Living the Rural Delusion

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with “the city” since I was a child growing up in a small town at what was essentially the end of the Long Island Railroad.  My grandparents acquired our “homestead” in the mid 1930’s when it was undoubtedly rural.  They built and worked a chicken farm until they had saved enough to build a knitting mill. In the late 1950’s my father and his sister built houses on the subdivided acre.  In the 1990’s the knitting mill closed, and the old building was sold and converted to a fourth house on original property.  My family and I watched the evolution of, not only that acre of land, but of the whole hamlet from rural to suburban.  Now it’s part of the New York City agglomeration.

My family homestead from google earth.  It is no longer the rural area of the 1940's or the 1960's.

My family homestead from google earth. It is no longer the rural area of the 1940’s or the 1960’s.

While I would excitedly anticipate train rides to the city as a child to see shows, visit museums or tour other sites, my mother’s anxiety for my safety was apparent.  While I loved driving into Queens to visit my great grandmother, my father would undoubtedly complain about the traffic.  While the city skyline was awe inspiring and I remember one clear cold night in December when my brother flew us in a rented Cessna over the brilliance of the lights of Manhattan, I was also raised with a distrust and even mild contempt for “city people”.  (This is not something I’m proud of.)  I remember when the “city water” came by our neighborhood.  Yet it was almost another decade before our family disconnected from our own well water.  Now I live in central New Jersey which is the most densely populated state in the US … but I choose to live in a Rural Conservation Area complete with cornfields and horse farms.  My neighbors are even raising chickens … maybe a nostalgic nod to my grandparents’ chicken farm days?

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. [Genesis 11:4-6 (NRSV)]

The first mention of a city in scripture is in the fourth chapter of Genesis when Cain and his wife built a city and name it Enoch after their son.  Yet, by chapter eleven God was already seeing the advantages and risks of building cities.  Cities are economically advantageous; they are centers of culture, education and innovation; they are archives of history, philosophy and knowledge; they are places of industry and productivity.  Clearly cities are places where human ingenuity can prosper, and the reliance on our own power can easily displace our trust and reliance on God. “… nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  That is both a blessing and a curse … it affords us prosperity and safety, but it also risks a complacency that can lead to disaster.

While cities and trade markets have existed since the beginning of civilization, until the beginning of the industrial age most human beings lived in rural areas mostly on farms.  With the invention of the steam engine and the age of steel, life in the city became more sustainable.  Not as many workers were needed on farms when there were new tools and technology to work the fields.  Technological advances in water treatment and distribution, sewage systems, an electrical grid, and transportation systems made city living more accessible for more people.  In 2010 80% of Americans lived in urban areas.

Perhaps the fear of Genesis 11 is upon us again.  Humanity has achieved amazing things in cities … mass transportation, protection from storms and sea surges, trash removal systems and waste water treatment.  Our cities are also stressing our environment and our social systems in ways that could cause collapse if we don’t work to solve our problems together and invest in the infrastructure that will grow with us into the next century.

Cities are full of people of all classes and ways of life.  They are often glaring examples of social inequality and the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  It’s not that rural areas aren’t prone to the some of the same challenges of cities — crime, discrimination, poverty, lack of health care, etc.  But the sheer number of people in proximity with each other make these issues problems which affect everyone and are less easily ignored.

So what is faithfulness in urban/civilized life?  The ability to build sustainable and resilient cities still lies in the ability to speak and recognize each other’s voice.  We don’t need to speak the same language, but we need to be able to understand each other and empathize with one another.  We need to plan and anticipate the needs of the future, and work for common goals.  We need to acknowledge that we breath the same air and drink the same water, that we rely on the production of the power grid, that superstorms and earthquakes effect everyone … and that as those with less power and money suffer, the whole city suffers.

So, this week, I face my own love/hate relationship with cities … I am evaluating faithful living in my own neighborhood which is zoned “rural.”  Ironic, isn’t it?  I mean, if it has to be “zoned” rural, is it really?  Sure, the township has legislated the population density of our corner of Hamilton.  It’s pretty here. It’s quaint living only a half mile north of historic Crosswicks.  It’s peaceful, and it often seems like “God’s country” as we watch the Canadian geese flock to the field next door, or catch a glimpse of the deer in the wooded area at the back of our property.  But, it’s a rural delusion as the traffic whizzes by on our street linking “McMansions” with Hamilton Marketplace.  As we sit on our deck we hear the humming of tractor trailers and the millions of cars driving the newly widened New Jersey Turnpike.   We are, like I wrote earlier, living in the most densely populated state of the USA.  We are too highly reliant on fossil fuels for power and transportation.  We rely on the automobile which is one of most costly ways to travel.  And while we can pretend to be protected from “urban” problems … I realize that we are called to be community in new ways as our population continues to increase and our impact on the planet becomes more severe.

#susdev topics:

%d bloggers like this: