It is important for students of urban ministry to know Jane Jacobs’ work because she is an advocate for the city. She helps us have a positive attitude towards the city, our neighborhood and its streets, which is essential if we are involved in urban ministry.
Jacobs writes about having a positive attitude toward a city neighborhood using the example of Boston’s North End, which she says was originally built “to house the flood of immigrants first from Ireland, then from Eastern Europe and finally from Sicily.”
Jacobs shows people’s contradictory feelings toward the North End in the late ‘50s. On one hand, it was considered a terrible slum. But on the other, it had been rehabilitated by its own people without the help from banks, which refused to loan money to people who were living in a “slum.”
Jacobs mentions a friend of hers who investigated the North End at the time and found that this “slum” had “among the lowest delinquency, disease and infant mortality rates in the city...lowest rate of rent to income...The death rate is low...The TB death rate is very low.” Having been heavily influenced by the current city planning tone of the time, he admitted, “Of course it’s a terrible slum…but of course we have to rebuild it eventually. We’ve got to get those people off the streets.” At the same time, however, he also had to admit, “I often go down there myself just to walk around the streets and feel that wonderful, cheerful street life.”
Jacobs concludes: “Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods...told him the North End had to be a bad place.”
Fifty years later, the highway has come and gone, five elementary schools have closed as families have moved out and the neighborhood has become gentrified, but the North End’s vital streets are still clogged with people who love that “wonderful, cheerful street life!”
Having a positive appreciation for the city greatly changes how we see and do ministry in the city. The Son of God came into this world because he loved the world. Despite our fallenness, we are loved by him. God sent his Son not merely because he felt sorry for us, but because he really loves us! Following his example, we know that before we can ever engage in fruitful ministry, we must first have love and a positive attitude towards the people and city in which we work.
All quotes are taken from: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pg. 9-11.