Ghetto no more

A few things have struck me recently about the changing identity of “urban” as it is used to describe America’s inner cities. As an “urban” minister, this word holds great weight and is filled with meaning for me in terms of the kinds of communities I feel called to: things like under-resourced, underprivileged, multi-ethnic, immigrant, gang-ridden, violent, low-income are the descriptors that most quickly come to mind. My recent trip to Chicago, however, drove home for me in a new way the changing face of “urban”.

As Doug and I approached the end of the Brown Line, I was shocked to see Lexuses, Mercedes, and BMWs parked behind what used to be the ghetto apartments behind the El tracks. I was even more taken aback by the apartment buildings along Kimball that have been converted from low-income, crowded apartments to spacious gated condos. I suppose my first clue should have been when our concierge at the Palmer House (thank you, Priceline!) told us that he and his wife had just purchased a condo at “the end of the Brown Line”.

It has been widely reported that poverty and hunger are shifting from America’s urban centers to the suburbs and beyond. Walking down Kimball toward North Park, it was clear that the folks who had made up this community when I lived there must be living somewhere else. In fact, looking out the windows of the El train, I was hard pressed to find ANYTHING resembling “ghetto”. The neighborhoods that were “bad” or “scary” when I moved there are all hip and condo-ridden now. I can remember standing on the roof of Anderson Hall (one of North Park’s women’s dorms) as a visiting prospective student and watching the gunfire in Cabrini Green. You could literally see when weapons were being fired. I remember as a freshman driving down every week to the Henry Horner Housing projects to volunteer with their Boys and Girls Club program. All of those infamous projects are no more, which I am not arguing is a bad thing by any means. But I do wonder where those kids I once knew live now.

Of the kids I have kept in touch with from the old neighborhood, there are very few who retain any ties there today. Cities like Rockford or places that we used to call “the ghetto suburbs” are where their families now live. While I knew this, it wasn’t until my recent visit that the scope of this shift really sunk in.

Bob Lupton speaks of something called “gentrification with justice” and he is a great advocate for churches and para-church organizations working to be agents of justice in the housing arena. Our little church here feels that same pull, but with housing prices being what they are in this community (800K, 1.2 mil.), it feels like such a huge issue to tackle well. And to be honest, if Doug and I did not have the landlord that we have, we would have been priced out of this community (that is increasingly serving USC students) two years ago. Rents have doubled since we moved here in 2002.

I guess the thing I am wondering about in all of this is how churches will respond? As the suburbs become greater centers of poverty, how will the face of suburban churches change? Or have we so fully become commuter-worshipers that it really won’t matter?

Any thoughts?


  1. If the ubiquitous drive-in middle-class congregations of today’s inner city are any guide, the answer feels discouraging, but then again I think it’s a mistake ever to grow cynical about the body of Christ. We have to keep hoping. The victories in this department may possibly be counted one-by-one instead of constituting a larger pattern?

    That’s my guess, and the challenge will be to shine a light on all the beautiful examples in isolation. I’m afraid I’m just too well convinced this kind of ministry is the activity of the remnant, but maybe not. How can we ever predict the Holy Spirit? My current favorite quote is from the end of a novel by Ron Hansen: “We try to be formed and held and kept by Christ, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, ‘Surprise me.’”

  2. I am on sabbatical this summer and the primary focus for me will be the design of a ministry to the at-risk families in the Aurora – Montgomery area. Those who lived in Chicago have come out to my neck of the woods and are in a more difficult situation because of the lack of any kind of cohesive public transportation system. The CTA does exist out here. All that was the urban environment has come to the suburbs.

  3. Important stuff, Erika.

    “Urban ministry” in the US is changing, at least in certain metro areas.

    We moved to Denver from LA four years ago. Our old house in a Latino immigrant community in Southern California is worth $800,000 today.

    A few thoughts:

    Gentrification in inner city neighborhoods has been going on for years since a certain segment of the upper middle class and wealthy always preferred living near downtown even during the huge middle class migration to the suburbs after WW2.

    That gentrification surge has turned into a flood over the past 10 years or so. Major cities figured out they would die economically if they didn’t market themselves to young, highly skilled folks who want to live with folks like themselves in stimulating urban environments. Cities like LA, Chicago, NY, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, etc. are some of the current winners in that fight for young tech talent.

    So property values in what used to be inner city neighborhoods in those cities skyrocketed. Some simple lifestyle inner city ministry types who bought homes in poor neighborhoods early in the surge have gotten equity wealthy with the appreciation “funny money” that came their way due to the wealthy young professionals willing to pay top dollar to live in their neighborhoods to be close the urban action.

    I know a lot of those ministry types and they can’t quite figure out what to do with their sudden wealth :^) The urban ministry folks who didn’t buy got caught in the vice of rapidly rising rents that always accompany higher property values.

    As a result the location of ‘urban poverty’ looks different depending on where you live in the U.S.

    In the cities winning the tech talent war, the well off increasingly live in what used to be ‘inner city ghettos’ and in the ‘exurbs’ out beyond the old suburbs. Urban ministry in a place like LA will have to increasingly focus on the old suburbs where poor folks (and those who love them and want to minister to them) move because that’s the only place they can afford to live.

    In cities that are losing the tech talent war, urban ministry will likely look more like it did in the past.

    Organizations like Servant Partners will probably want to focus attention on newly poor suburbs in ‘winning cities’ and on traditional inner city ministry in “losing cities” (primarily in the Midwest and the Northeast).

    The CCDA—and particularly Bob Lupton’s ministry—developed in classic post WW2 circumstances where “inner cities were inner cities” and property values were very low.

    Current urban poor ministry in the US should probably focus on poverty in ‘metro areas’ (including traditional suburbs) and not as much on ‘inner cities.’

  4. What do churches do? They create organizational structures that help people to assimilate into the economic realities of cities, suburbs and rural areas. It isn’t enough to have a relationship with them. We need equipping structures that provide ways for people to gain the skills and perspective needed to sustain their lives and the lives of their families in the midst of this dramatic change.

  5. I’m not sure the phenomenon of high-end condos will ever hit my town, but nonetheless, I believe Christians should live in such a way that they don’t continue to displace and marginalize people who don’t have access to that kind of affluence.

    I’m praying Christians will keep re-imagining the way we live, whether urban, suburban or rural.

    I live in a university town of about 50,000. My husband and I are praying about selling our house as soon as our youngest graduates from high school and moving to the center of the city–we’d like to rehab an older house and design it for intentional community.

    We’re not sure how we would invite people to share in this experience, but we can’t shake the sense of calling to it.

    We feel God’s is asking us to draw closer to the ecumenical and economic center of town. Although one goal is to live more sustainably–to walk and bike more and drive less–another goal is to be a presence for churches and social agencies located at city center instead of being the imported saviors who drive in from the affluent neighborhoods.

    We believe the example of living modestly and intentionally in community might be a much needed witness to the power of Jesus to transform lives instead of merely promoting a personal piety.

  6. Well, I can tell you where most of them moved to. You’re right, the burbs, but also the south side. It’s interesting to take a street like Western and start out up by where you used to live and drive way down to the south of the city. It’s amazing to watch the neighborhoods change.

  7. I wonder if we’ll be experiencing a “White Flight, Part II.” When caucasian and more affluent Americans saw the inner cities becoming more diverse both ethnically and economically in the 60’s and 70’s, they fled for the suburbs and their churches generally followed suit. Now that affluence is moving back to the inner city, I assume that those same churches will go there as well — although it is more expensive to move that direction, so perhaps commuter churches will become even more prevalent.

    I assume Jesus will call people to minister to the poor in the suburbs. I have friends doing so in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento. Gentrification is a big issue in their minds as they purchased a duplex. They want to see transformation of the community, but not at the expense of the people who live there. Perhaps it’s better to say they want to see transformation of the community and for the community.

  8. Thanks, Erika. Very interesting. We live in a downscale suburban area, I’d guess relatively so.

    I wish God’s people/ churches were more involved with the hurting. I’ve been working with a couple who keep getting turned down by the system yet live with integrity and do what they can. The system is broken down for all the good it does. And the church doesn’t hardly know what to do, too often, apart from a benevolent fund. Thanks for this post.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments here! I think it is an important conversation that needs to be had in anticipation of the changes we can expect to see wherever we might live.

    The comment I hear a lot of from suburban folks is that they reflect and serve their community (as an explanation for why they are mono-ethnic or mono-class), but I think that will change (and has changed already in a lot of places). It will be pastors like Kent (comment above) and others who will lead the way in thinking creatively about how to make their churches places for these immigrants, so to speak.

  10. I’m writing a paper on the ghetto and the garbage they throw all over the place after someone has cleaned it all up and how in these gentrification neighborhood there is no garbage all over the place.

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