The Vocabulary of Community Building

In my last post, struggling to describe locally-aimed financial support, I determined we need a new term: “locanthropy.”  I talked about the value of volunteering and giving locally, supporting one’s own neighborhood as a primary interest.  Contrast this with another approach, the Not in My Neighborhood attitude detailed in Antero Pietila’s fine book.  During the decades detailed in the book, neighborhood transformation was often relatively swift from White to Jewish to Black and rich to poor and often from good to bad to worse.  Phenomena like “red-lining” and “block-busting” were critical factors in urban decay during an era when race and class defined much of Baltimore living.

Cities now have to contend with a different trend, and this one has a dictionary-endorsed word: gentrification.  There’s an important distinction here.  Urban renewal, revitalization and neighborhood renaissance are good things, great things!  But, in this writer’s humble opinion, great care should be taken not to reap the benefits of increased property value, better schools or improved amenities with a callous eye or ear toward one’s neighbors who have been living in depressed conditions, in dilapidated homes or on the street.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my previous Chicago neighborhood was fairly upscale with wonderful amenities.  An important anchor in the community, however, was the Lakeview Pantry which provided food, clothing, case-management and home-delivery to the needy.  Walking by this beautiful, well-run, and (sadly) often packed facility was a critical reminder of the income disparity that existed in our own neighborhood and in the city of Chicago as a whole.

I was saddened to read a story in yesterday’s Sun Paper that detailed the debate over whether the Beans and Bread soup kitchen in Upper Fells Point ought to expand and improve its facilities.  According to the paper, two neighborhood organizations are fighting the expansion claiming that it will attract more homeless people and further depress housing values. I don’t know the players, the organization’s history or the motivations of the parties, so I don’t feel qualified to address this particular dispute.  Yet, similar debates have taken and are taking place all over the U.S. Homeowners, some of whom invested their life savings several years ago at the top of the market are understandably concerned about property value.  But neighborhoods are organisms with a thousand symbiotic components.  Wealth-building might be a benefit of savvy investiture, but it must not be its goal; too many lives are at stake.  The Torah tells us: “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deu. 24:19).   This mitzvah (called leket/gleaning) cannot be done online or by commuting to some other “problem area” of the city.  This is, by definition, in our own backyards where the hungry are invited to walk into our fields and glean the harvest from our crops.

In order to lessen hunger we must first confront it — not just the knowledge of it but its victims, and confronting the hungry is bittersweet because, on the plus side, it sensitizes us to the reality of poverty in our midst.  It might be, though I haven’t seen any conclusive data, that well-run and effective soup kitchens or food pantries can lessen property values.  But relocating them, kicking them out of the neighborhood, desensitizes us and allows us to devalue human life.  True gentrification can be functionally opposite of locanthropy.   It is taking from one’s neighbors in order to create a climate in which it is easier to replace them.  To explain it another way would be naive at best, criminally negligent at worst.

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