequalities of our society. The poor and powerless are always going to get screwed. The question is, how does the Church respond to this?
Even if we had a revolution tomorrow and overthrew the Capitalist system, there would still be winners and losers. In other words, a different economic system won’t necessarily solve the problems we are discussing, it would just cut the pie a different way.
The “free market” is not the solution for everything. The market is amoral and doesn’t care about justice — it won’t stop America from yanking out the credit cards and shopping like there’s no tomorrow. See: Current Economic Crisis. What is the best way for the Church to pursue justice within this system?
Displacement of people from their homes is bad. I don’t think a revitalization effort that results in driving out most of the neighborhood as successful, regardless if a lucky few have better lives. We need to pursue sustainable development and not just create market opportunities for developers.
Mixed neighborhoods with a broad economic range are more stable than neighborhoods with just “rich” or “poor” people (I know there have been studies, but I’d have to look them up). Economically diverse neighborhoods are less likely to have the extreme ups and downs.
What’s interesting about historical neighborhoods (like Fells Point) is the evidence that these communities were pretty diverse. We live on a narrow “alley street” where the working class, indentured servants and slaves would have lived. Literally round the corner are the larger homes of merchants and shop owners. This changed once the middle class and wealthy had the mobility to leave urban centers (to streetcar suburbs in 19th Century and automobile suburbs post WWII). Perhaps the “smart growth” movement is an opportunity to return to this type of diversity. For me the question is, what role does the Church have to play with this?
Home ownership is more empowering than renting, provided that property taxes and mortgages are affordable. My concern about the Church being the “owner” of rental property is that it does put the Church into a power position over its poor renters. However, there is a place for renting and a combination of both.
What do you think of Baltimore’s age situation in certain neighborhoods? In areas like Canton, Federal Hill, and Fells Point there is a lack of middle age couples with families moving in. Those areas have had growth and renewal but mostly due to young singles and young families. Most of those people move out when their kids need to attend school. That certainly does not make for stable neighborhoods, does it?
Jeremy Y, those are all great questions and we need to work them all out together.
My thought on the church’s response to gentrification is that we should reach out to those new residents. Those poor yuppies need the Lord just as much as everyone else. If you make disciples of them, they’re likely to cast off the philosophies of this world and embrace the teachings of Jesus. Then they become partners with you in helping to eradicate poverty in the city. Imagine what a difference you would have in the city if revival broke out in Federal Hill. It would change the face of the city. I’ve always thought that the people in those “nice” neighborhoods live tough lives because no one is reaching out to them. They don’t get a the opportunity to experience the wealth of Christ like we get, and thats pretty sad.
I like your point about the market being “amoral.” I always say that when people start talking about evil corporations. They’re not evil, they’re machines built to make money, that is their purpose and they do it without mind for good or bad. I don’t see any market solution to the problems of displacement or gentrification. The only thing that ever seems to work for stuff like that is tax incentives. Maybe the city should do tax rate freezes in gentrifying neighborhoods. That way people arn’t taxed out of their homes. Those are political solutions though.
Tough questions indeed.
I agree with you and I don’t see the trend stopping, especially as Baltimore continues the transition from a blue collar town to an academic, medical, bioengineering town. This kind of mobility among young professionals is part of the global economy and isn’t going anywhere (pun not intended)
One of the remarkable things about Reba Place is that this community made a commitment to South Evanston during the White Flight of the 1950’s. One of the things I find encouraging about the New Monastic movement is that these communities are also making commitments to their neighborhoods.
Your question about evangelizing the wealthy brings to my mind a number of late night discussions with conservative relatives over whether social action or saving souls was the best way to help the marginalized. For me, the answer is both. There are biblical imperatives for both impulses.
However, I’m not as optimistic as you that the conversion of Federal Hill would mean greater concern in the poor. One of the things that has driven me bonkers over the years is that Christianity for the wealthy and middle class has often meant suburban mega churches and prosperity gospel.
Furthermore, as Jim Wallis points out, there are over 2,000 verses in the Old and New Testament that deal with God’s concern for the poor. Clearly the rich are to be included in the Kingdom, but first and foremost, we are to care for the marginal — the losers in society. We cannot simply convert Federal Hill and expect them to care about about Sandtown. We need to first work in Sandtown and then invite Federal Hill.
But you do have a point…my own congregation is located in the middle of a wealthy neighborhood. We are a commuter church because most of us can’t afford to live there. The relationship with Roland Park is strained — pretty much the only thing they want us to do is mow our grass more often. Clearly this is not what Jesus intended either.
In response to the amoral market — I think the market is amoral in the sense that we cannot expect it to care about justice. We can’t expect the market to solve all of our social ills, because the market doesn’t care.
That being said, I’m not sure that businesses are amoral. After all, there are people running these things. Isn’t the decision to pollute or use sweatshop labor a moral decision as well as a business one? Is an ethos that values profit at the cost of everything else incompatible with biblical ethics?
“That being said, I’m not sure that businesses are amoral. After all, there are people running these things. Isn’t the decision to pollute or use sweatshop labor a moral decision as well as a business one? Is an ethos that values profit at the cost of everything else incompatible with biblical ethics?”
Business’ are not good nor evil. Some are run well with an eye toward helping and others not. Walmart is a grand example.
On the one hand: Sweatshop labor, great profits.
On the other: Cheap meds, and new inexpensive clinics.
Who is solving the healthcare crisis in this country? Certainly not politicians, healthcare providers, insurance companies, or hospitals (or anyone else who is “supposed to”. But Walmart seems to be the driving force in free-market inexpensive healthcare.
Not bad for a company that is perpetually seen as evil.
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I agree with you that’s it a problem to use labels — these things are usually much more complex that labels like “good” and “evil” do not encompass.
However, I maintain that all decisions have a moral component to them — these companies are not working in some kind of vacuum. If we live in a fallen world, does it not also follow that our businesses are fallen as well?
Perhaps I used the wrong word to describe the Market as “amoral.” It’s clearly a loaded term.
I’m not really looking to get into a discussion about the morality of capitalism. What I’m really interested is exploring the Church’s response to the social and economic pressures in our urban communities.
Are any of you familiar with the approach of Bob Lupton in Atlanta (http://www.fcsministries.org)? I believe they harness the money of gentrification by having people relocate into the city but also use some of their resources to help existing lower income renters purchase their homes.
Another helpful approach is starting housing trusts (like City of Lakes Community Land Trust in Minneapolis. The program lets first time homeowners buy the home at a lower value provided they sign a contract to limit the resale price and selling the home back through the land trust.
Since one of the biggest problems (in my mind) associated with gentrification is the dispersing ethnic groups so that they lose collective political voice, another approach is to help organize folks in the neighborhood to engage in local politics. I tend to be an anarchist, but I think there is certainly a role we can play in city politics regarding zoning, property taxes, and such.
“However, I maintain that all decisions have a moral component to them – these companies are not working in some kind of vacuum. If we live in a fallen world, does it not also follow that our businesses are fallen as well?”
Both fallen, yes, but also created by the Creator. I think business’ often operate outside of traditional moral structures. They make sweatshops but maybe justify it because those people had nothing before the factory…….now they have a little………which is a lot more than nothing. This is a business decision, not a moral one.
“What I’m really interested is exploring the Church’s response to the social and economic pressures in our urban communities.”
What people want are jobs. The solution is in jobs. The Baltimore City council often says they want “quality” employers. Butmost employers of “quality” do not employ those that live in the city anymore. Major manufacturing jobs are long gone. Gone are the days of GMs pension plans. Gone are Bethlehem Steel’s Unions. The poor can no longer twist a wrench in exchange for “quality” jobs. The Council’s tax policies decentivize (I think I just made up a word!) new business’ into the city. The poor, perhaps, would be better off starting their companies to serve their own communities. But with what capital?
sorry it took me a few days to get back.. I agree with you that I’m not very optomistic about reaching out to the rich of the city, however, I think its a matter of teaching them the right message. Demographically, I fit right in with that crowd, yet I’ve heard Jesus’s message of compassion and mercy for the less fortunate and its changed me forever. I think if you have churches teaching that message, then you have a shot of transforming people from worldly possession obsessed yuppies into true disciples of Chrsit. Of course, if you have a message like that, then sadly, you probably won’t develop into too large a congregation.
On the other point, I don’t think “amoral” is too strong a word to use. I feel that cooporations, which exist as legal entities, are amoral. They are set up to make money and not much more. Small businesses, which I work for, are run by people, and you have a chance of touching a person’s heart. You could never touch the heart of a cooporation because they don’t have one.
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