We Need to Stop Loving Rights More than People

There’s a beautiful and jarring memorial set up a few blocks from my house, in honor of Philadelphians who have lost their lives to gun violence this year. T-shirts with their names and ages line a fence outside of a church. Those shirts hang are empty because the people who once filled them – many of whom were shockingly young – are no longer with us. They were humans, friends, neighbors, parents, and children who have left a tangible void in their households and in this city. Going past it this week has been particularly moving.   Continue reading →

This City & My Soul

About three years ago, I set out to research and write my undergraduate thesis, a lengthy piece that I called, “The City and the Soul: American Architecture and the Good Life.” In it, I wanted to discern how good architecture and urban planning make us better people. It was cute, what I was trying to do, in the way that a college student talking about the very real world is always a little adorable. That’s not to suggest that I find this prior writing misguided – actually, I continue to stand behind much of what I said back then. But I had no idea what I was talking about. Or, maybe that’s all I had – ideas – and a decent set of books and theories to back them. Continue reading →

The Tricky Rhetoric of Rights

Over 200 years ago, in a stuffy brick building a few blocks north of my apartment, a bunch of white dudes got together and ratified the Constitution of the United States. Western Civilization has been messed up ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Constitution. It’s provided a nice bit of structure for these past 200+ years, and is full of fun little rules like Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. And those first ten amendments they eventually added – the Bill of Rights – sure do come in handy sometimes. I like it when the government promises that I can say and write what I want, and that I can practice whatever religion I want and even get together in public with people who are like me. All of that is fine and good. What I don’t like is how we’ve established a weird culture around these rights, which has affected how we think about ourselves, others, and our society. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

The SRC & Your Soul

In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.

The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.

After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.” Continue reading →

Flourishing on Two Wheels

It’s almost fall, and I’m especially excited about that because the change in temperature should mean that I won’t break out in a disgusting sweat on my way to work everyday. Was that too much information? Whatever – it’s true. Biking to and from the office is a consistently pleasant experience – something I look forward to twice a day – but it’s taken a toll on my general appearance these past few months. So I’m excited to resume looking like a normal/clean person after my commute.

Now is a great time to be a biker in Philly. To be sure, it’s always been a pretty good time – Philly is naturally a bike-friendly city. It’s flat, compact, and since the downtown was laid out before cars were invented, many of the roads are too narrow for cars to go too fast. But it’s getting even better. Next spring, Philly will be joining the rest of the modern cities by getting its own bike share program (and it’s rumored to be a good one). Bike racks and lanes are always being added, and there’s even talk of car-free streets. Also, the city’s laws are pretty bike-friendly: bikes are recognized as legitimate vehicles, and are allowed to be ridden in the middle of the road. When Philly was recently named the 6th best biking city in America, I wasn’t too surprised. Continue reading →

Developing a City-View

Well-educated people who move to cities are expected to become rather cosmopolitan. Literally rubbing shoulders with dozens of cultures while simultaneously participating in our global economy, these people quickly surpass the limitations of their youth. They learn to interact and live peacefully with people who are quite different from them. They eat stuff that their mothers can’t pronounce, which contain ingredients not sold in suburban grocery stores. Their worldviews are stretched, shattered, and reformed to fit the big world in which they are now a part.    5TAMgojTx

It’s been a little over a year since I started living, working, shopping, socializing, relaxing, and church-going almost exclusively in Philly, and in some ways I’ve become or am becoming one of these cosmopolitan people. However, more than this, I’ve noticed my worldview not expanding as much as it is contracting. What might have once been a worldview has gradually developed into a city-view. Places shape us deeply and affect our paradigms – Philly is affecting mine.

Anyway, given this realization and my recent Philly-versary, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the various ways that this place has warped my logic. In no particular order:

1. I sometimes forget what it’s like to be in a building that is less than 10 years old…

2. …or on a street that was built after cars were invented.

3. I’ve developed a deep mistrust for strip malls and chain restaurants.

4. I’ve gotten pretty good at the transportation logic puzzle (“Should I drive?” “Where will I park?” “Should I bike?” “Will it rain?” “How will I carry my stuff?” “Should I take the subway?” “Do I have enough tokens?” “Is walking an option?” “What about a cab?”), but sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to play it every time I leave my house.

5. I’ve grown accustomed to all of the smells, and all the trash everywhere.

6. My physical comfort zone has expanded, as my standards for what constitutes as a “bad neighborhood” have shifted dramatically (and for the better!).

7. Recently I was outside of the city and hungry. I drove around for a while looking for “something that I couldn’t find in Philly,” until I realized that that’s nearly impossible.

8. When I go more than a day or two surrounded only by white people speaking English, I feel mildly uncomfortable.

9. I think “ugh, tourists” on a regular basis (usually after almost hitting them with my car or bike).

10. It’s become normal for me to regard neighborhoods other than my own as distant or novel, even if they’re literally blocks away.

11. Likewise, my default small talk is to ask people about their neighborhoods.

12. I’ve come to expect and prepare for petty theft. And mice.

13. I can’t remember the last time I saw a squirrel, though I did encounter a raccoon the other night. It made me more nervous than it would have if it was a person rooting through my neighbor’s trash. Wildlife is fascinating, and terrifying.

14. I’m so used to one-way streets that I become extremely confused/apprehensive when cars in the next lane are driving toward me.

15. “Getting away from it all” usually just means going to the suburbs for a few hours.

Federal Donuts, Hunger, and Loving Philly Well

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See, doesn’t that look good? (This picture was shamelessly stolen from the Kickstarter page).

It’s no secret that I love Philly, and every once in a while I come across something that makes me really proud of this city and excited to live here. This week, that happened to me while I was grabbing my Saturday morning coffee and donut at my friendly neighborhood Federal Donuts. Federal Donuts – in collaboration with several other Philadelphia businesses and non-profits – is endeavoring to open up Philly’s first non-profit restaurant. They’re calling this project Rooster Soup Company. I read over their Kickstarter page a couple of times, and decided that this is something that I want to get behind. And I think you should too.

The idea behind this project is simple: they want to take the hundreds of pounds of chicken scraps that FedNuts produces each day (yeah, they sell chicken alongside donuts. It’s not as weird as it sounds, and both are delicious) and use them to make soup. That soup would then be sold in a restaurant, and the profits from that restaurant would go straight to Broad Street Ministry.

Here’s what I love about this plan:

1. The food options in Philly are nearly endless, but the hundreds of restaurants in this city produce (very literally) tons of food waste. At the same time, hunger is an everyday reality for many Philadelphians. This project cuts back on some of that food waste, and will not only eliminate it, but use it to feed some of those hungry people.

2. The folks behind Rooster Soup Company could have just decided to start their own non-profit, but instead, they’re choosing to empower an existing organization. I think that’s a very wise move. Starting a non-profit is no easy task; in addition to additional capital and a specialized skill set, something like that requires time to build trust and develop relationships with clients. Instead, they’re entrusting Broad Street Ministry – which is a solid organization that serves people as Jesus would – to carry out the tangible hunger-eliminating work.

3. On their way to and from work each day, middle and upper class Philadelphians walk past dozens of homeless people. I’m sure most of them are decent people who wish there was something that they could do to help this marginalized population. Rooster Soup Company will make it easy for them to do this, without asking them to go very far out of their way (both literally and metaphorically).

4. This is a project that connects so many groups in this city: a hip business, a radical church, Center City’s homeless population, anyone who will eat at Rooster Soup Co, and anyone who backs this campaign. This is a diverse bunch, and it’s neat to see them all coming together here.

5. This is an extremely creative endeavor. I have no idea how the minds behind this idea came up with it, but I’d really like to see it play out. If it does, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed, and I suspect that there will be even more interesting collaborations like this in the years to come.

6. Soup is delicious, and this menu looks amazing.

With just a little over a week left in their Kickstarter campaign, Rooster Soup Company still needs about $20,000. If you’re interested, and if you can, I invite you to join me in supporting this creative project.

Petty Justice

As much as I love living in a city, I still can’t shake that heightened awareness of vulnerability that accompanies city-dwelling. Philly is my home, but I still feel safer when I’m in the suburbs or at the shore.

In the year since I moved here, I’ve had no less than three encounters with petty thievery: my car has been broken into twice, and my bike was stolen. These are not heinous crimes; I do not consider myself a victim. In these instances, I was hardly violated, and the only loss I suffered was a few hundred dollars and some hours of my time. Nothing lasting, nothing irreplaceable.

But still, I can’t quite get over my annoyance with petty crime like this, and the fact that in this place where I’m so comfortable, I still need to be much more careful with my belongings and person than I am elsewhere. I also wonder why, in middle class, relatively safe neighborhoods, useless crimes like these happen so regularly (people who’ve lived here long enough come to expect them). Perhaps it’s because in cities, unlike anywhere else, everyone’s stuff is out there in the open, all the time, for all to see, not tucked away in backyards and garages. And in cities, there is a much higher volume of people – broken, fundamentally skewed, people. The same kinds of people who live in suburbs (and everywhere else), but more of them.

And people hold incorrect attitudes. More serious crimes – murder, rape, etc. – are inspired by attitudes that we’re all capable of, but to a degree that most people never experience (thank God). The attitude behind petty theft, however, is much more simple, sneaky, and prevalent. I don’t know much about the people that have taken my various belongings over this past year, except this: they all believed that they had a right to something that simply was not theirs, that they did not work for, that they did not earn. I fundamentally disagree with this. But I fear (no, I know) that I also succumb to this temptation.

Justice – in its most basic, brutal form – is rendering each his due, and getting what you deserve. Stealing someone else’s bike, or helping yourself to the contents of their parked car is unjust. But so is squandering someone else’s resources, cutting off the car behind you, and being rude to strangers. In many ways, I hold and act upon the unjust attitudes that led to my things being taken, and I hate that. I am not a petty thief, but I’m not perfectly just either.

There is nothing I can do to undo the injustices that have been done to me – I realize and accept that. But I can try to change how I feel about the things I have, the things I don’t have yet, and the work I do to earn them. Hopefully this is one minuscule step toward making this city better for everyone.