Category Archives: Urban Theory

Neighborhood pt. II

the Lexington Hotel - Al Capone's headquarters

The 2011 Congress hotel, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is considered part of the Near South Side.  The Near South Side, located just south of downtown, has probably seen as dramatic change and redevelopment as any Chicago community.  For a good brief on its unique and turbulent history check out the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago entry.

The Hyatt McCormick Place is also just north of Bronzeville, part of the South Side.  Chicago’s South Side has long had a distinct identity.  Often identified in the second half of the twentieth century with the city’s African American population, it has actually accommodated remarkable diversity.  For a good brief on its unique and turbulent history check out the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago entry.

2011 Congress Hotel - Hyatt McCormick Place

We encourage participants of the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry to reserve a room at the Hyatt and take advantage of the wonderful facilities and proximity to all of the Congress program and events.  It will be the hub of all Congress activities and of the gathered community.

About Neighborhood pt. I

Neighborhood is important.

The word not only signals the community that builds itself up in a particular place or topos – it also signifies context.  Walk down any city sidewalk or backwoods path and you are walking over history.  The particular feel of a place can be so strong that you can, well, feel it…

As we prepare for the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry we’ve been getting to know a neighborhood just to the south of downtown.  We’ve walked it sidewalks and biked its roads and back alleys in search of the restaurants, attractions, and hidden gems of this oft overlooked neighborhood.  In the meantime we’ve stumbled upon a remarkable history that still whispers its unique mixture of splendor, vibrancy, and struggle from bricks and mortar.  We’ll have a bit more on the history of the neighborhood tomorrow, for now, check out the hidden gems we encountered:

Local Attractions Map

1. Lakeshore Trail – Walking/Running Path
2. National Vietnam Veteran’s Art Museum
3. Chicago Women’s Park & Garden
4. Lakeside Bank Branch
5. Second Presbyterian Church
6. Willie Dixon’s Blues Garden/Formerly Chess Records Studio
7. Former Site of Lexington Hotel (Al Capone)
8. Historic Motor Row Automobile District
9. Trinity Episcopal Church
10. Chinatown Neighborhood
11. CTA Red Line – Cermak/Chinatown Stop
12. Closest CTA Bus Stop & Metra McCormick Place Station
13. The Shrine Night Club
14. Reggie’s Music Joint & Rock Club
15. Historic Bronzeville Neighborhood

Local Restaurants

In addition to the food and beverage options here within the Hyatt, consider venturing out into the neighborhood to find some of the hidden jems of Chicago’s Near South Side.  This map details 20 food options within short to moderate walking distance.  Cabs and busses also operate along Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and can take you up Michigan Ave. directly to the heart of downtown Chicago: the Loop.

1. Triad Sushi Lounge
2. La Cantina Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar
3. Kroll’s Bar & Grill
4. Cafe Society Coffeehouse
5. McCormick Place Foodcourt
6. McDonald’s
7. Burger King
8. Pizzeria Brandi
9. Chef Luciano Gourmet Chicken
10. White Castle
11. Harold’s Chicken Shack
12. Liang’s Kitchen Chinese Food
13. J & J Fish & Chicken
14. Cafe Biondia Italien Restaurant
15. Opart Thai House Restaurant
16. South Loop Market Grocheries
17. South Coast Sushi Bar
18. Green Leaf Food Market Groceries
19. Dunkin’ Doughnuts
20. Chinatown Neighborhood (numerous options)


The Soul of the City

Walking Pace and the Soul of the CityDid you know that you can use the walking pace of an average city dweller [number of footsteps per unit of time] to determine how many libraries that specific city has?

How about the amount of crime?

The average wage?

The number of colleges?

The population?


Well, at least with a reasonable degree of error.  How reasonable?  Quite!

Jad Abumrad RadiolabIn a recent podcast from New York public radio’s Radiolab, co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich aim the powers of science towards that perennial question: what gives cities their unique feel?  Many of us have had the experience of being in a city and sensing a distinct identity or personality from the city itself.  Is the personality of a city something which we imagine or, to use a science term, are there specific elements in an urban environment which create a unique city DNA?

Surprisingly, even though science is not incredibly well equipped to examine things like culture, history, ethnology, social mores and customs, there are data-based judgments that scientists can make about a city from something simple and quantitative like walking speed, that speaks novels about the city in question.

Needless to say, footsteps per unit of time and other telling data all ride shotgun to one, most important, type of data and… it’s so simple it’s almost criminal: population.  No, not population density or population demographics but… just population.   These “specificities, [like] the local history, are in large part insignificant… they are completely overwhelmed by these generic laws of urban scaling”.

I am tempted to say more but, really, this should be listened to.

So, strap yourself in and enjoy an hour of science and the city that can only be explained as fun and full of holy wonder.

Listen to the Cities episode here at

Unfortunately, Violence is not just a Chicago Problem

Chicago And Minneapolis skylines

I have really come to love Chicago, that endlessly bustling city next to an endlessly stretching lake, but I do have to admit more than the occasional pang of longing for the city I grew up in.  Minneapolis and St. Paul are like toddler cousins compared to Chicago but they do share some great commonalities with their diverse and expansive fields of art, cuisine, music, and a distinctly Midwestern urban beauty.  Unfortunately, these cities also share a struggle with violence that is becoming increasingly common in American cities of all sizes and localities.

Just this past weekend my parents passed on a letter to the editor from the laudable Minneapolis rag the Star Tribune.  I can’t help but feel that the experience of this European sums up a perspective that we Americans may be too close to see.  Something about our history and culture has tied us too closely with guns to really have an accurate perspective on their influence in our lives.  Perhaps it is time to lay aside some of our American self-confidence and give a patient ear to the perspective of countries that have very little problems with hand-gun homicides.  Are we really that afraid of what we’ll hear that we refuse to listen?

Here is a clipping of the letter to the editor from July 30th, Star Tribune:

Restoring Urban Communities

Mary Nelson teaching at Lake & Pulaski

Last weekend I spent some time in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago with Dr. Mary Nelson’s “Restoring Urban Communities” class.  If you haven’t heard about Mary Nelson you’ll want to – especially if  you’re involved in community development, community organizing, or just live in a neighborhood you care about.  Just as Dr. Nelson’s approach to C.D. (everyone in this field loves acronyms) is firmly rooted in the context of the community so is her May SCUPE/Loyola class.

Downtown From Rooftop Prarie on Eco-building

On the particular day I visited with the class Mary had us all cram into a 15 passenger van as she zoomed around the neighborhood.  At every corner of every block there was a story about a struggle the neighborhood had faced and how the community overcame, or at the very least challenged, the issues.  In 30 years of existence, Bethel New Life (the non-profit started by the Bethel Lutheran congregation) has joined the neighborhood in its joys and its struggles and has provided a model for the way church should be.

Two key elements of the way of church-life which Mary teaches are listening and an asset-based approach to looking at communities.  Listening is probably the more difficult of the two while Asset-based community development (ABCD) is the more counter-intuitive.

Reflection Back in the Classroom

The reason for this is that we are all quite used to going into communities and situations with our analytical minds probing for deficits and deficiencies.  Actively seeking out assets and proficiencies is hard-wired into the human brain.  From the dawn of conscious thought ancient humans analyzed their environment in search for the “wrong” factors that might prove dangerous: a sharp sudden cliff, a structurally un-sound cave, a bog stiff with lurking log-like snouts of crocodiles.  Our very survival has for centuries, and does still, depend on our ability to scout out what is wrong with a situation or an environment.

Looking for assets thus goes against a natural grain in our thinking.  This, I believe, is its wonderful offering to us though.  Looking at a community through asset mapping allows us to think in a different frequency and to see things that we would have otherwise ignored or written off.

We must learn to listen, to ask the right questions, and to look forward our neighborhoods walks, to unexpected conversations, and even community changes as chances to see what jumps out at us.  Maybe that lion is also a source of food!

Learning amidst the Rooftop Prairie and Solar Panels

Evangelism and Community Development

Roger Johnson

I started out as a youth worker in Chicago’s Humboldt Park in 1973, so I’ve been in urban ministry for a long time. I’ve seen God do some great things during those years, but I’ve also seen too much tension between urban ministers who’ve worked for community development (social & racial justice, full employment, good housing, quality education) and urban ministers whose primary concern has been evangelism (preaching & proclaiming the gospel, teaching God’s word, reaching people with Jesus’ salvation and starting new churches).

I’m now 58 years of age (wow!), and it’s occurring to me that community development and evangelism actually inform and resource each other a lot more than they stand in competition for urban energy, time and dollars. They’re really partner ministries and with complementary skill sets. Let me explain.

Both community development and urban evangelism seem to work best at grassroots levels. Urban leaders serve most effectively as they talk and minister directly to their neighbors, friends, relatives, and people on the edges of community groups, churches, block clubs and service agencies. A good community developer is a busy person who knows lots of people and is constantly calling, visiting, and listening to their needs. A good urban evangelist is is also a busy person with lots of people contacts and is also actively listening to people’s needs. Even when you have important news for people’s lives, you still have to hear their questions and stories first!

Community developers and evangelists both work best when they care for and love the people they’re serving. Each worker may have a strong understanding of their own goals, strategies and tactics; but without some compassion for the people they work with, very little gets accomplished.

It also seems to me that both the community developer and the urban evangelist must have a sense of the large transcendent values if they are to succeed in their work — especially through discouragements that will inevitably occur. The community developer must know that the temporary victories and defeats in their work are laying the foundation for better lives (social, economic, spiritual) for families and individuals. By the same token, the urban evangelist must also have a larger confidence that God is taking the good news they proclaim and using it to build a strong footing in the hearts and minds of people.

Community developers and evangelists are active, people-focused, caring and transcendent urban servants. Both are high-impact and centered upon change in people’s lives. As the community developer and urban evangelist continue to work for change, they complement, teach and even transform each other.

– Roger Johnson

79th Street Festival

Urban Den-City

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from a pastor in Cagayan de Oro city in the Philippines.  I have to admit that I looked it up on the map.  As my geography skills probably hover just around average for Americans (as 2006 study reported that 63 percent of young Americans were unable to find Iraq on a map… as evidenced in this video) I was surprised to learn how big Cagayan de Oro is for a city I had never heard of.  The 2007 census estimated the population at 553,996 people.  By our own 2007 estimates, this would put the city at about the same size as Portland, OR.

World Population Density By Country

This e-mail from a potential Congress 2011 attendee got me thinking though about how different urban areas are globally.  The most obvious example of this is population density.  I tend to think of Chicago as an incredibly densely populated area but in reality, it doesn’t even crack the top 125 on this list of the most densely populated cities in the world.  In fact, it takes up until #90 for Los Angeles, the most densely populates U.S. city, to even factor in.  That being said, I think I am ready to learn more about cities on a global scale.  How does population density affect oil consumption?  How do architecture and public space affect crime and civic engagement?  How do culture and faith affect a people’s ability to live together peacefully?

Petrol Use by Urban Density

This process of connecting with one of our global partners has been a reminder that people experience immensely different realities depending on their specific contexts.  While we need to be rooted in our immediate communities we also need to be connected to global communities.  Increasingly, we are learning that we are more connected that we could have ever imagined.

Want to learn more about some of the most densely populated cities in the world?  Here is a brief slideshow compiled by Forbes.