Marketing Utopia
The Little Tradition

My City Was Gone?

Bull"For good or ill buildings, from the humblest garden shed to the grandest cathedral, make moral statements" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment)

I suspect that most people never think of buildings in this way.  I know that until recently, I never did.  Backing up just a bit, I am now terribly conscious that everything I perceive as I drive through my city, walk down the street, and enter a building, like Scripture says of rocks, cry out to me.  I am first of all aware of the fact that thousands of decisions have been made without any input from me that effect what I see and experience as I move through my day, a sort of pre-moral awareness.  For example, I can point to areas of experience in my city where I once drove, shopped, or walked that are now imperceptible to me.  The buildings once there are gone, the earth itself moved, old stands of trees gone, new plantings made, roads realigned --- and now I find it difficult to find the place I once knew.  Yes, I often think of that great Chrissie Hynde song, "My City Was Gone:"

I went back to Ohio
But my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, where did you go Ohio

Well I went back to Ohio
But my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed
My childhood memories
Slowly swirled past
Like the wind through the trees
A, o, oh way to go Ohio

I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And Muzak filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Said, a, o, oh way to go Ohio

Beyond lamenting my lack of control, I also now sense that moral statements are being made, sometimes intentionally and sometimes quite unintentionally.  For example, when, as I just said, old buildings are razed, earth moved, old landmarks obliterated, and new buildings and "natural" areas implanted, what is communicated, whether intentional or not, is that new is better, that life is malleable, that history is of little value, and remembrance unimportant.  Well, something like that.  Not that preserving all old building is an absolute moral good. There are bad traditions of building, as well as good.  But perhaps a better way to speak of it is by seeking a reformation of the built environment, preserving the true (well-built), the good (the buildings and landscapes that at least are conducive to virtue), and beautiful (aesthetically pleasing), and rooting out the false (poorly constructed), evil (designs that encourage uncharitable and damaging behavior), and ugly.  In this planners and architects and builders anticipate God's rebuilding project, a new heavens and earth that is a reformation or re-creation of the one we have, not a complete tear-down and new construction.

I am not an architect, and though I studied urban design it was with anarchists, Marxists, and post-moderns where I learned little to help me shape a moral awareness of the cityscape.  I'm just beginning.  But there is grace to help, grace that infuses the ordinary with a sacred character, grace that helps us think God's thoughts after him.  I like what Gorringe says in his book after his demolishing of the dualism of the sacred/profane dichotomy:

"Because creation is grace, grace is concrete: it meets us in what Padraic Pearse called 'the bulks of ordinary things' --- and this of course includes buildings and settlements, the places in which we live and work.  The theology of everyday life, therefore, is a theology of gratuity, of love 'for nothing,' and of joy in the minutiae of things."

Maybe we can build and rebuild, renovate and redesign, out of gratitude, out of love for what is given.  To "till and keep" is, after all, in the Hebrew meaning of the words, about serving the creation.  That is humbling.  That dispels any utopian hubris and throws us back on God, the one Who is building His Kingdom --- one brick at a time.