In the Footsteps of Tocqueville or I Need a European to Get Me to Think

Americans often fall into two camps (I like dichotomies, they make the world much easier to understand) when it comes to wondering what Europeans think of our nation and culture: we faun over their every word or we have a difficult time locating Spain on a map which betrays some very profound things about our nation and culture… (Isn’t it amazing how three dots are now allowed in print simply because of their use in email!)? With this in mind The Atlantic (May 2005) has retained the services of Bernard-Henry Levy – someone who is very smart but made smarter given that he speaks a few languages and is an European with a hyphenated name, a hyphenated first name nonetheless.

It seems the editors at the Atlantic gave this Frenchman a rental car and an expense account and told him to have at it. Which he has in both the May and June issues with more on the way. Some of it is pretty depressing stuff but some of it is quite interesting. To be honest, I was a bit under whelmed by it though are some good tidbits here and there; one of these which I’d like us to interact with.

Let me begin with a little autobiography; as some of you know only to well I’m the pastor of an urban church in a Seattle neighborhood known as Capitol Hill. Having been here about seven years I constantly wonder and ponder the realities and peculiarities of being an urban church. We’re different than rural and suburban congregations, not to mention exurban (is that the correct demographic category for those exploding suburbs in the middle of nowhere?) but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not simply about churches but a manifestation of a larger cultural phenomenon. Anyway, enough about me let’s get to Levy’s quote:

An observer who knew nothing of the history of the city and the riots that forty years ago accelerated the exodus of the white population to the suburbs might think now that he was in a bombed metropolis. But no; it’s just Detroit. It’s just an American city whose inhabitants have left, forgetting to close the door behind them. It’s just this experience, unique in the world, of a city that people have left as one leaves a spurned partner, and that little by little has returned to chaos.

The mystery of these modern ruins. Enigma of an America about which I discover that certain old feeling (essential to Europe’s civility, consubstantial with Europe’s urbanity) is perhaps foreign to it: a love of cities.

Now I don’t want to talk exclusively of Detroit; a cesspool I wouldn’t want to foist on my worst enemy. A little tip: if you ever have occasion to “visit” that city don’t make the mistake my friend and I did, breaking down in a European-made car having just left Ottawa, Canada the night before. Detroit is stark; the contrast between the two cities goes way beyond stark. And they don’t like Volkswagens.

So a question: are cities in the US merely utilitarian? That’s to say if they aren’t necessary for commerce they are completely despised instead of partially despised. Per Levy, we really don’t love cities. They are necessary evils which we tolerate.

Growing up outside Boston, a pretty nice city by East Coast standards, it was the place where my dad worked and where we went to do things only found in the city (Fenway park may be the height of American urbanity) BUT never did I view it as a place where one would live. The people who lived in Boston were people who couldn’t escape Boston. I viewed it as a collective prison for poor people somehow forgetting that my parents lived in Boston for the first few years of their marriage and had generally very good things to say about their experience.

So where did my very unoriginal sentiments come from? In addition to lacking a love for cities do many Americans resent them? I certainly don’t hate them but then I’ve been living in them for most of my adult life yet there are definitely many moments of tolerance as opposed to embrace.

By all means folks write what you want but I’m not so much interested in a theology of the city as with most Americans, or at least our, gut reaction to them and the place they play in our culture.

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  1. Matt – its been a crazy week, but wanted to get back to you with some thoughts:

    1. As for your thought on American Cities as utilitarian holding pens – I suppose, albeit cynically, that pretty much hits the nail on the head. I believe that marx’s critique – the stripping of the self and the replacing of identity with functionality (proletariets are left to work, not live – produce goods, not produce families) is pretty spot on. The essentialness of city as functional locale of commerce denotes a level of identity theft – we are what we consume not who and what we ‘are’ – isnt new… but it is accelerated so as to blur the distincition of our core identity (children of God) and our functional identity (market share points)- and that isnt going to change any time soon.

    2. Loving vs. hating the reality of ‘cities’ qua cities (wink, wink Jimmy) – I am one who loves cities… I grew up in Seattle, went to an urban High School in inner-city Seattle, worked most of my adult life in urban centers… and love it. However, my sense of ‘dwell’ is divided between city mouse and country mouse tendancies to be sure – I love where we now live and one of the reasons is the ethnic diversity I *didnt* have while living ‘in the city’. As the city has become more gentrified and ‘dinks’ (double income no kids) and ‘SISsys’ (‘single income slackers (on the) system’)take up space that lower socio-economic ethnic groups would occupy… I am finding diversity in the semi-rural burbs more than the Belltown/Central District/New Holly chic dwellings.

    Bascially, I dont think the french have much to offer regarding urban issues in America – paris is one of the most sectarian cities I have ever spent time in and certainly one of the most self-isolating cultures on the planet (any country that funds a “Ministry of Language” to guard what ‘words’ can be used and appropriated into discourse is certainly anything but egalitarian and open minded…)

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