Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Reason for Cities (2001)

[The quotations in the body of this sermon/address are taken from: "Soul Searching: Does your hometown have a soul? If you can define the character of your town, maybe you can keep it intact." By Pythia Peay, Washingtonian as reprinted in Utne Reader, January-February 2001. Citations from the article appear in red.]

I have a friend, a member of my Hinsdale congregation -- Hinsdale is fifteen miles due west of the Chicago Loop in the exurban sprawl known as Chicagoland. My friend is passionately involved with the Illinois and Michigan Canal Historical Corridor. The I & M Historical Corridor is innovative public space, connecting a score of municipalities along its 97 miles from Summit at the edge of Chicago to LaSalle and the Illinois River. It follows the remnants of the 1840 canal that joined the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and led to Chicago's explosive expansion as the great city of the Midwest.

Last spring my friend invited me to tag along with a few local civic officials to explore an area along the I & M Canal Historical Corridor known as The Chicago Portage-one of only two national historic sites in Illinois. It's pocketed in one of those remnant pieces of Nature known in Chicagoland as a forest preserve. It's backed by a chemical plant that's perched on higher ground that leaks noxious chemicals. Numerous times I'd driven past the site's entrance on Harlem Avenue near I 55 where the Des Plaines River curves to merge into the Ship and Sanitary Canal and didn't give it much thought. I'd never even ventured into the parking lot. But at least I was visually aware of the massive, sharply angled, modern, steel sculpture of Marquette and Joliet rusting in an empty concrete moat in a forlorn and often litter strewn parking lot: an odd monument in an unimpressive location best suited to clandestine assignations and underage drinking.

My friend persuaded me to tag along by his enthusiasm for what he touted as a really significant place. "Not many person know about this place, but those who do want to lift it up from neglect. This place has so much meaning and potential," he'd proselytized. "You've got to see it!"

It was a hot and muggy mid morning. After the small group had assembled and introductions were made, we walked across a shaggy meadow into the surrounding woods. Mosquitoes rose from the damp grass to nip any bare skin. Mud from the deer trail we traced into the woods, adhered to the souls of our shoes. The woods were scruffy. At first I wasn't seeing/feeling/experiencing what made this place special- NOT AT ALL!

As we walked, though, the guide made his case, patiently explaining how this was the area where the natives passing between Des Plaines River running down from what is now Wisconsin and a VAST swampy area once known as Mud Lake that gave access to Lake Michigan, portaged their canoes. "You're perched near the Continental Divide," the guide told us as we approached a curving hummock that dropped into what appeared to be the dry course of a small river. The guide plucked a small green spike with a nondescript white flower at its tip. "Smell it, " he commanded. He passed it around: "Crush its stem. It's nodding onion. This plant gave Chicago its name. The Native Americans called it Chicagou, meaning something like what we mean by the words stinking or odiferous. It was a food that the Natives could always rely on, even in the worst times. It only grows in well-drained soil. It wouldn't have grown along the once muddy shores of Lake Michigan. The natives valued this plant that grows only here and in a few other places around here. This, my friends, is likely the place where Chicago was born and got its name."

The idea that cities possess a soul was common among the ancients. The Romans spoke of "genius loci," meaning the special spirit of a place. Indeed, until the 18th-century Enlightenment, when the sacred was severed from the secular in Western culture, cities were often built on foundations of myth and religion, and were thought to be watched over by gods and goddesses, nature spirits, saints, and angels. Belief in a city' s mysteriously personal character lives on in the colorful images that arise when we think of certain places: Los Angeles is the city of angels and dreams of stardom. New Orleans is jazz and black magic. Boulder is breathtaking mountain views and spiritual exploration. Boston, founded by austere Puritans, is symbolized by the lowly bean. Even when they're repeated ad nauseam in travel brochures, these images connect us with the underground wells of myth that water a city's soul.

As the guide talked and I perspired, swatted mosquitoes, and inhaled from my fingers the persistent pungency of the nodding onion, I had an unexpected realization- a flashing moment of complex understanding, a genuine religious experience: A Southwest Airlines jet that had taken off from Midway Airport was climbing in the sky overhead. Automobiles and trucks whined along nearby I 55. A freight train lumbered on the tracks that arched over the Des Plaines River- a river that drained a great area reaching northward. The Sanitary and Ship Canal, not far away, the rechanneled Des Plaines River, connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. And the old route of the mythic American highway connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66, ran along a street only a few hundred yards distant.

Nature conspired and humankind for millennia had responded, and we were still responding today. Here was the reason for Chicago. I was standing smack-dab on it--the pivot of one of the great cities of the world--the Heartland metropolis of North America. Had I been alone, or less self-conscious, I might have stretched out my arms and turned circles in the throes of ecstasy, -the miraculous majesty of a continent' s resources and beneficence converging on the place where I stood, --an ecstasy of wonder and gratitude, of joyful harmony.

In that unexpected moment of sure religious experience, I imagined I was filled with the spirit that Ron Engel had identified in his fine book, Sacred Sands, about the Indiana Dunes that curve around Lake Michigan to the east of Chicago. In Sacred Sands Ron tells how that area came to embody/express the spirituality of Chicago. I flashed how Ron had described that area where the great eco-systems of the North American continent-north and south, east and west- meet and create successions of miniature ecosystems contained in a relatively small area. To convey the spiritual significance, Ron used terms associated with the influential University of Chicago professor of comparative religions, Mircea Eliade: axis mundi,-the pivot on which he world turns, a sacred center,-God's navel.

In that moment of religious experience, I also flashed the title of an influential book, Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon that has helped to recast contemporary environmental history. Mr. Cronon' s analysis alerted me to the role that the great riches of the American hinterland-the diverse bounties of Nature-played in Chicago's evolution into an ever greater and grander city and how Nature was in turn affected. Thanks to Mr. Cronon's analysis, whenever I drive into the city I look up to the Art Deco rendition of the ancient goddess of grain, Ceres, who, claims her dominion over the city from a fitting throne at the top of the Board of Trade building at the head of La Salle Street in the heart of the city's financial district. I pay her silent homage-not the famous gleaming aluminum image, but the forces of Nature she mythologizes.

But does anyone today really care about the souls of our cities? Like giant urban gods fallen from their pedestals, they lie dying of neglect, buried beneath asphalt and artless architecture, crushed by the weight of overwhelming social problems, their inhabitants often blind to the fact that their own souls are shaped, for better or worse, within the city's larger reality. We ignore the magic of a place-hidden beyond the real estate deals, the political squabbles, and numbing commutes-at our own peril.

I embarked on my own quest to uncover the soul of Washington, D.C., as a way to quell my distress after moving here. It dawned on me recently that if I can succeed in a city renowned for its hollow-hearted power-mongering and inside-the-beltway narcissism, then anyone anywhere could do the same.

Chicago didn't happen by chance. Its reason for being is rooted in a tangible primal reality- in Nature. Its subsequent greatness is secondary to, or conditioned by, Nature's greatness. What's true for Chicago, I say is true for every city. Cities result from the seamless reality where Nature and human nature conspire to serve human ends and each affects the other.

Every city has a primary reason for being that's a matter of Nature-a convergence of geographic fact. I say with a conviction that comes from first hand experience of living in a half dozen urban areas, I say with the passion of a dedicated seeker: SPIRIT resides in the places where cities inevitably take shape. Every city has its genius loci . This is to say, cities, even before they are inhabited but certainly after, and surely forever are sacred places. Our human work in building them, and transforming them, and sustaining them, and reforming them doubles the holiness- heaping human meaning and purpose on top of Nature's inherent meaning and purpose.

As you do the work of this conference, never forget that you are engaged in a religious endeavor. In my estimation, you are giving yourself to a natural sacredness-however you construe The Source of the sacredness--even as you acknowledge and seek to make human life more sacred, through your various Justice activities. You are doing holy work- honoring and expanding holiness across the land in already sacred places, in particular lives, and in our common world. The double sacredness of which I speak-Nature's meaning/reality and human meaning/reality- is your strength and your inspiration; it is also a vision toward which you strive.

Ironically, commitment to saving the souls of our cities might lead to greater protection of wilderness. As James Hillman has frequently pointed out, Americans tend to see their cities as the place where the innocent become corrupted and where soul is lost, rather than found. He has argued passionately on behalf of reversing this trend, thus protecting nature from too much human contact and reanimating our cities from within. For to seek soul only in nature, or within ourselves, is to miss the wondrous natural creation that is a city- a convergence of community, commerce, street life, history, nature, geography, politics, art, and people that offers a perpetually renewing source of life.

We all know what happened to many American cities in the last half century, particularly in the ' 80s and '90s in the rust belt regions. Factories closed down forever or moved south. Business headquarters retreated to the suburbs, where millions of middleclass families had already emigrated. New schools, malls, and recreational areas rose in the suburbs, too. Left behind were mostly the underclasses and the unempowered. The urban infrastructure deteriorated and contributed to a concentration of despair.

I experienced all of this, and more, in my first church, the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio, where I began in 1977. My contract started on the city's most infamous day, immediately given the moniker of "Black Monday," when the heart and soul steel mill, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, of what was once the world's third largest steel producing district, closed. Within a few years all major mills had folded. Six years later, when I left Youngstown for my current church, Youngstown had the highest unemployment in the nation, nearly 25%; and workers who had the wherewithal headed elsewhere. In those first six years of my ministry I worked to keep an urban UU church alive that had nearly destroyed itself a decade earlier; and I worked to maintain a city that had its traditional economy destroyed, whose population was shrinking. In many ways, in the sweep of my 25 years of ministry, these were "the best of times," when circumstances made unmistakable what needed to be done and even small accomplishments had measurable significance.

Youngstown most definitely had a soul forged in great mills by a host of East European immigrants and later African Americans from the South. Maybe more than most other cities, Youngstown had deeply institutionalized but hidden-beneath-the surface peculiarities-organized crime being the most insidious and corrosive- that forged its soul. Its soul seeped into my soul; for a least a year after leaving it remained my instinctive reference.

The soul of a city is as unique as the spirit that "creates" a city in the first place. A city's soul is a complex evolution that relates to all that human doing has wrought. Chicago has a soul. I've spent 18 years prowling its many neighborhoods experiencing its complexity. There's ample meanness and even evil, side-by side with all the positive accomplishments and culture to be found here.

By all appearances, American cities seem to be reforming. The decades long trend of moving out of the city is reversing. Middle class folk are moving back in-- mid-life, empty-nester, baby boomers as well as young adults fleeing the sterility of the suburbs. The evidence of this-which is good news for some and bad news for others-is escalating urban real estate prices across the country. And those who stayed seem to have found a renewed enthusiasm- Youngstown being an apt example,--as courageous citizens have rallied to fight deeply entrenched organized crime.

This renewed interest in the city generally makes this an opportune time for promoting the spectrum of progressive Justice issues: race, class, ecology, gender, economy, and more. It's my current experience that cooperative liberal (if not progressive) faith groups are in the vanguard of reforming the city-perhaps not so much in the turn-of-the-last-century's aesthetic vision of the City Beautiful, but in a contemporary variation- the City Just.

All cities have problems, though they are often unacknowledged. While it' s usually difficult and politically risky to draw attention to shortcomings, especially in a place that prides itself on being a city that "works," ignoring them perpetuates a state of soulnessness. In Santa Fe, for example, conflicts arise between the economic bonanza of tourism and its rich historic, Hispanic character. The influx of wealthy Anglos purchasing vacation homes has come at the expense of indigenous residents- the Native Americans and Spanish-who can no longer afford to live where their grandparents and great-grandparents lived.

Race, of course, is an issue affecting most American cities. Almost every person I've talked with in Washington mourns the racial divide between blacks and whites; some people describe it as a city of "two souls." To drive past abandoned buildings with the U.S. Capitol looming in the background, to see how dramatically the pollution-choked Anacostia River contrasts with the cleaner, suburban Potomac River, is to witness a visible tear in the city's soul.

Volunteering at a shelter for the homeless, throwing yourself into a political reform movement, getting to know down-and-out neighborhoods, speaking out about community ills all can help you find the soul of your hometown, as well as contribute to healing it.

The twentieth century popular philosopher Lewis Mumford remains a favorite voice of the humanist/naturalist orientation to which I resonate. He had much to say about the city-its place in history and its possibilities. In his 1938 book, The City, Mr. Mumford waxed mythopoetically about the meaning of the city. He wrote, "The city is both a physical utility for collective living and a symbol of those collective purposes and unanimities that arise under such favoring circumstances. With language itself, it remains [hu]man[kind's] greatest work of art"

Yes, love the city as a work of art-its natural genius transformed through human aspiration and striving. More specifically, love your city. Be infused by the spirit- the convergence of nature and humanity that creates and recreates it. Explore your city's soul. Be intimate with its malevolence as well as its glory. Dare to let your soul seep into your city, even as your city' s soul seeps into you. Do Justice, that the spirit of the city might be honored, the soul of the city rectified, and perhaps your soul saved for the only end that matters in our democratic, egalitarian society- for the sake of all the people in service of all that you hold sacred.

1 comment:

  1. Ed, you're right that Nature (and nature) was a major determinant in the placement and founding of the City of Chicago.

    Donald L. Miller, in his excellent "City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America" (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996) talks about this fact of Chicago's placement extensively. He notes that Louis Sullivan, upon returning from studying in Paris in 1875, could not find work, so spent his time getting "the lay of the land" by walking twenty or more miles daily "around Chicago and out into the yellow prairie that stretched beyond it." Sullivan wondered "what explained this raw, robust place," and "what gave it its impelling drive."

    Miller says this:

    Nature gave him the first clue. She had favored Chicago with an unrivaled agricultural hinterland, which Sullivan had first seen from the window of his inbound train from Philadelphia, "stretching like a floor to the far horizon." "Here," he thought, "was power - power greater than the mountains." Then there was the inland sea, silver-blue Lake Michigan, born, like the prairie, of the slow advance and retreat of ancient ice sheets. It opened Chicago to the lumber lands to the north, to the ports of the East, and from them, to the world. On occasions when bad weather kept the lumber fleet in port, Sullivan would watch, as the skies cleared, the long lake schooners "pour in a stream" from the mouth of the Chicago River, "spread their wings, and in a great and beautiful flock, gleam in the sunlight as the moved with favoring wind, fan-like towards Muskegon and the northern ports." Without the lake, "boon companion" of the prairie, there would be no Chicago, he realized. But Sullivan saw the key to it all in the old portage, a narrow ridge of marshland, long since built over, between the Chicago River - the city's busy harbor - and a prairie river, the Des Plaines, that reached the Mississippi via the Illinois. That low divide over which Indians and French traders had portaged their canoes linked Chicago to the vast, resource-rich mid-continent. Nature had thus set the stage for Chicago, "offspring," Sullivan called it, "of the prairie, the lake and the protage.
    Nature had not created Chicago, however; she had merely made it possible. The city would not have been set on its course had not men of energy and empire first envisioned and then cut a canal through the portage. While Chicago's earliest historians insisted that geography had determined the city's future, Sullivan, the architect, saw city building as a supremely human art. Nature provided opportunities as well as constraints, but cities and civilizations were the work "of proud people and their power to create." If ever there was a place shaped by the actions of "big men," surely it was Chicago, Sullivan thought.

    Ed McDevitt