Thursday, May 23, 2013

Admit It: City Redemption Can Excite

Just look at these old photos I found!

I took them in 1993 from the passenger compartment of a large helicopter.  At the time, I was working for a freight forwarding firm in Lower Manhattan, and since we were part of the shipping industry regulated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, we had access to bookings for the Port Authority's helicopters that occasionally flew over and around Manhattan Island and New York Harbor.

Such helicopter tours were normally reserved for corporate titans and heads of state wanting to tour the metropolitan area's vast cargo transportation network, or scout prime locations for establishing what we called transmodal logistics centers.  Transmodal simply means "across modes of travel," so what sounds like impressive terminology simply translates into "how stuff gets moved from one place to another."  Obviously, one can see quite a lot from up high in a helicopter, and considering how miserable getting around New York City's roadways, tunnels, and bridges can be, helicopters also provide the quickest way of navigating the teeming metropolis, especially when you're trying impress visitors.

Today, there seems to be plenty of private, for-profit helicopter activity around New York City, and the Port Authority ended its own helicopter program in 2011.  I don't know if that's significant, but judging by the number of helicopter tour operators up there, it's hard to argue that the Port Authority doesn't have better things to spend its money on, what with the World Trade Center's construction project dragging on.

At any rate, back twenty years ago, when I took these photos, my company was hosting a client from Brazil, and my considerate boss thought that instead of him going with her on the ride, I'd like to go.  And boy, did I!  Back in Texas, my brother had just begun his career in helicopter aviation, and I'd flown with him a couple of times, but never around something as grand and thrilling as Manhattan Island.

In the top photo, we're flying across the harbor, near the New Jersey cargo terminals.  Even though these images are scanned from paper photos, their original quality is also especially bad because, well, they were taken in a fast-moving helicopter that was constantly vibrating!  But honestly, you couldn't take a bad photo of the Twin Towers.  Granted, I never admired those buildings for their architectural beauty, but as far back as I can remember, they stood sentry duty over Lower Manhattan in a brash signature punctuating the financial district's otherwise ubiquitous skyline.  Their replacements, one of which is almost complete, simply pale in comparison.

The next photo shows us high over Central Park, looking down onto Midtown with Lower Manhattan at the top of the photo, like the prow of a massive ship sailing out to the mighty Atlantic Ocean.  We were told by our pilot that only Port Authority, air ambulance, and police helicopters were allowed to fly over Manhattan; all other commercial helicopters had to fly around the periphery of the island.  Today, according to a map of approved flight routes from the FAA, this sky path over Central Park appears open to commercial traffic, but it's the only cross-town route available.

I took the third photo to capture a glimpse of Park Avenue as it marches broadly down to the elegant Helmsley Building and Grand Central Station.  One also gets a sense of the compactness and density of all the apartment buildings that are almost crushed up next to each other, squeezing out as much real estate as this narrow island will yield.  Of course, today, several of these grand old buildings have been torn town and replaced by sleeker, taller, yet less impressive residential skyscrapers, as developers build trophy apartments not for New Yorkers, but for international jet-setters who think paying $90 million for a penthouse is a cheaper alternative to London, England's prices.  Imagine!

Meanwhile, even many of New York's modestly rich residents are finding themselves outpriced in this new real estate trend.  Indeed, in the brave new world of Russian, Brazilian, and Chinese money, wealth is more relative than ever before.

What strikes me as I reminisce about my days in New York while contemplating these old photos is that New York is truly an exciting place.  Of course, that's not news to anybody.  You don't even have to like the place to begrudgingly admit that it's exciting, only perhaps not the type of excitement that excites you.  And then I keep reading articles and essays that still appear to be flooding evangelical websites concerning the virtues and fallacies of pursuing urban ministry.  Ardent advocates for Tim Keller's city-centric church model have been crowing for years now about following the hipsters back into neglected urbanity.  And evangelicals left in the suburbs have had enough of suddenly feeling like second-class citizens in God's Kingdom.

Perhaps it would help smooth the waters if we all just came out and admitted it:  places like New York City, despite their problems, are simply amazing.  They're far more interesting, compelling, and vibrant than suburbia.  And New York City is probably, all things considered, the most interesting, compelling, and vibrant city on the planet.  Keller and his peers haven't gone back into the cities because their Type-A personalities wanted to languish in obscurity.  They knew that the New York's, Chicago's, and Boston's of America still had plenty of life left in them, even if middle-class, white America wanted the relative safety and serenity of the 'burbs.

I mean, look at these photos again!  Think about the role so many of these iconic places have had in our culture:  the Twin Towers, the great harbor, the Empire State Building, Park Avenue, Central Park, even the Helmsley's.  Good and bad, big and bigger, posh and pastoral; if you were a person who thrives on grand challenges and prestigious opportunities, if you couldn't get to New York, wouldn't you try to get to the biggest city you could?

No, New York and cities in general aren't for everybody.  But like the old World War I song goes, "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"  I suppose suburbia has some iconic elements, such as the drive-in, the shopping mall, and the split-level house, but urban icons tend to be more charismatic, and even indelible identities for specific cities.  Meanwhile, split-level homes, for example, are only uncommon here in Texas because the suburban boom hit hardest after split-levels lost their popularity.

To the extent that God led Keller and his peers back into the city at a time when thousands of young hipsters were rediscovering the city, too, shows more of His sovereignty than anything else.  Even as many of these hipsters have matured, gotten married, and repatriated themselves back to suburbia to raise their families, hasn't the surge towards central cities helped ground a new generation of Christ-followers, thanks to the presence of evangelical congregations in newly-gentrified 'hoods?  God had this all mapped out, and we should be glad that He did.

Meanwhile, we can't ignore the reality that adrenaline plays a significant role in the "redeem the city" movement.  There's a certain rush and vibe in conventional downtown cores that you simply don't get in suburbia - hey, that rush and vibe were reasons many people left cities and moved to suburbia over the past sixty years!  It's just that the urban aesthetic is trendy again.  And there's nothing sinful about going to where people are going.

Is there anything extraordinarily significant about cities that make them Biblically compelling places for ministry?  No, at least not compared to suburbia.  The reasons for ministering to urbanites is the same as the reasons for ministering to suburbanites.  God is calling people to repentance all over the world, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, ghettos of both wealth and poverty, and everything in between.  City people aren't any more important to God than people who live anyplace else.  So let's not kid ourselves and assume that just because our ministry's target demographic happens to be what's currently trendy, that ours is the more "relevant" effort.

I've had people ask me if I miss New York, or if I'd ever move back.  I've gotta tell you, I miss the friends I made there more than I miss the city, although surprisingly, I miss many aspects of New York life.  I miss the convenience - if not the chaos - of the subway.  I liked being able to walk practically wherever I wanted to go.  I liked the museums (when they weren't crowded with tourists) and walking home to my apartment with spires for both the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in a single view.  I liked Gotham's cultural mix across the boroughs and was intrigued by the oftentimes bizarre juxtaposition of those cultures and lifestyles.

But I'm not the aggressive, goal-oriented, money-fixated, status-driven, high-energy person who thrives in such a demanding and challenging environment.  You don't have to be all of these things to be a successful New Yorker, but the more of these you lack, the less your chances at surviving the city's grueling lifestyle.  Or even being able to afford it.

Some evangelicals manage to thrive more in some of these areas than others, and they can make the mix work, with God's help.  So it's not like Christ followers in the Big Apple are money-hungry career-climbers bent on buying one of those exotic penthouses.  But I know I have even less of what it takes for Bible-believing people to serve God in such a demanding city.  So I know that I will not be going back there to live.

For the people whom Christ has called to the city, however, He will provide ways for them to serve Him there, just as He provides ways for me to serve Him here in suburbia.

Plus, I have the photos to help remind me of what truly was the most exciting time of my life.  It's just that excitement isn't all there is to life, is it?

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