06/09/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Spirituality of Cities


The Hebrew prophets, John of Patmos and St. Augustine of Hippo, wrote about cities as representations in space of our inner spiritual condition. What happens in our minds and social encounters becomes written on the landscape in almost indelible ways. They dreamed of a future ideal city filled with inhabitants who loved each other and God.

30 years ago Kenneth T. Jackson wrote Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. He tells the forgotten stories that lie behind our patterns of settlement. Our built environment has been shaped by technology and public policy decisions, by our values and the history we have inherited.

For centuries most people worked in their homes or nearby fields. Because people walked, the most valuable location for housing lay at the city center. Between 1815 and 1875 the steam ferry, omnibus, commuter railroad, the horse car and cable car began to turn cities inside out as wealth moved to the periphery.

The cities built in these years were star-shaped with development occurring within walking distance from transit lines. With technological innovation daily commutes became affordable for many. This began with rail systems that made it possible for horses to pull higher capacity streetcars full of commuters.

America led the world in the adoption of electric streetcars. In 1890 the number of passengers carried on American street railways was more than two billion per year, or twice the rest of the world combined. Berlin, which had the best system in Europe, would have ranked 22 among American cities in the number of rides.

Like spokes of a wheel, most streetcar tracks led directly to the city center with few peripheral lines. This transportation system supported the development of steel frame skyscrapers, massive downtown department stores and large central libraries, museums, churches, synagogues and performance halls.

It was not just the invention of mass produced automobiles that brought this world to an end. Although trolleys were an economically efficient technology, by 1950 General Motors was involved in dismantling over a hundred streetcar operations in cities including Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City.

In other respects, also, the character of suburbia in America has not arisen out of free market conditions. Poorer inner city residents have at each stage subsidized wealthier suburbanites. The original construction of most suburban infrastructure (streets, water and sewer connections) was paid for in large part by people who could never afford to live there.

From the beginning, the American government has paid to build roads and interstate highways that disproportionately benefit suburbanites. Unlike Europe, in the U.S. 75 percent of government expenditures for transportation during the postwar generation went for highways as opposed to one percent for urban mass transit.

After World War II and into the 1960s government agencies provided mortgage insurance and evaluated properties on a racial basis. Officials gave low ratings to African American homes and neighborhoods, further encouraging the movement of the middle class out of cities. Even today the mortgage tax deduction continues to unfairly privilege wealthier suburban homeowners over poorer renters in the city.

Blighted inner cities and affluent suburbs were not inevitable results of economic law, but reflections of our segregationist values. When our values change, we will see the results in cities.

This week I visited an 86-year-old suburban woman. Unable to drive and isolated, she resists moving to a retirement home because she wants so badly to be in a community that still has children in it. The values which created this built environment -- love of nature, independence, privacy, an appreciation of open spaces, as well as fear of difference -- have left her profoundly lonely.

In the suburban world, churches may be the only place where people of different generations know each other and minister together.

In the 30 years since Crabgrass Frontier was written, cities have shown new signs of life. I have many young friends in Silicon Valley who have chosen to live in downtown San Francisco and commute by big company-provided buses to their suburban high-tech offices.

We live with the heavy hand of the past. Street patterns and infrastructure of another age constrains what we can do now. We abide with earlier versions of our city and cannot start over with a built world embodying completely different values.

We do not need to make cities spiritual -- they already are. They represent the physical manifestation of our ingenuity and our attitudes toward each other. As the technologies that shape our lives change, we need to encourage a city plan that gives us space, but does not isolate us; that is not racist and gives poorer people the chance to thrive too.