Streets and Sidewalks: The Real and the Ideal
By Joe Colletti | March 24, 2017 | Comments Off on Streets and Sidewalks: The Real and the Ideal
Streets and Sidewalks: The Real and the Ideal
(Joe Colletti, PhD, Society of Urban Monks)
“You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”
Perhaps you, like me, have reflected on the following Old Testament words as a source for inspiration—“You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings (Isaiah 58.12)”—especially if you have ventured into issues related to community and economic development.
Living out these words over the years has made it pretty clear that in many urban settings the real and the ideal are often in conflict when it comes to streets and sidewalks. When uptown, downtown, old town, new town, or other areas become the focus of revitalization efforts, plans and drawings focusing on streets and sidewalks illuminate the ideal. Visual and ideal ways for people to walk, talk, and sit together are usually highlighted. Facade improvements for buildings are often shown connecting the inside of buildings to the outside sidewalks and streets through large windows and glass doors to attract people passing by. Public art is usually integrated along with some greenery such as trees and plants. Of course, every pedestrian looks happy and if drivers in cars were depicted in detail, they would all have smiles on their faces.
The real is frequently different from the ideal prior to revitalization efforts and, at times, different many years after revitalization. There may be people peddling illegal drugs and documents. Others may be panhandling people walking along the sidewalk or panhandling drivers waiting for a red light to turn green, as they walk down the middle of two-way streets, with a sign encouraging monetary donations in one hand and a cup to receive the bills or coins in the other hand. Others may be walking down the middle of the same two-way streets selling fruits, vegetables, drinks, and candies. Sex workers may also be hailing drivers or greeting pedestrians. Other persons may be rolling out a blanket to sell goods along the sidewalk and others to sleep. A few people may be flailing their arms while shouting randomly and a few may be sitting on a bench or ledge while talking to no one directly.
Being a “Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” often involves working with various public and private agencies within a secular sphere that includes local government, business owners, business associations, neighborhood groups, civic organizations, etc. For Christians, considering such involvement may bring new ways of doing things, which in turn may cause some hesitation, because the church has been historically seen as a divinely instituted alternative to the secular world. While some congregations are not afraid to engage in good works in the secular world, for others the prevailing feeling may be that congregations live within the sphere of the sacred and not need be overly concerned about, or involved in, the secular. Congregations are often a place of social retreat and refuge from society’s social struggles. Streets and sidewalks are just paths to get to church as they are to get to work, home, and social points of destination that provide opportunities to enjoy art, leisure, and recreation.
Working with representatives from public and private agencies to change the real to the ideal, can first feel awkward and antithetical to well-intended goals of positive, practical, and profitable uses of streets and sidewalks. It may feel awkward simply because you may not have much experience working together in social contexts with elected officials, appointed officials, law enforcement, planners, building inspectors, architects, chambers of commerce, non-profit organizations, etc. It may feel increasingly awkward if the main reason you are there is to try and help those persons who are not using the streets and sidewalks for presumably positive and practical reasons. It may appear that some of those persons who you chose to work with are not promoting compassionate and constructive responses. They may be proposing interventions that seem harsh and at times outright cruel. The end result might be displacing certain persons and criminalizing their behavior if they do not relocate.
Working with representatives from public and private agencies to change the real to the ideal, may feel antithetical to your theological and doctrinal views simply because you feel strong about compromising them, especially in the aftermath of watching others compromise their “secular” views. You may witness elected and appointed officials seemingly compromise their views and/or positions for the sake of reaching compromise because they want to encourage positive, practical, and profitable use of streets and sidewalks and encourage interventions that are less harsh and cruel towards those that do not.
You may find yourself struggling with supporting proposals that are harsher towards aggressive panhandlers or those selling food items in the middle of streets instead of along sidewalks. Proposals may include harsher treatment of persons sleeping on the streets during the day as against sleeping on the streets at night. As a member of a faith community, you may find yourself struggling with allowing congregations to pass out food along sidewalks and street corners or open spaces that border the streets and sidewalks such as parks and empty lots without permits or permission. You may also find yourself struggling with proposals that do not allow preaching along streets and sidewalks or allow preaching but not allow the use of amplifying equipment.
Being a “Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” can be the real deal. The journey to get there may not initially appear so. However, it is.
Whatever inspiration that one can sense knowing that God wants us to be a “Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” can quickly dissipate if we do not complete the journey. Hearing the diverse viewpoints of others may feel threatening to your own. Daring to reflect on such viewpoints may feel even more threatening. Of course, you will never know the outcome, unless you enter the struggling world of the real and the ideal, which you may find, to your delight, to be sacred ground and not so secular after all.