City vs. Suburbs

Since moving into our little apartment at 1625 Minnehaha Avenue I’ve noticed the differences between city and suburban life.

In suburbia the car is the required mode of transportation. There is no other alternative. In most cities there are a few alternatives. Most cities have some form of bus transportation, and a few cities also have some sort of rail transportation. In the city the bike is also much more of an option. In the city five or six miles is an easy bike commute, and puts nearly every store you’d ever need within reach. In suburbia five or six miles will get you to the convenience store and maybe a fast food joint or two. If you’re lucky and the sidewalks work out you might make it to a K-Mart.

In suburbia the lawn is the crowning achievement. Developments are planned with large lots and plenty of yard. The result is curving streets and big lawns. In the city the streets are laid out in a simple grid and the houses are spaced as close as possible, resulting in minimal yard space. No one in the city would ever think of owning a riding lawn mower.

And finally we come to the more important differences. Cities tend to be lower income and more racially diverse. Suburbs tend to be higher income and white. That’s obviously a generalization, but my experience seems to back it up. There are certainly poor people in the suburbs, and there are certainly rich people in the city. There’s actually a lot of middle class people in both places. There are also plenty of different races living in the suburbs, and the city has its share of racially homogenous sectors.

So what’s the end result of all that? Stereotypes. Ask anyone from my hometown (a suburb of Detroit) what they think of downtown Detroit and the answers will invariably be negative and reflect a fearful attitude. More often than not those same people have rarely been to downtown Detroit, save for a Tigers game. Suburban life is not only filled with green lawns and curving streets, it’s also filled with fear and racism. The homogenous nature of the suburbs only worsens racial stereotypes. When you see more African Americans on TV than you do in real life, it’s pretty easy to let a few television stereotypes take over. You expect the Chevy Caprice with tinted windows to be a gang banger. You expect the two kids talking on the corner to pull guns on you when you ride by.

You don’t see them as people, you see them as a threat. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs. While riding my bike today I had all these thoughts going through my head as I wrote through the city neighborhoods of St. Paul. I felt horribly out of place, riding my new bike with my shiny new helmet and my wife with her new bike and shiny new helmet, and digital camera around her neck. I felt very upper-middle class, despite the fact that my income puts me on the lowest end of middle class (I’ve realized lately how spoiled I am). I also realized how very little solidarity I have with my neighbors.

This morning I went to a different church than I usually do, one smack in the middle of city, only a few blocks from my apartment. I immediately noticed that the church wasn’t reaching the surrounding demographics. This area has a high concentration of Asians and African Americans. I noticed only three African American kids in a sea of predominately old white people. I also noticed that most of the pews were empty. The church was maybe one-third full. I’m guessing this is because the demographics of the surrounding community have changed and the church has failed to capture the new demographic. What’s left is the old guard, pews full of silver haired men and women. The church will probably die with them.

All of this made me think intently about who the church is reaching. I’ve grown up all my life in suburban churches. The church I’ve called home for the past few years is a suburban church. Now that I’m living in the city I’m thinking of attending more of a city church, and I’m curious to see how these churches meet the needs of their community, needs that are much more tangible. Suburban churches tend to easily become country clubs. I guess I’m hoping to find something more in a city church. Not that there should be a whole lot of difference. Maybe the church is simply becoming ineffective at reaching the common person, which is a fact I don’t doubt at all.

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