Cities, Neighborhoods and Fear

Perhaps analogous to Thoreau’s adage that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is something like “inner city-dwellers live in varying levels of constant fear.”

I say this as someone who recently moved to a pretty rough neighborhood in Winnipeg, where the fearful whispers of people who find out that we live in “that neighborhood” constantly drift behind our back. These whispers are not without warrant, as an incident experienced by a friend of ours painfully illustrated.

And yet, I wonder if the premium we normally place on physical safety is all it’s cracked up to be. Is a sense of safety (which I think is an attempt to deny that we will in fact die one day) really something that trumps every other consideration? Is this a question that can even seriously be asked in a culture of plastic surgery, gated communities and seniors’ homes (which keep these dying people nicely out of sight)?

Obviously, I would say no. I would be so bold as to say that I would rather deal with the possibility of some physical danger (overblown as it is) than with the soul-destroying effects of living in the suburbs. This isn’t to minimize the very real physical trauma that can occur in rougher neighborhoods, but these are places where the ephemeral concerns of our society get stripped away; where we can begin to better see what is (and isn’t) important in life. Instead of the suburban rat race where you say, “I am inferior to the Joneses,” you might have the same amount of stuff (or less) and say “I have too much, and there are so many I can give to. Oh, and maybe I should consume less too.”

And of course, as one who follows Christ, I can think of no other path to follow than the narrow one, the one that goes against the societal grain and puts me in contact with uncomfortable situations which cause me to realize that 1) I really do need God (in more than an abstract cerebral manner) and 2) other people need God too.

So, fear is perhaps best understood as an indicator of your core values; of what you think is most important and are therefore afraid of losing. And I’m much more afraid of losing my soul in the suburbs than the potential violence of the West End.

11 responses to “Cities, Neighborhoods and Fear”

  1. Matt, knowing you, I am assuming you didn’t mean to generalize all of suburbia. However, I can’t help but comment on the statement that the suburbs are soul destroying. You must mean that there is a general temptation of envy in the suburbs, not that everyone that lives in the suburbs will fall into that temptation.

  2. nope. Matt means that people who live in Suburbia have no souls!


    I like this post. Good insights into fear and locking away that fear so it is unseen.

  3. hey matt,
    great thoughts. glad to welcome you to the westend. next step…north!
    i face this idea of fear often, especially with raising children which takes it to a whole new level.
    are you prepared for that?

  4. William: What I’m saying is that the suburbs have an insidious ability to subvert even the most well intentioned and aware person into buying a certain story about “the good life,” one which is generally not compatible with discipleship. Add to that the fact that they are grossly unsustainable, historically connected with racism, and the most largest waste of human resources in the history of the world… I have some issues with them.

    Surely there is a need for brave people (braver than I) to live the Gospel in the suburbs. But most people living there consider it “safe,” which is precisely the problem I was getting at here.

  5. becks: nice one ;)

    Yeah, fear is definitely something that we need to pay better attention to, particularly the kind that controls us without us realizing it.

    Maria: It’s good to be here. And yes, that will be another challenge, one which I’ll never be wholly prepared for. But so would bringing my children up around snobby rich kids in the burbs…

  6. Matt. I have never lived in the inner city, and always lived in a rural community. Do you view that as the same as living in the suburbs? Are you saying that my soul is at greater risk of being destroyed than yours? If so, I would suggest placing the onus not on where a person lives, rather how the person responds to their living conditions.

    Pardon me if I sound like I am on the defense. I just don’t think I would be a very good husband and father if I made my pregnant wife and 2 kids move to the inner city because the risk of destroying our souls is less than living the “comfortable life” outside of the city. In fact, we moved out of Winkler to the country so our children would find more things to occupy their time with than watching TV.

    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised how quickly you may change your argument once you have children of your own! Not that you would become corrupt in your thinking, but you would simply have a better understanding of why families with children choose not to live in the inner city.

    Personally, I am a bit disappointed in your generalization of the suburbs and the type of people that live there. “Snobby rich kids” is definitely the case much of the time, but there is no need to think that your kids would become corrupt simply by living in the same neighborhood as snobs. The responsibility is yours to teach and bring up your children to guard against snobbery and racism, regardless of what your neighbors kids are like. Thugs are the generalization for kids in the inner city, so you are not a whole lot better off in that department.

    Finally, I do agree that it is no safer in the suburbs than it is in the inner city. If it was just Lynn and myself, with no children, we would most likely be living in a similar situation as yourself. However, I don’t believe that my choice to live in rural Manitoba is a choice that will determine the destination of my, our my family’s soul.

    I hope you don’t mind me publicly challenging you on this, I love getting other people involved in these discussions.

  7. William: It’s OK to be defensive, since I am likely being offensive. :)

    No, living rurally is an entirely different situation than living in the suburbs. The city can only exist with a good relationship with the country, and generally vice-versa. The suburbs are something completely different. The suburbs are nowhere; no-place. They are an attempt to bring the best of country living into the city, but manage to be a cartoon of country living in a cartoon of a city. They are not truly connected with living systems (the real benefit of the country), nor are they provided with the diverse stimuli of a real city.

    Also, the suburbs are decent places to raise children… until they turn somewhere between 10 and 12. And then all hell breaks loose, because the suburbs are so insular and dull that it’s deathly boring for older kids and teens. My stint in south St. Vital provided ample evidence of this, with nearly as much graffiti as the inner city, trashed bus shelters, overturned newspaper vendors…

    Your emphasis on responsibility is a good one. No environment is a perfect one, each has its own tradeoffs, and you have to make the best of it. The kids in my neighborhood are definitely not saints. I would still rather deal with their kind of problems than the problems bred in the suburbs. But whatever environment we do choose, there are going to be forces at work greater than our ability to simply overcome with good parenting, I think.

  8. Thanks Matt, very insightful! Like I said, I have spent my entire life in rural southern Mb, so I am a bit ignorant when it comes to city life. I assumed, wrongly, that you were talking about the physical suburbs of the city, where all the houses look the same and there are man-made lakes in every neighborhood. I now understand the realm you are talking about. The realm of “the good life”, where everyone pretends to be friends, but slander each other behind their backs. Like you said, this is not a physical location, rather an idea of how things should be in perfect western utopia.

    Thanks for clearing that up! I can now agree that I, also, would much rather live in a physical unsafe environment than an environment in which there is no need for God, and the only thing I desire is to make my lawn greener than Mr. Jones.


  9. William: Well, I haven’t made myself completely clear then. When I talk about the suburbs being “nowhere,” I mean that they’re not really a place (even though they are a literal physical environment.) They are an attempt to live in the country while living in the city, but they are neither the city nor the country. They are a physical representation of the fantasy that you can escape all of the problems of living with others by building your secluded castle in the burbs.

    So, I am talking about the physical suburbs, absolutely. That physical environment and the type of life that tends to occur there are connected for a reason. For instance: it’s impossible to build a smaller house tan anyone else on your street, because the neighbors are scared it will affect their property values. You are therefore required to buy more house than you need (in most cases) simply to live there, meaning that greed and envy are built right into the physical environment. Discrimination too, since it’s always about keeping out “those people” (poorer people.)

  10. My view of what you are describing as the suburbs has not come from real life experience, rather only what people have said about it. Either I have an incorrect understanding of the suburbs, or your definition is simply different than the definition I have come to understand.

    Wikipedia explains the suburbs quite clearly, and I have read the articles in depth so I can correctly understand what you are talking about. I never realized that suburbs are almost always governed by separate regulations. I thought that was only the case in certain areas of the city. It appears as though the suburb community has a goal of separating themselves from the “unclean”.

    Wikipedia states, “In many parts of the globe, however, suburbs are economically poor areas, inhabited by people sometimes in real misery.” So, although the North American version of the suburbs is what you are describing, much of the rest of the world is quite different.

    It’s kind of funny that it states “people in real misery.” I don’t think the North American suburb communities are any better off when it comes to misery.

    I hope my understanding is more aligned with what you are talking about.

  11. William: The North American suburbs might have just as much misery, it’s just that theirs comes from issues other than abject poverty. More like loneliness and alienation.

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