Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Slum clearance

Something cool and a little disturbing happened in class today. I was having yet another class read "Crossing the City Line," Robert Orsi's introduction to the pioneering 1998 anthology Gods of the City. It's the best synthesis of American religious history and urban studies I know, and a great introduction to "lived religion" too. It anchored all my "Religious Geography of New York" classes, and "Lived Religion in New York."

Orsi's essay begins with three vignettes, all in the devastated South Bronx in the mid-1980s - a Catholic nun who's moved there to be with the suffering, a German artist who uses an abandoned school for an art work, and an old African American lady who says there's "more bad than good" around. Orsi will go on to suggest that non-urban folks have been "slumming" in the urban for the better part of two centuries, quivering with fear and desire of otherness, poverty, sensuality and vice - the exploitative libertines but also the ascetic do-gooders, all of whom want and need the city to remain alien to small-town or suburban white middle class norms. It's time to listen to the voices of those who make lives in our cities, who "have always had to live in other people's idea of where they live as well as in real places on the ground" (6).

Why was this time different? Two of my students are from the South Bronx! More: one has lived near an intersection Orsi references, and the other went to the school run by the nun's order. They're surprised and even a little pleased to encounter their home rendered an object lesson in this book (no, one wouldn't say more than that it was "interesting"), but I'm aware that the imagined community of the book - its writer and readers - did not anticipate these readers (at least not as I imagined it). I thought I was doing my part to call out the fascination with the "alien city of fear and desire" by assigning Orsi but now I wonder if I've just been slumming all along.

I've a feeling it'll do me a lot of good to learn how to do right by these students.

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