The Margins at the Center
Thoughtfully designed cities are filled with focal points.
Even careless city plans have them in some shape or form. Whether parks, monuments, or significant buildings (public, private and religious architecture all fulfill this function and are a strong indicator of value expression at different points in a city's history), these become the visual reference points that help people orient themselves within the complexities of urban space and hold an "image of the city" (to use Lynch's phrase) in their mind. Sometimes focal points show up as a cluster of skyscrapers. Other times they appear as a strategically placed building at the end of a major boulevard. Whatever they are, these focal points draw our eyes and our bodies to them self and professes to the world what we find most important.
Focal places also function in a very interesting secondary role: they form the city's prime public spaces.
In the modern, capitalist city, public space is often inhabited by the poor. Private space outside the home is mostly geared toward consumption and profit generation in today's urban areas. Thus, the poor have limited private space available to them thanks to their limited purchasing and profit generating power. What's left are the public places available to anyone (though, increasingly, policies are being passed to oust unwanted folks from these places too). Imagine the parks and plaza's in your city's downtown. Who is seated and standing around capital buildings and courts, churches and office buildings? More often than not, this is where we find the homeless and those characters the dominant culture attempts to exclude.
I find it amazing that Jesus associated himself with exactly these people: the excluded, the disinherited, the barred from entry, the kept outside. Where you see the hungry and ignored, there, we are told, you see Jesus.
In the past, when I've thought about the focal design of our cities, the things we have centered our built environment and subsequently our lives around, I'm often saddened. At these center points we find the constructions of empire. The power of our government and financial institutions are set on full display. I have often worried that this leads us away from the true center, Jesus. And I have worried that this construction wordlessly teaches our imagination to value the wrong things.
But could it be that, ever so subtly, the presence of the poor in these places is subverting what the world has tried to place is the middle? That in the grimy faces of the poor, Jesus has planted himself at the center of our social worlds? Perhaps if we look down from the corner offices and emblems of power, if we can listen with humility, we will rediscover a more beautiful way to be human. We will find Jesus at the center, standing among the poor.