Urban Apologia

Since last Friday, when a mad-man gunned down 20 children who were close to or exactly the same age as my own children, I’ve been thinking about my family’s choice to live in Baltimore city.  This soul-searching is deeply ironic of course.  Newtown, CT, is a small town, and what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary is a sobering reminder that violence is hardly restricted to urban environments – it transcends race and socioeconomic level.  I, myself, encountered unspeakable violence in my safe and suburban hometown of Niles, IL, an experience I detailed in a sermon last year (click here).  And nearly two years ago, I spoke after the Tucson shooting on the importance of common sense gun control.  If you too are looking for something meaningful to do in the wake of Sandy Hook, please consider signing the following petition which calls for comprehensive reforms to end gun violence and ensure better mental health care access.

Yes, violent crime plagues our entire country: urban, suburban and rural, small towns, big cities and everything in between.  But despite this truth, one cannot argue with another truth: urban crime and violence are worse.  Crime happens more often to more people in cities.  It is perpetrated more frequently by city-dwellers.  Any other claim is plain denial, and denial isn’t just a polluted river flowing beneath the JFX.  The fact is, urban living brings challenges.  Two weeks ago a young man was shot and killed in a targeted murder one block from where we lived until this past summer, two blocks from where I live now.  I was worried when, last year, someone tried (unsuccessfully) to break into our house.

This is not to say that Reservoir Hill is terribly dangerous.  We love our neighbors and walk the neighborhood with comfort and ease.  Our police commander has assured me that crime (including violent crime) is significantly down in our neighborhood this year as it has been for several years.  But the fact remains that population density, concentrated poverty, poor schooling, easy access to firearms, insufficient police funding – all the endemic challenges of urban life conspire to foster more crime and more violence.

So, again, I find myself thinking about my family’s choice to live in Baltimore City.  And I conclude, once again, that we absolutely made the right choice.  Jewish living is, by definition, to be a change agent, to leave our society and our world better, fuller, safer and healthier than we found it.  I’ve explored, in numerous other posts, the benefits of city living.  Across the nation, cities are on the upswing.  They’re cleaner, greener and (yes) safer.  But they don’t get this way on their own.  Cities improve because significant numbers of people choose to live and work in them.  They invest time and resources, their social capital, into making their neighborhoods better.

Are we afraid?  Yes, sometimes we are.  Common sense precautions are certainly called for.  But, as the Midrash says, the waters could only part and the children of Israel could only be redeemed when Nahshon ben Amminadav stepped into the Red Sea.  And Michael Strassfeld reminds us that Chanukah’s true miracle isn’t really that the oil lasted for eight days.  The true miracle was that, given the insufficient oil to last long enough for more to be procured, the Maccabees lit the menorah anyway.  AJ Heschel coined the phrase: “a leap of action.” Last summer, we bought a house in the city near Beth Am.  It’s beautiful.  We love it.

And this Chanukah, we sat cross legged with our children and lit our chanukiot in the window-sills as Jewish families almost certainly did in those same windows over 100 years ago.

This is why I live in the city.

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