Thursday, May 31, 2007

WHERE TO LIVE: PRIVATE CHOICES, PUBLIC IMPACTS

COMMUNITY IMPACT OF PRIVATE CHOICES. Discussions with neighbors and citizens across nine counties of Central Indiana in recent years brings into focus the community and public impact of some of our individual and private decisions. I have come to realize that we speak an oxymoron when we say "private citizen." To be a citizen means to act in the context of a community or complex of communities. Yet, it appears that the majority of our decisions are considered and made in private with nary a reference to community impact.

VALUES STRAINS WITH EVERY MOVE. One of those private decisions is where to live. According to recent Census data, at least 14% of the entire U.S. population relocates every year. That's 39 million people living at a new address this year, folks! This may be great news for the housing construction and realty industries, among others. It is, on the other hand, precarious news for other values we say we hold dear—belonging, neighbor, neighborhood, a sense of place, community, working together toward the common good, and faith community, among others.

THE FRAYING OF SOCIAL NETWORKS. Without even touching the vast environmental impacts of our private decisions about where and how we choose to reside, just consider the social and community impacts. When we relocate, it takes most folks more than five years to develop a similar level of relationships and social investment as the last place we lived. Repeat this annually and multiply it millions of times and you have a dramatic shift in the urban and social landscape—community life that is far different than that of a generation ago.

REFLECTING OUR SPIRITUALITY. The decision of where to live, made thousands of times daily by citizens across this country in the privacy of their lives, does more to shape the future public and community life of the nation than almost any other decision. It also reflects the substance and shape of one’s spirituality. Why do we choose to live where we do? On what do we base our decisions? What factors do we consider? What do we move away from? What do we think we move toward? Are we choosing more in fear or faith? Into what are we buying? In what values are we investing? Given that a home and real estate are the greatest monetary investments most people make, choosing wisely and seeking to increase value is understandable. But discernment of broader values implications is called for, too.

WHICH SCHOOLS? Another of those private decisions that has a major public impact is where one’s children will go to school. For families with school-age children, this is one of the main factors in choosing where to live. It appears that first race or class and then test scores have largely driven this decision over the past generation or so. Does this account--more than the dream of one's own quarter acre to mow and maintain--for continued sprawl from core urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs to increasingly populated semi-rural settings?

FUTURE URBAN INFLUX? What if, within the next ten years, inner-city schools vastly improve? Would families weary of long commutes, costs of daily travel and segregated living (segregated from workplace, from home, from schools, from retail, from services, from entertainment, from people of color, etc.) choose urban neighborhood living again? What of those millions of retiring, road-weary, empty-nest baby boomers who love urban entertainment, museums, and cultural amenities that are close to downtown and accessible from nearby "old neighborhoods?" Those thousands of daily decisions about where to live and what schools to attend can change.

THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD. In a 1999 book entitled The Old Neighborhood, PBS’ Lehrer News Hour host Ray Suarez explores such questions with candid testimonies. What did Americans leave behind when they left the old neighborhood? Did we better ourselves? Have we found such community and extended its richness as a heritage to another generation in the suburban landscape? If not, is there a way to "go back" to neighborhood living that was exchanged for a split-level house with a two-car garage out on the growing edge of the city? What has been discovered in "edge cities" and sprawl neighborhood living? Suarez takes a wide-ranging look, a look worth taking a good gander at ourselves.

BASIS FOR OUR PREFERENCES. Honestly, I think our decisions about where to live are highly emotional. For all the careful calculating about cost and affordability that wrap the decision in a cloak of reason, it is based more on fuzzy rationalizations and shallow preferences rather than on a full accounting of all the facts and community impacts. And I think the housing development and realty industry play to this.

DECISIONS WITH ONLY SUPERFICIAL FAITH. Moreover, while I know people of faith who claim to pray over their decisions about where to live or move, I don’t think most folks bring rich Biblical faith or their deep-down desire for genuine community into their decision about where to live. I, for one, think this is a topic that needs extensive exploration--both to offer a broader perspective of the implications for faith witness on the urban landscape and to suggest the ways authentic Christian spirituality can be incorporated into such decisions, communities, and old and new neighborhood living. I’d like to write this book.

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