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Kodak headquarters
Max Schulte/Polaris/Newscom
Kodak headquarters

When cities rot

Cities | Residents as well as corporate interests and local officials have to seek the welfare of the city where God has called them

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

Popular historian David McCullough grew up in Pittsburgh during World War II, “when the mills were going full blast, and at night you would see the sky pulsing red from the furnaces going off.” Teachers told him the city’s industry was winning the war: “We were made to feel that we were part of a great world event.” Often he and his friends went door-to-door collecting scrap metal and bacon fat for the war effort.

Most of us don’t want to admit that American cities hit their peak in the 20th century, but across the country are urban centers in decline. The stories in this annual cities issue of WORLD focus on urban revitalization efforts, mostly faith-based, making all the more clear that in America too many cities have lost their purpose and meaning. Some are locked in a pitched battle to regain momentum—often with themselves.

My own city—Asheville, N.C.—is in a heated controversy over state lawmakers’ wanting to turn over the city’s water system to a wider Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD). City fathers and a lot of residents are up in arms about what’s being called “a takeover.” But studies show the MSD, by virtue of its state mandate, its fiscal solvency, and its governing board of elected officials, is more likely to run a better and more cost-efficient water system. Water revenue, it turns out, is big money for many municipalities. For too long my city has been using water revenues to fund other projects instead of tending to its aging water system. But for city residents, this can seem a lose-lose situation: I may favor the idea of an MSD-run water system, but my city property taxes are sure to rise to cover the city’s lost water receipts.

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In Rochester, N.Y., city officials are fighting it out with a community college that wants to move into the old Kodak headquarters. Kodak stopped selling color film in 2009 and in 2012 filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Its sprawling downtown headquarters is for sale, with apparently no outside buyers. The mayor faces losing Monroe Community College with its 3,000 students from one part of downtown to fill the gaping hole left by Kodak—not the type of expansion or boost to the tax base the city desperately needs.

This kind of decline is happening not only across the Rust Belt but in the South, greater Midwest, and other parts of the United States, too, as global manufacturing has taken jobs once tied to places like Pittsburgh or Detroit overseas, and the digital age has made some industries wholly obsolete. When businesses go bust, they leave downtown cores with vacant real estate, and starve city coffers of tax revenue.

As Rochester mayor Thomas Richards told The Wall Street Journal: “The last thing we need is five projects, half-finished. You can’t let your downtown core just rot.”

And it’s not only corporates losing interest in urban centers. Residents are, too. When lawn chairs can be bought on Amazon and the corner newsstand is shuttered—what’s a city for? Trendy restaurants? 

The water battle in my own city and some conversations with local officials have reminded me that my city does more than stage eclectic nightlife for my benefit. It pipes water into my home, paves the roads I drive on every day, lights my street by night, provides law enforcement, fire protection, and more. Those services, even water and sewer, as one member of the MSD board told me, create “a space for common grace.” Though flawed they provide daily our basic needs, even when some residents aren’t aware of them or perhaps paying their fair share for them. 

Rather than filling that space with conflict and striving after personal and private rights, or retreating into walled-off sectors of Christian-only activity, Christians can fill the space of common grace in our cities by looking for ways to be a blessing—even through conflict and in the face of decline. That gives purpose and meaning to the life of any city.


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