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Alabaster cities

Cities | A lot went into building American cities, but false visions can destroy them

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

“Nice buildings in this town.” Two guys occupy the seat in front of me, and as the bus pulls out of the Greyhound station I catch their conversation: “Uh-huh.” “Never been here before. Did you see that thing—that arch?” “Yeah, I think St. Louis is kind of famous for that.”

Man-made canyons flash by. Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals, hipped right up against the interstate; in the near distance, historic cathedrals and the mighty Mississippi. The morning light on a clear day shows St. Louis off to fine advantage.

Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old (Lamentations 1:7).

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St. Louis was named for France’s crusader king, whose equestrian statue, holding high the cross, greets visitors to a world-class art museum. To my in-laws, St. Louis is “the city,” the special-night destination for a concert or a game, or for an everyday job before the Chrysler plant closed down. As the bus heads west I wonder what else might be closing down.

Her gates have sunk into the ground … the law is no more and her prophets find no vision from the Lord (Lamentations 2:9).

Great cities string out like pearls along I-70; the bus had stopped at each one. Indianapolis, encountered at night, is a glittering confection wrapped in highway interchanges. Columbus spreads out sparkling greenspaces, bustling businesses, orderly traffic. Pittsburgh exuberantly embraces its geography—those mountains, those rivers, those springing bridges, that ballpark! Mean streets thread the clean marble surfaces, crime lurks in dark alleys and grimy corners, but to a traveler passing through, these bold strokes of interchange and skyscraper are the very picture of confidence.

How does it happen?

Pittsburgh was a lonely frontier outpost, St. Louis a smoky French trading village, Indianapolis and Columbus were necessary exchange centers for the farmers and town-builders of Middle America. People are drawn together, and with the right conditions—a river, a railroad, a convergence of trails—cities grow. Somehow everybody deals in: contributes a song, a saying, a landmark restaurant, or just a sturdy back. In time, neighbors with diverse backgrounds and futures, largely unknown to each other, build huge multifaceted operations where the trash is picked up and the utility lines hum and the potholes get fixed overnight.

Such a metropolis, from similar humble beginnings, was Detroit.

Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions (Lamentations 2:14).

Who’s to blame for a great city’s fall? A lot of finger-pointing goes on, but it comes down to false and deceptive visions. For example: Padded accounts and kickbacks are just another way of doing business. Retirees can be paid as much or more than the fully employed. The good times will roll on like a GTO, and if they don’t, a flashy media campaign will prime the prosperity pump again.

Some corruption comes with the territory; the taint of human nature. Party machines and political bosses become the stuff of legend. But every lie scoops a little more substance from a city’s heart until it’s almost hollow. Just as growing townships reach critical mass, declining ones pass the point of no return. A funky new Detroit may bubble up within the ruins, but Motor City is gone forever.

“Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” … “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).

Might there be something of Jerusalem in every American city? Every skyline boasts a steeple and a cross, a hopeful shadow cast upon daily endeavor. “America the Beautiful” isn’t just about purple mountains and amber grain, but also human striving: “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears … America! America! God mend thine every flaw; Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

These wonderful buildings didn’t rise on their own—but they’ll fall on their own, when and if the invisible cords of law and self-control can no longer hold them up.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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