In Trust editor Jay Blossom recently spoke with Eric Jacobsen about the relationship of seminaries to their neighborhoods and the need for Christians to be committed to their cities and towns. Jacobsen is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith(Brazos, 2003, 190 pp., $20).
How did you get interested in this field?
I got interested in this topic living in an older pre-World War II neighborhood and serving a church in a similar kind of pre-World War II neighborhood, and realizing that those neighborhoods were actually gaining in popularity. People wanted to live there.
The disconnect was that these neighborhoods were built against the [current] zoning codes. For instance, my neighborhood is I think 60 percent noncompliant with the zoning codes. So I noticed there was a disconnect in American building practices — we were creating and sustaining legislation that forced developers to build the kinds of environments that people didn't want to live in anymore. It seemed like there was a shift back to older models of neighborhood life that our legislation hadn't caught up with yet. I started getting aware of that conversation.
This sounds like the argument made in the Duany-Plater-Zyberk book, Suburban Nation. You probably read that about the same time I did.
Yes, that was one of the early books. Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities is the first book I read on that topic. All of them were making that same point: We've been made a lot of promises in the postwar era about this new way of separating [land] uses. We should check back on that experiment and see if it's really delivered on the promises that it made. A lot of people are saying, "No, it hasn't."
People actually like a little more complexity. They like things to be mixed up a bit more. They like more density. They don't need quite as much privacy as market experts were saying.
Do you think this is a majority movement? Or do you think it is a significant minority of people who are interested more in those old neighborhoods?
I think it's a significant minority. You know, most of what's being built is suburban, and that's always going to be the cheapest option. So, if you follow what [neighborhoods] people are choosing, it's going to be strongly in favor of suburban settings. So it is a minority that wants to [live] in urban settings, but it's hard to say just how significant that minority is.
There have been some surveys taken that suggest there are quite a few more people that would like to live in denser, more urban settings than have the opportunity to. If they could afford it they would do it.
Are you comfortable with the language of moral imperative? Or is this a preference? That is, are downtown communities, whether in small towns or big cities — are those better than suburban communities? Or would you rather use the language of options?
I think on one level I'd be happy with a level playing field. Since World War II, suburban development has been favored so much that it would be nice just to have a more level playing field. That is, somebody who wanted to develop a denser mixed-use neighborhood would have that opportunity. And lending practices would allow that.
Cautiously one could assert a moral imperative. One of the problems of postwar development is its tendency to separate people and separate functions. I don't think it honors the human ability to make plans and to solve one's own problems. It tends to try to bureaucratize so much of our lives that I think it does have a reducing effect on the human spirit.
In terms of resources, I think it was James Howard Kunstler who said that when you look at how the suburbs were laid out — with the freeways between them and the assumptions about how we're going to get from one place to the other — it would be harder to think of a less efficient way to allocate resources. You're really requiring a lot of driving. You're requiring a lot of everything to be spread out and not shared. This is based on an assumption that resources will be cheap and available. It couldn't even be conceived of in certain countries that don't have a lot of money.
There are towns across North America that have churches at the centers of them, and a lot of these churches are struggling while at the same time churches out on the bypass are thriving. Should Christians be committed to downtown in their worship life?
Well, some of that observation is starting to shift a little bit. I think people need to be careful of generalizing. Some of the nondenominational churches are now looking back to the city as a place for ministry. They're seeing the limits of the suburban model of ministry. A lot of megachurches are getting a bit anxious about what has been described as the drawbridge mentality of a church — you let the drawbridge down and put all the people in there, and then they worship and you keep them there as long as you can. And then they go home, but they don't get involved in their own neighborhoods. I think there are some real limits there.
One of the things I've noticed is that some of the downtown churches are not really aware of the shift in demographics around them. One church I was consulting with was an ethnic church, and the first-generation church founders initially lived in the neighborhood of the church and that's where they got their first homes. And when they got more established and had a little bit more money, they sold their houses near the church and moved out to the suburbs but continued going to church and being involved there.
Then, more recently, they saw these young faces attending their church, and they assumed that the pattern was repeating — here were some young people getting their starter homes near the church, and soon they would move out to the suburbs. I was in a conversation with these folks, and one of the young people said, "Actually, you've misunderstood. We just sold our home in the suburbs and paid about twice as much to live near this church."
The church leaders had no idea. They thought that their neighborhood was made up of young families getting started. Or impoverished people. They didn't realize that house prices had skyrocketed all around the church.
Part of it is just not being aware of the changing demographics. Even the term "urban ministry" is one that needs to be contested. A lot of times, "urban ministry" means ministry to poor or minority populations. Whereas when you look at the newest people moving to urban areas — in our town it's the million-dollar condo dwellers. I'm waiting for some church to say that urban ministry is high-end, catered events for our wealthy neighbors that live next door to us. I just think that churches are, once again, a little bit behind the trend, not realizing that things are changing.
Can you just say a few words about what urbanism means in a smaller city context?
To me, urbanism means that you can access a variety of types of activities within a five-minute walk of your home or church. "Mixed-use" is one way of describing that. So you have apartment buildings next to houses and maybe a store on the corner. Those are features of urban life at a variety of scales, from small town to big city. In that setting, you can choose to drive your car, or you can take the bus, or you can walk to a variety of destinations. Those are urban features.
Public space is central. Usually an urban setting has a nice network of sidewalks. You've got some public buildings that are pretty. You've got some public spaces that are used and well shaped. Whereas in suburban settings, everything tends to be private — carved up for development. The leftovers are for public use.
More and more, the term "neighborhood" is an important marker. A neighborhood that has a sense of cohesion — that you can walk around in — is really the basic building block of human community. One of the things suburbs try to do is build places for various functions without resorting to building neighborhoods. So a small town might be a cluster of a few neighborhoods and a large city might have a whole bunch of neighborhoods joined together with higher buildings, but still there are essential neighborhoods at the core of both.
So "walkability" is a key component. And having a center.
Right, having a clear center.
And centers marked by public space including public buildings and public open space. Perhaps a town square at the center with the city hall or the courthouse either in the square or facing the square. In most traditional small towns, there are churches there in the center, usually facing the square. Sometimes you'll have competing denominations, so you have a forest of steeples around the square.
If a seminary is considering moving from its old campus to a newer campus in the suburbs, what should the trustees consider?
Well, those are complicated situations — each one's different. But one thing to consider is recent history. "Form follows function," the motto by which a lot of modern buildings were built, is being questioned. A lot of buildings built on that model — according to immediate needs — don't fulfill their functions very well. Maybe for businesses, where the clear mission is to make money and maximize the bottom line, some of those buildings work. But in more complex endeavors, like the raising of a family, or, I would argue, for a church or seminary, what they're trying to do is more complex.
You know, office parks are dismal places at lunchtime. At a lot of places in older neighborhoods, you can go get some good cheap food by just walking around the block. But in the office park, you pretty much have to have a cafeteria. All the activities that are involved in theological education need to be considered — even ones that don't seem all that profound, like getting lunch. That's going to feel different if you move to a new campus.
There is some merit to caring for old structures and investing in places that will be around for another couple hundred years. Most new construction is on a much shorter time frame.
A seminary, like any educational institution, has a certain impermanence embedded into it. Most of your population will be there for a short period of time, so it's hard to say with a lot of authority how they can best connect with their community when they're just there for that short period. But I do think that seminaries model something — students are learning theology through the curriculum, but they're also absorbing a model for problem-solving. If we follow that modernist paradigm of separating our functions cleanly and making everything efficient, routinizing our functions — that kind of model gets transmitted to students who will go to churches and will use that approach to solving problems there too: "Let's get rid of this old, dusty thing because we can make it more efficient if we move to the edge of town."
Tell me about your experience at seminary. You went to Princeton. Did you live in student housing?
How close is the student housing? I assume it's right there adjacent to the academic buildings.
This was early in my formation on this. Princeton had two options for student housing. You could either live right next door to campus in the smaller apartments, or you could live two miles away in the larger apartments. The larger apartments had a swimming pool and more lawn and bigger places. We right away wanted to live close to campus and would put up with the smaller apartment. We really enjoyed the fact that I could walk, I didn't have to take the shuttle or take a car to school. I could walk to school and we could walk to downtown Princeton. So that really worked well for me in terms of connecting home life with school life. I was married and so my wife, who was not on campus as a student, felt really connected to campus because we lived there.
Did you have kids at that point?
No, we didn't. Quite a few residents did — it was fun to have the kids around. I do think that the suburban model plays into that public-private split. The man goes off to work and the woman stays home and cares for the house. I think that model is no longer really being used by a lot of people, and yet suburban-type solutions tend to point in that direction.
When I was at Fuller, we lived two blocks from campus, we chose the closest residential thing to campus, and we did have kids at that time. And we got involved. We sent our kids to the public school that's near Fuller. In fact there were — gosh, I'd say about 30 Fuller families that went to that school. We were a significant chunk of that population, and that school was one of the best-performing schools in a troubled school district. If you asked any of the teachers or the principal, they'd attribute that to the impact of Fuller families in the school. So it was very good for all of us to care about something beyond just the particular areas of theological education — to be involved in the community. It gave us an example. Now when we move to a new community, one of our first thoughts is getting some other parents together to make a difference in the local school. We've had that experience. We take that experience, a positive experience of being part of Pasadena, and translate it.
If a [theological] school wants to have a cultural impact in the world at large, I think it really makes the most sense to try out some of that cultural work in a local setting. To me, that just makes sense. The danger of theological education is to get too abstract and too removed in our thinking without the corrective of trying stuff out.
At Fuller, the campus is laid out with students walking around from place to place. One thing I discovered there was that official communications — flyers and e-mails — would just stack up, and I never really read them. And the reason was this: If I had spent time on campus each day, if anything interesting was happening, I would hear about it. That is, if there was a really interesting lecture going on, or some activity that's had gained a lot of momentum over the years, I would just hear about it. I learned to pay attention to buzz like that and ignore all the official lines of communication. And it guided me pretty well.
Fuller's layout allowed me, just by going to the library and getting a couple of books, running to my seminar, and then maybe going to my office coming back — just in that short time I would probably have dozens of quick conversations with people, and I would know all that I needed to know about what was happening that week. In a more office-park environment, where students drove in and drove out again, that would really limit the way in which traditions could grow.