Thursday, February 21, 2008

Suburban/urban musings: Transience and "relo" culture

Lee Huang over at The Musings of an Urban Christian has invited me to interact with him on some of his musings about urban and suburban culture. He posted several observations on the question of what it means to be a good neighbor in urban and suburban contexts. (Lee fully admits that they're overgeneralizations.) Here is his first musing:
* First, cities experience more residential turnover than suburbs. Where I live, you have a lot of people getting through their graduate studies, or immigrants making an initial stop in familiar enclaves before they branch out, or yuppies making the most of urban life before they have kids. So there's a constant moving in and out, which means more opportunities to help people (move in, move out, answer questions about the neighborhood) but less oomph to really build lasting relationships. Versus suburban neighborhoods tend to be more stable, where you can really get to know your neighbor over time.
My initial response to this (and all the other observations) is that the devil is in the details, and that any or all of them may or not apply to specific local contexts! On transience and turnover - it entirely depends on which particular urban or suburban communities you're talking about. He's quite right that certain kinds of urban neighborhoods are inhabited by the upscale yuppie that lives and works downtown for a few years in a nice loft before moving out to the suburbs. But it's also true that other (perhaps less prestigious) areas of the city are inhabited by long-term residents who have stayed put for decades. Indeed, in some of these local communities, it may well be difficult for newcomers to get plugged in if they're recent transplants, because they lack local history and connections.

And the same is true in some suburban areas more than others. Some suburban communities are fairly stable, but others have extremely high amounts of transition and turnover. The New York Times did an article a few years ago on suburban "relo" culture, relocators who are moved around by their companies every two or three years to different suburban areas all over the nation. The article described this as "the five-bedroom, six-figure rootless life," with kids that change schools constantly, make temporary friends and have the same kinds of activities but no ongoing, lasting friendships because they're just going to be transferred somewhere new next year. The article describes relos this way:

As a subgroup, relos are economically homogenous, with midcareer incomes starting at $100,000 a year. Most are white. Some find the salaries and perks compensating; the developments that cater to them come with big houses, schools with top SAT scores, parks for youth sports and upscale shopping strips.

Others complain of stress and anomie. They have traded a home in one place for a job that could be anyplace. Relo children do not know a hometown; their parents do not know where their funerals will be. There is little in the way of small-town ties or big-city amenities - grandparents and cousins, longtime neighbors, vibrant boulevards, homegrown shops - that let roots sink in deep.

I don't recall the exact statistic right now, but I've heard that on average people move every six years. I can't remember if that's suburban-specific or in general. While trying to find it online, I just came across a journal/blog for relos called ReloJournal. Interesting that there are resources for this, and that relos find community with other uprooted and displaced people.

I think suburban churches have a significant opportunity and challenge in ministering to relos who may only be in the community for brief periods of time but are starving for real connections and friendships. In some ways, relos are a contemporary suburban version of the alien and stranger. They may not be in the same socioeconomic category as international refugees or recent immigrants, but the spiritual and relational dynamic is similar. The ministry of hospitality is very important here, especially the need for people to have quick onramps into the life of the church since there's not much time. You can't be mentored for five years before being invited into service.

Ministering to relos reminds me of when I was a volunteer with an InterVarsity chapter at a community college. We didn't have the luxury of building leadership over three or four years of training and camps. Folks were there for a year or two, maybe even just a semester. So we had social activities pretty much every week, not just once a month or once a quarter, because we needed lots of ways for people to get connected and build relationships quickly. We also threw people in to responsibility right away. Who's coming back next year? Okay, you're chapter president. Who can play guitar? Okay, you're large group coordinator. Who has been in a small group before? Okay, you're a small group leader. Here's a handbook, off you go. It's perhaps not quite this extreme with suburban relos in churches, but it could be close.

It also occurs to me that one way to counter suburban transience is to commit to living in a particular neighborhood and suburb for the long haul. Someone once asked me how writing my book changed my daily life. Something I didn't think to say in response but should have is that while I was working on researching and writing the book, we decided to move to another house. And we considered communities that were farther away where we could get more house for the money. But I had been thinking a lot about the importance of locality and being embedded in a neighborhood and community, and you can't do that if you up and leave. So we ended up moving to a house just two blocks away from our previous one. That way we could stay in the same community and neighborhood, our kids could walk to the same park and see the same ducks, and we could be part of the same civic networks and institutions (one of which being our local library, which we really, really love).

Lee is also right that a key opportunity to minister to folks is at the point of moving in. I'd add that if you don't connect with people pretty soon after they move in, the window of opportunity to get to know them closes and they become people you don't know. There's a house across the street from us that a family lived in for a year or two. We saw them in their front yard occasionally but never really interacted with them. It was like we had mutually and silently agreed to remain strangers. Then they moved out, and a new family moved in. It just so happened that our association picnic was taking place shortly thereafter, and I went over with a flyer and invited them to attend, which they did. So they're not strangers like the previous family were, because we connected with them early. Suburban churches could have "welcome wagon" ministries to help relos get oriented to the local community, find grocery stores and other institutions, and get connected with people in the process.

So suburban Christians can be countercultural by practicing disciplines of stability and permanence, as well has hospitality and welcome for relos coming in and out of our neighborhoods. Lee writes, "Urbanites like me struggle to engage meaningfully with our neighbors, since we are never sure just how long they'll be our neighbors." I think this is a suburban struggle too; maybe it's just a universal human struggle! But if we commit to living in our particular neighborhoods for long periods of time, we can have more opportunities to practice hospitality and befriend our neighbors. And maybe some relos will get so embedded in our communities and churches that they realize that the relo lifestyle is not worth the toll it takes on them, and they'll likewise stay put for the long haul.


Anonymous said...

I have no particular insights here, just some reflections.

People pay off mortgages on average in about 7 years, according to industry statistics. That's because they move -- very few pay off mortgages by making the last payment at the end of 30 years. So the estimate of moving in 6 years makes sense -- renters are more transient.

When we lived in Chicago suburbs, we knew our neighbors to some extent. In the Niles apartment, it was because people sought us out, and we connected with one family. Then in our first house, as a lot of us moved in at approximately the same time, we were all in flux and made connections.

Then we moved into a neighborhood two houses from someone I worked with. Very soon after, we saw them least because the wife was not one to mingle much with other neighbors. In both that neighborhood and the previous one, kids were a big, but by no means the only, driver for getting acquainted.

Next we moved to the Phoenix area. Moving down at the same time was a guy I had worked in the same company with but had never known. Still, we were in flux together and now to be working closely together. Largely because of a common realtor, we moved across the street from each other. Because it was a new neighborhood, everyone was in flux and we got to know several but not all.

Ten years ago we moved again. Also a new neighborhood. However, our kids were grown -- still at home, but not playing on the street any more. The high schooler had friends in the area but not on the street. We'd repaid one couple by taking them to dinner in return for having used their discarded moving boxes, but we never really clicked, and then they moved away. The guy across the street worked for Pepsi; I'd say hello a few times, then they moved. When their replacements moved in, I took some voter registration forms over -- that's the last we've spoken. I would chat briefly with other neighbors when I collect petition signatures for political candidates, but nothing more. I was aware that there were kids playing on the street and that their parents connected, but we didn't.

When I was out of work I spent more time in the front yard. Here, front yard is significantly different than back yard -- back yards are surrounded by cement block walls; front yards are open. In the front yard, I'd see a neighbor walk by. He was the builder, so I had met him before. He was walking to his daughters' houses at the other end of the street. He'd stop; we'd chat. It evolved into wine and cigars on his patio every few Fridays.

When he turned 70, his very Italian family had a party for him and my wife and I were invited, along with several others from the street. We were amazed at the number of neighbors who came over and introduced themselves. We now speak casually with several of our neighbors, and we went to a Christmas party one hosted. We still have little in common that we know of, but getting the ice-breaker of the 70 year party clearly has made a difference in starting relationships.

Would a block party work as well? I don't think so. Block parties are good for mingling, but they're also opportunities to spend time with those you already like. The party invitation was, it seems to me, as much an endorsement as it was a mingling opportunity.

Friar Tuck said...

stability is a difficult discipline.