The Need for Neighbors


As New Urbanism builds up steam and city governments wrestle with how to best manage the magic pixie dust that millennials will hopefully sprinkle as they move into cities in greater numbers, both the old ghosts of discrimination and the new struggles of gentrification are coming to a head with equal vigor. People who are privileged and thoughtful don’t want to exclude the poor, but there is a deep, if not widespread, recognition that “development” is not necessarily good for all. Even those with the best intentions face many challenges. Marc Steiner, a local radio host, recently led a radio discussion, in which he kept asking throughout the program, without ever reaching a strong conclusion: “How do we do this?” There are neighborhoods across Baltimore that need to improve because people in them are suffering from the effects of vacant houses, neighborhood violence, and food deserts. But as Steiner made clear, making development work for all requires more than good intentions. It also requires neighborliness— a reciprocal relationship between the privileged and the underprivileged that binds our urban destiny together and allows us to learn from one another.

Baltimore’s city government, for its own sake, pays lip service towards the idea of strengthening neighborhoods. There’s a modicum of support for community gardens, locally-owned businesses, and arts programs that are owned by the communities that benefit from them. The biggest benefits still go to flashy downtown developments like class-warfare casinos and tax breaks for big towers that will supposedly bring jobs and additional revenue—but at the moment, they’re still draining the city of money that might otherwise go to local residents and undercutting local organizing power. It is easy for an observant person not on the take to fall into despair about capital inevitably trampling over any place or person that is not obviously profitable, even applying the clockwork of displacement to the orange of an arts district. My Twitter feed argues at least once a week about whether someone’s optimism or pessimism about our city’s prospects is justified; the significance of falling teen birth rates or rising property values is less important than our anxiety about whether or not things will ever get better in a way that’s meaningful for the underprivileged.

Many discussions about why urban centers are as bad off as they are and what needs to change often turn towards capital and crime. The share of urbanists that appropriately fear capital’s creative but often inhumane destructiveness is probably still too small, but nearly everyone agrees that crime is still a problem and crime rates can’t fall fast enough. And they’re right: Thousands of young men are murdered every year, primarily in urban neighborhoods like mine. Other crimes are still rare enough that the city is perfectly habitable for anyone with common sense and a decent insurance policy, but fear of crime continues to drive the choices of many in regards to where they live, open businesses, or walk at night. There are also just enough crimes committed by young black men against affluent white people in the city to fool many into thinking that the denizens of more affluent neighborhoods need more protection that the ones where people actually die on a weekly basis. It is clear that policing these dangerous neighborhoods often harms them as much as it helps, as the conversations around the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray have illustrated.

The recent unrest in Baltimore and the past month’s near-record increase in homicides in the city have illuminated that the forces perpetuating crime are strong and complex. While the work of David Kennedy and the National Network for Safe Communities has examined just how deeply both victims and perpetrators of violence are enmeshed within their communities, the long and hard work of overcoming systemic racism in policing is just beginning in most places—where it’s started at all. In the meantime, those closest to the violence suffer the most from it and those who are most at a distance are kept further away by their fear. Because violence is so often tied to drugs, it is the drug dealers who are often the target of complaints and phone calls—both by long-term residents and new arrivals—and yet decades after the War on Drugs started, I can still hear the brand names for the day’s heroin called out on my walk to the train as the open-air drug market operates by metro stop. Displacing the drug dealers when a neighborhood “cleans up” only moves the action to another vulnerable place. As many have now said regarding the War on Drugs, “Drugs Won”—with only a legacy of greater violence begotten by underground capital than when we started.

The factions that come into play in these debates about development and displacement are sometimes exaggerated, even if the lines between us are real and harm the underprivileged. The stereotypical yuppie is often cast as a white villain squeezing poor black residents who have lived in the same place for decades out of their homes as gentrification takes—sometimes literally—only the edifices of history and turns the core into something palatable for the affluent. In some tellings this person is an SUV-driving maniac who can’t wait for the best of the suburbs to come into the neighborhood, while in others it’s a well-meaning white liberal who can’t get the fixed-gear bicycle out of her eye for the speck in her neighbors’. By contrast, these gentrifiers tend to speak more generally about behaviors they don’t wish to see, often related to loitering, noise, or drug dealing, while constantly raising the specter of either serious violence committed against them or not being able to find a parking space. In most cases, the city government is a useful punching bag—ossified as it has been by decades of political dominance by a single party and economic dominance by whoever can make deals to survive the brutal regulatory and tax structures any business operating in the city can face. Our caricatures of other urban residents are strawmen useful for passing favored ordinances, but otherwise unhelpful to our discourse.

For better or for worse, the people who will revitalize our cities are other human beings full of mixed motives and cultural baggage, and they’re far more complicated than the enemies we describe on the op-ed page. The yuppie you see sipping a latte in a hip cafe could be an advocate for justice who tutors children after a long day behind a desk just as easily as he could be a hotshot lawyer flipping vacant properties and ignoring his tenants’ pleas to repair the toilet. Most cities that have lost population in the past several decades would benefit from more revenue-generating residents to fund critical services and patronize local businesses, but they would do just as well to find ways to engage the portions of their populace who have found themselves disenfranchised from the labor force more and more over the same time periods. Those citizens cycling in and out of prison and the labor force are frequently the same people who are getting driven off the corners for selling drugs and loitering. However, they are just as often the brothers, sons, and friends of longtime residents of poor neighborhoods that we don’t want to displace. The movement of poor and vulnerable people from one unstable home to another (part of what some researchers call churn) only complicates the picture further. Get to know enough people outside of your own class of urban heroes and—thank God—the caricatures start to blur until they become unrecognizable.

These long-term residents are invaluable resources for their communities, acting as a stabilizing force against the ravages of capital and crime and looking out for the vulnerable members of their families—particularly children whose parents or guardians have had their capacity for care undermined by drugs, violence, or prison. Such persons deserve to have their voices amplified in any discussion, but they are often far from the prophets of intersectionality some liberals might hope they would be. For one, they are just as liable to NIMBY-ism, class warfare, and political cronyism as your stereotypical downtown lawyer, challenging halfway houses in their neighborhoods and begging for the police to run the dealers off the corner at monthly community meetings. A recent debate about permitting city police to carry guns in school has evoked many of these tensions. I hear almost as many jokes about sagging pants and baby mamas in my mostly African-American neighborhood as I did growing up listening to Rush Limbaugh, representing the tip of the cultural iceberg between the well-intentioned advocates for justice and the people that they’re supposedly advocating for.

One can keep peeling this onion of race, class, and urban policy forever and never find a center; we’re still constantly faced with Steiner’s question from the radio show: How do we do it differently? It’s fairly well-agreed upon that good development is “intentional”— so what are those intentions that make a difference? Furthermore, if capital really is the sneaky beast that everyone claims it is and can twist good intentions to destroy what is good in urban communities, how can we avoid such a fate?

The most popular answers seem the most depressing: There’s the nihilistic urge to get out to the suburbs (which is part of how things got to be the way that they are) and the if-we-can’t-beat-em-join-em approach of most city governments that take to crony capitalism (which hasn’t really worked for the last few decades and shows little sign of reversing course.) What I see among most activists and writers with a genuine commitment to the well-being of all the city’s residents is a near-religious hope that federal, state, and local policies will become appropriately socialist; some are more gently persuasive while others take the Captain Hammer “it’s not enough to bash in heads // you’ve got to bash in minds” approach to such discourse. Either way, the vision for intentionality is subsumed under the apparent brokenness of our current policies and the only way to make it right is to influence the powers that be enough to change our urban environment.

While policies must change—conservatives and liberals alike can hopefully agree that mass incarceration must decrease and jobs with meaningful remuneration for low-skilled laborers must increase, for a start—I do not think that such top-down change is sufficient without a bottom-up vision for how our cities thrive. Policies are the function, ultimately, of our corporate priorities and affections, and what I think is a curiously neglected variable in our discussion of urban policy is how we can use proximity to shapes our priorities and affections.

Patrick Deneen’s recent meditation on liberalism’s inherent “extractive” tendencies is helpful in understanding how contrary the liberal project is to neighborliness:

Today many are apt to conclude that growing evidence of “income inequality” or the division of the nation (and the world) into ever-more perfectly sifted “winners” and “losers” is a mistake or departure from liberalism that liberalism can fix. “Progressive” liberals – often educated at elite institutions of higher education, which have become one of the main institutional conduits for the sifting of the winners from the losers – bemoan the inequality, even as they flock to one of a half-dozen cities of the world where they live at great remove from those who have lost in the meritocratic sweepstakes, and live lives that have far more in common with their elite “conservative” political opponents (classical liberals) than with those whose lot they pity, but in no way seek to share.

Ultimately, the secular project of progressivism relies so heavily on state redistribution of resources because it can only imagine the state as a meaningful rival to capital. The emphasis on individual rights and autonomy within liberalism, meanwhile, cannot bear to affirm responsibilities to one’s family or neighbors beyond paying the taxes that will support the social worker, the emergency physician, and the nursing aide that will help them while everyone else was too busy to knock on the door and check in. Atomized individuals and a handful of families might possibly be able to guard themselves from the corruption of capitalism and its attendant violence, but we need an abundance of small- and medium-size institutions to serve as bulwarks for the rest of us. Without a vision for the city that turns on neighborliness, capital and crime will win every time.

It may seem facile and cheap to appeal to “neighborliness,” as if we’ll solve all the problems of the city over a backyard barbecue. I’d like to think of it as a genuine challenge. What if your city was known as a place where people knew and loved their neighbors? Furthermore, what if your city was a place where rich people lived together with poor people? In a recent interview with Cardus, developer Jonathan Bradford alluded to the possibility that “the person who scrubs pots and pans in the kitchen in the basement of St. Mary’s Hospital can successfully live on the same block that the Director of Anesthesiology does” and suggests that poorer families and richer families need to live close together in order to benefit from one another. Forget being “The City That Reads” or “Baltimore: Get In On It”—creating communities like this would be rather ambitious and praiseworthy, if that is what civic boosters are looking for.

The “intentionality” required to accomplish this is simply the intention to live side-by-side. When people are sharing life together, their priorities will shift because of the relationships they forge. My own perspective on a number of issues has shifted quite a bit since moving into my neighborhood where I am a racial and cultural minority; this has mostly to do with meeting people who at one point in my life were political abstractions, ex-offenders, drug users, and single mothers, but are now friends. I know them for their strengths and they know me for my weaknesses. Men who were once feared for their violence are now my teachers and leaders; together we are working to try to unravel the nihilism that draws people to destruction. These are things I could never learn at a teach-in or rally; the backyard barbecues were a necessary part of forging our relationships. If we focus on intentionally cultivating neighborliness and reciprocity among the privileged, we will not only have the relationships that shape our understanding of certain policies— we will have the expertise of the people most impacted by those policies helping guide how we use our power.

Underlying this side-by-side intentionality is (for me and many of my friends) a theological impetus: we recognize that God’s work of redemption involved “moving into the neighborhood” (a paraphrase of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”) As the Christian Community Development Association puts it in discussing their value of “relocation”: the most effective ministers ”have a personal stake in the development of their neighborhoods.” Such an emphasis on “relocation” does not necessarily privilege the outsiders who move in: those who return to the neighborhood or remain in it are just as important—or more so!

In particular, the potential for communal worship is inestimable—where, as is often said, “the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.” Such reconciliation across class and race is not easy, and I don’t want to give the impression that it is as simple as gathering in a circle to sing kumbayah. Prejudices and privilege have a way of constantly twisting our good intentions. However, church remains a powerful place for wrestling with these issues: Where else do we affirm the inherent value in other people while at the same time asking ourselves what it means when Jesus says, “woe to you who are rich”? What other cultural venue can we all sing “I Need You To Survive”—and expect to mean it?

In no way do I mean to suggest that one cannot do great good for others if you don’t live with them, nor do I want to imply that religious means are the only way that one can go about having this sort of loving community. I know many people (most of them Christians) who don’t just do great things for Baltimore, but have deep relationships with people from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds. These relationships, however, don’t just happen because they live, work, or volunteer here—they are an expression of a commitment to a particular place and a particular group of people to which they have chosen to be neighbors. I say “chosen” in the sense that I suppose any of these friends could have chosen to cultivate relationships with other upwardly mobile people (or with a screen), but I think the vast majority of them would say that they have been compelled—whether theologically or otherwise—to form the sort of beloved community opposed to violence and exploitation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described. They have made themselves proximal to vulnerable people in ways other than simply living in the same neighborhood, but the depth of their relationships and the potential for their contribution has remained a function of their willingness to surrender their privilege and self-preservation.

There is certainly great potential for the nonreligious to find common ground with the less privileged over art and food (both of which are happening as an expression of our spiritual values in my neighborhood), although neither are quite as all-encompassing as faith and the cultural gap between the haves and the have-nots is often wider in culinary and artistic values than in religious practice. In order for a vision of neighborliness to flourish, there must be a degree of reciprocity between individuals that is far more common in church than in the classroom or studio. A church-based community engagement is also necessarily communal; I strongly suspect that otherwise atomized individuals or families moving one-by-one to random struggling neighborhoods will fail to produce the desired effects.

The arc of urban revitalization is long, but it bends toward the privileged (unless, of course, the privileged are too invested in casino profits). Violence, whether state-sponsored or on the street, will inexorably follow the unrestrained cycles of capital. Further, policies won’t change until corporate priorities change first. Given those realities, a vigorous commitment to love our neighbors is needed to actively pursue reconciliation across class and race divides. Furthermore, we must consider carefully the implications of Jesus’ follow-up question: “Who is my neighbor?” Our idealistic commitment to the vulnerable will be made that much stronger when we can literally affirm their proximity as neighbors.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who teaches and practices in Baltimore and East Africa. He tweets @matthew_loftus and is a regular contributor to Mere Orthodoxy and Christ and Pop Culture. He currently lives in Kenya with his family; you can learn more about his work and writing at