Playground

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”
– Girard Manley Hopkins

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“Every town should have its own playground.” So proclaimed Frederick Froebel, originator of the kindergarten (“child’s garden”), opening the world’s first dedicated playground in Germany in 1887. Froebel recalled his own rough-and-tumble childhood adventures in the woods with nostalgia for a carefree time, but more importantly as essential to human development and educational progress. Fueled with emerging theories of social analysis together with German boldness and precision, he methodically set out to engineer “free play.”

Froebel’s vision unfolded in two complementary directions. First, “Outdoor Gymnasia.” We can all take a moment of gratitude to German engineering for that most iconic schoolyard apparatus, the monkey bars. And eventually the teeter-totter, the merry-go-round, the swing set, and the slide. Second, “Sand Gardens” pushed the notion of free play even further. Education theorists and luminaries such as Froebel and the American John Dewey could be found at international conferences after the turn of the 20th century vigorously debating social and educational theory attached to sand piles and monkey bars.

Amid urban grunge in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, schools in England introduced “recess,” for which we may also pause for heartfelt thanks. Cities, “the abyss of the human species,” as Rousseau lamented, were cruel to children most of all. Children not toiling in factory sweatshops might be found in schools drearily prepping for the rigors of rungs a bit higher on the ladder of modern city life. Enter – in the middle of London schoolyards – sand! For Brits, having newly discovered and celebrated childhood during the Victorian era, recess provided a way for children to escape drudgery and meanness into a world of wonder. You can do a lot with sand.

Sand Gardens and “Junglegyms” soon popped up in New York, a place likewise not so kind to children of the era. New Yorkers, perhaps expressing their very last vestiges of Puritan moralism, championed playgrounds as havens from the vices and exploitation of the streets. The Child Saving Movement brought playgrounds to every school, and into many urban parks. These public play places welcomed children from all walks of life, not simply those few who frolicked behind the gates of wealthy estates.

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In our own time, there are growing movements to create “Playable Cities,” as a counterpoint and complement to the more technological and functional vision of “Smart Cities.” Playable City designers introduce serendipity into sidewalks, stairs, and street crossings, coaxing us adults to chuckle and hopscotch our way from the train stop to our work. And possibly on the way home, to stop for a round of outdoor checkers with strangers.

If the world is urbanizing and cities are the abyss of our species, we might as well amuse ourselves – and make a few friends along the way. Visionaries, however, imagine more. They imagine that humanity itself may be coaxed to fuller greatness and meaning by creative civic care. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” In the beholding of a lover, the beloved city may become vastly more than something to survive; it can be teased into delight.

Or perhaps, a city’s innate delightfulness will be discovered according to the manner of beholding, so that the beholder is quickened to life by the very act of a loving gaze. It matters greatly how we see. Through what lenses, what metaphors will we see the city? Cranky Rousseau, pining for humanity’s primitive state of nature he imagined to be ideal, peered into the abyss of the city joylessly. “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are,” Anais Nin observes.

David Hillis, author of Cities: Battlegrounds or Playgrounds?, contends the choice of metaphors matters critically. Not merely because the latter image conjures more fun than the former; when a battle rages, only a fool would hopscotch. Rather, because words make worlds. The metaphors by which we see become generative. Not just in theory but in practice: the two images of battleground and playground diverge into sets of practical implications for everything from urban policy to the way we might take out the trash in the morning.

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I am in love with my own city, and cities. I love my city’s skyline with its cash register and cranes, and its quirky grid of diagonal streets. I love the homes that have welcomed me, those Montview Boulevard mansions with marble fountains in the living room, and those cardboard residences set up under Platte River bridges. I love its publicly commissioned art and its dumpster graffiti. I love the #15 Colfax Avenue bus with all our sorts of people. I love my first day in any other city on the planet too, with whatever it serves up. My first five minutes visiting Delhi, I stepped over a cow. Just to get out the airport door! I knew right then the day would be an awakening, as is every city day.

It wasn’t always this way. Growing up in the Colorado wilderness, with coyotes singing me to sleep every night, I vowed lifetime residency in the primitive state of nature I experienced to be ideal. Nature was my kindergarten, my child’s playground. Not mine alone, in any sense of ownership; it was home and playground to bobcats, rattlesnakes, bears, and bluebirds – who knew it best. I had merely ventured in, the new kid at the jungle gym, scurrying along overgrown game paths with my dog Bessie. In time though, I knew every path and what else had traveled there.

The woods were my spiritual home, my monastery, and I was the silent mystic – when I wasn’t doing irritating things like chores or riding the school bus. Mystery played in the wind and in the cougar tracks and in ten thousand places throughout our little valley. I lay in the leaves and listened, for hours. I felt at one with everything.

At seventeen I went off to college in Illinois, and paradise was lost. I couldn’t imagine how to live. But one evening, a few buddies and I decided to explore Chicago. We got off the commuter train and asked which way to Bulls stadium; we thought we’d catch a game. We’ll just walk, we told the steward cheerfully. “You can’t walk from here.” Why not? It can’t be many miles, and we’re young dudes. “You can’t.” We did, leaving him shaking his head. In twenty minutes, headed south in the dark, we were in another world. Of all my familiar animals, here were my first rats. Shouts came our way from crumbling buildings. A stranger told us we’d best be careful. Running seemed like a bad idea, from my cougar experiences, but we walked quicker. Dark grew darker, and people hung close by in the shadows. When the stadium came into view, we broke into a sprint.

I was terrified and exhilarated. I thought I had left behind the wild mystery of the wilderness, with its danger and risk, back in Colorado. But here the same energy pressed in. Heart pounding, I was glad to be alive. Glad, and very alive.

I never walked through the South Side at dark after that. I could learn, like in the woods. As in the woods, I learned to listen. And I learned delight again.

Listening, I also learned that cities were not created for the sole purpose of giving clueless young white dudes an evening of adventure. In time I encountered the abyss of the human species that swallows souls whole. I stood at caskets while loved ones screamed. I watched cops take down boys without reason, and schools fail girls without remedy. I looked at needle holes in veins and bullet holes in glass. I heard a child’s body thud against the wall, and the crying stop. Head in my hands, I asked God where the hell he had gone away to, leaving us to our ghastly devices, and received no answer.

And I learned delight again.

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Later as an adult raising an urban family a century after Frederick Froebel, I shared his nostalgia for childhood in the woods. I got my kids away to wilderness when I could, but realized that if the daily rough-and-tumble was to migrate off the living room furniture, it would happen down the street on a playground. And, thank God for school recess!

Ah, recess. As soon as we knew the big hand from the little hand on the classroom clock, didn’t we all count the ticks until recess?

By the time playgrounds reached my 1960s generation, sand gardens had shrunk to small sand boxes. I’ll never forget, however, the year dump trucks unloaded an Everest of sand inside the yard of Green Gables elementary school. For months, the jungle gym and swing sets stood virtually idle. We swarmed the mountain, every one of us. By industry and imagination it became a fortress, a civilization, a continent, and then worlds and galaxies. We tunneled and traversed; we conquered and fled. Introverts among us pushed piles aside and doodled in detail. We mastered our medium, ferrying cups of water from the drinking fountain and mixing precise proportions of liquid to sand. We invented tools that sorted sand grains by size and sculpting properties. When the recess bell pierced the magic spell we second-graders trudged back inside, stricken. How would we make it until afternoon recess to resume living?

After some months, men in hard hats arrived one day to fence off the sand pile. In shock, we watched our wonderland become over the weeks a new wing of Green Gables School. It seemed a moral violation that our joyful enterprise, our most true and vivid world, this cosmos we had spun into very existence through our collective creative will – was beyond our reach. Not only that, but refashioned into the very means of our oppression. I doubt we phrased it exactly that way in the handwritten letters of protest we gathered for our teachers and principal. But thinking back, I can still feel the outrage of our banishment.

We climbed back on the monkey bars and swings. We whirled the merry-go-round until we staggered off, seeing in kaleidoscope. At the far edge of the playground ran a ditch with a bit of flowing water that trickled past the school on down to Kendrick Lake. A few kids dabbled in the mud over there, but there wasn’t much to see.

One spring morning, a rumor spread like prairie fire. Someone found a crawdad in the ditch. Sure enough, the trophy crustacean was on display over by the tetherball pole, for anyone brave enough to hold it. Dozens of us gathered ’round about in awe. A little magic had made its appearance again in our recess, waving its antennae and claws.

The Great Crawdad Rush was on. The swings and foursquare court emptied; we dashed to the ditch. A shout went up. Another crawdad held aloft! The bell sounded. We groaned in unison and walked back in clumps around our two unfathomably lucky classmates delicately handling their catches. Most of us had never even heard the word crawdad, let alone witnessed one. Just imagine what it would be like! To find of all things a genuine living crawdad at the edge of the playground, to the adulation of all.

Over the next few hours I thought of nothing else. I hadn’t gotten to hold a crawdad, and wasn’t sure I’d be brave enough to. I hardly even saw it, peering between the shoulders of the bigger kids. Pretty much everyone in the school, girl or boy, was a bigger kid. I didn’t have much in the way of actual friends, and certainly not either of the lucky crawdad-finders. Maybe I would end up with friends if I were to find a crawdad myself in afternoon recess? Then again, I might just keep it sort of a secret, and admire it for myself. I might even let it go. But probably, I would find a way to take it home and convince my mom it was ok to keep it for a pet. I began the process of naming it.

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The story of my neighborhood in Denver, Colorado may be told any number of ways. For instance we can pick up one thread of a storyline in the steamy megaflora tropics around these parts, where stegosaurs and tyrannosaurus rex foraged. In thaws between ice ages, human hunters armed with spear points followed mastodons, mammoths, and giant camels through here. Later Folsom people stuck around, gathering berries. Cheyenne and Arapaho settlers, late arrivals from the Midwest, lodged in their portable bison-skin homes and pushed the Comanche toward the south. They found flecks of gold in local creeks but didn’t think much of it. When European-Americans Green Russell and Sam Bates found the same shiny bits one spring day in 1858 as they poked around our streams, one of the largest rushes in American history was on. A hundred thousand people arrived the following year in what would become the Denver area.

Since those first sparkles in the water, Denver has rushed and boomed in waves. Wagons brought a wave of folks from the east, and soon also did railroads. Trains brought Chinese, owing to events a world away, looking for work and new lives. In the 1890s a row of five little brick houses were slapped up quickly and crookedly on the prairie for the railway workers. A hundred years later I arrived to try to crowbar walls in one of those houses into plumb for my family. In the meantime a world war brought bases and veterans, oil shale brought engineers, and tech brought techies.

Each wave brought conflict. Who gets to play in our city? Who will be pushed aside?

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Our teacher banned all talk of crayfish, as she called them, in vain of course. She told our two lucky classmates to put their “crawdaddies” in the classroom sink. I remember thinking crayfish sounded strange – they clearly weren’t fish – and crawdaddies sounded childish and condescending. We weren’t kindergartners. This was an important and serious endeavor, hunting crawdads.

Afternoon recess let out with a stampede. Two crowds clustered near where the initial crawdads had been discovered. Rumors drew smaller groups here and there along the ditch, overturning rocks and poking mud with sticks. The water turned thick and dark, which our socks and shoes soon matched. Analyzing the situation, I moved by myself to the far end of the ditch by the schoolyard fence. Nobody found a crawdad that afternoon. I wasn’t sure whether to be discouraged or encouraged by that. I was in the same boat as everyone else who came up empty, and I was pretty sure if I used better strategy than others I could have success. At home, I found the “Crayfish” entry in the encyclopedia. I scoured the article for clues of crawdad life that might enlighten the next day’s search.

The next day brought a whole new ballgame. Kids living nearby had found crawdads upstream just across Woodard Drive from the school, as the stories went. A LOT of crawdads. Estimates varied. Nobody was sure on details, because those kids were a lot older. Fourth grade, maybe fifth. It didn’t seem right. We second-graders had discovered the crawdads in the first place, and now it appeared the big kids had struck it big. At recess we mucked around the playground ditch. I had read that crayfish become active in the spring, making holes in the mud and arranging stones for spawning spots. My plan was to identify a hole and sit quietly, watching. I wasn’t sure about after that. holding a crawdad appeared dangerous, but possibly do-able with proper technique.

Didn’t matter, as it turned out. Nothing to see. The playground ditch was a trampled mess. Consensus was we’d need to circle around after school across Woodard and investigate the big crawdad haul, about which the legend grew through the day.

Arriving on the scene after school, I was stunned and overwhelmed. Before me lay an elaborate operation resembling a mining works. Across Woodard, upstream next to the culvert, a few boys stirred the water with long boards. Most of the crowd was below, where the drainage pipe spilled out into the ditch that ran under the schoolyard fence. More boards had been lashed together in the form of a wooden slide, or sluice, to catch the outflow water. Lined up on either side, big boys were plucking crawdads tumbling out of the spillway, just as fast as their hands could snatch. Kitchen buckets held crawdads by the dozens, maybe hundreds. We smaller boys, and all the girls, crowded for a view. I had dreamed of one crawdad to admire, just one, and possibly call my own. I couldn’t even see the bottoms of the buckets –  just masses of dusky-green appendages clawing and levering upward toward the top of the pile of themselves.

Among us little ones, one or two bolder voices implored fairness. Nobody owns this ditch; it belongs to everybody. You boys aren’t the boss! It’s a free country! A girl was going to tell her dad. I wasn’t sure the big boys even noticed we were there, let alone heard the pleas of our spokesgirls. A few kids prodded uselessly in the mud downstream.

Disheartened but still curious, I wandered over the next day and the next. The buckets held fewer and fewer crawdads. I wondered what on earth happened to the catch so far. I imagined backyard play pools swarming with crawdads, with the sort of habitat features I myself had planned, tended by the big boys. By the next week there were fewer big boys, presumably because they lost interest or else were tied up with their new crawdad responsibilities at home. Back at the sluice things were slow, but some third-graders made it to the front lines. A holdover big boy, looking bored, started handing out the few crawdads he got. He gave one to me! I put it in my lunchbox and walked home. I was happy, but not nearly so enthralled as I had imagined. After looking it over and helping me give it a bath, my mom told me to walk it back to the ditch or it would die.

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So the tropics came and tropics went, leaving behind their fossils and their fossil fuels. Glaciers receded, leaving dry prairie and creek beds flecked with minerals. Mammoths and the plains bison disappeared from our neighborhood, with human help. So did most Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Today a few million folks now call the Denver area home, having arrived from someplace else. I arrived in my neighborhood in 1993, meeting almost entirely African-Americans and Latinos. They had their own stories of migration and discovery. My pastor Ken Roberts’s family came from East Texas, via some years on Chicago’s South Side. My next-door neighbor Humberto traveled here in the trunk of a car. One week he was herding goats in Mexico and the next week he wandered lost and scared through the halls of Denver’s Morey Middle School.

Unloading our stuff from the U-Haul rental truck in front of our new old home, we met the Mendoza family who eagerly offered to help. Their daughter even more eagerly offered to play. You might say, desperately offered. Two-thirds of the homes on our block were abandoned – the better structures boarded up, but others simply open to the weather and temporary business operations. Finally for a bored and lonely girl in the ’hood, a playmate for the day! And for an enchanted decade a bestie, quinceañera attendant, and honorary family member.

Our family found what glittered for us, as Denver-seekers do. My wife and I hoped to lead lives of intention and significance, and to raise our family in a diverse urban environment. Earnest and passionate, we wanted to join others in initiatives for neighborhood revitalization, social justice, and empowerment for marginalized people. Since these activities weren’t lucrative, the price of our fixer-upper was a fortunate match for our means. As people of faith we had a sense of God’s prompting and leading, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus.

Had we tried to explain this to Mildred, two doors down, she would have looked at us like we were completely out of our minds. I know this because in any case, she always looked at us that way. “Y’all FBI, I know you are,” Mildred would holler. I’d stop what I was doing in the front yard. FBI? “FBI, CIA, DEA, whatever, you the feds.” Why would she think that? “Ain’t no other reason for white folks to be here besides the feds.” Over the course of this daily banter, she began to warm up to me ever so slightly, if I wasn’t simply imagining it, after about five years. One day I said, “Mildred, if we’re the feds, why are we driving a twenty-year-old car?” I was just playing with her, but she stopped cold. “I never thought about that. Got me there. Well that’s really something. No, you wouldn’t be. Ya’ll ok.” So it took a tad longer than with the Mendozas, but we became good enough friends that she played lookout and provided daily theories as to who burglarized our house.

Mildred knew newcomers aren’t always good news. Especially certain kinds. People packing power, especially invisible power. Earnest and passionate people, including religious people, with their wonderful plans for others’ lives. White people. Money people. People with badges. “If you haven’t done anything wrong, ma’am, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Decent, vulnerable people – for goodness sakes like Jesus himself – know from experience how very true that isn’t.

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Twenty-five years after the Mendoza family helped us unload the U-Haul, the boards have been removed from the windows of our little city block. Another rush is on. A hundred thousand people arrive in Denver every year, as they did in 1860, seeking what will suit them. The house next to ours, on the other side from Mendozas, was “flipped” by investors, and gleams. A few years ago it sold for one hundred times its selling price in 1993, when we and everyone else passed up the chance to buy it. (Can the decimal point be right?) The Mendozas are gone. With money tight, they need to live elsewhere.

Our new neighbor, a young white woman, has been slow to warm up to us. Maybe it’s because she is shy, but one afternoon an officer arrived at our door in response to a complaint from her that we were in violation of an ordinance. The misunderstanding might have been cleared up with a simple conversation across our porches, but I sense our new neighbor looks out her remodeled front window with uneasy eyes. Battlefields require vigilance.

By and large these days, however, new arrivals come for the city as a playground. At the end of our block, where drug deals have always gone down, a volleyball net has gone up. Tanned people in tank tops bump, set, and spike, in between sips of craft beer. It’s a safe spot now for kids on tricycles.

Down the street at Fuller Park, little black boys in football helmets are nowhere to be seen anymore. One day the league received notice that they didn’t have a permit for the park. A permit?? Yep, the regulation’s always been on the books, and all these years your league never had a permit. Lucky we didn’t shut you down a long time ago.

The new fenced-in off-leash dog area has a permit. People now drive in from other neighborhoods for their dogs to socialize and play. White folks mostly, with their multicolored dogs. Next to the dog area is a spiffed-up basketball court, where older black boys still shoot hoops and talk smack. And beyond that, some cute and engaging play equipment where Latina moms and their kids hang out. Not on rusting merry-go-rounds or teeter-totters mind you, but on bright, safety-approved molded play gear with no sharp edges to fret about. Soft mulch cushions falls.

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“Christ plays,” wrote the great Victorian poet and classical scholar Girard Manley Hopkins in 1877, in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Years ago I took notice of the poem’s title since the kingfisher, a creek-diving bird with bright colors, was a prized sighting on my childhood wilderness forays. We don’t find a single abstract noun anywhere in Hopkins’ sonnet. He writes of beauty and delight, but nowhere names them. For the poet, abstraction distracts; the concrete carries all. Everything we know of beauty and delight unfolds for us by way of this-worldly things we encounter. Kingfisher birds, clanging bells. A rock tossed in a well, rippling its sound. Each thing, being true to itself, selves its way to our awareness through sensuous impressions.

Slow way, way down here. Hopkins is worth more than a skim. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” is more than a mystic’s bumper sticker.

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same,” goes a line of the poem. Each dragonfly, each stone, each face in the entire world. And what exactly does a dragonfly or a stone do? It “selves.” The self, this abstract individual entity we imagined only as noun, Hopkins turns into an active, robust verb, with the world its playground. “What I do is me!” every last thing cries out in his poem, “for that I came.” As the bird, so the person, so the eternal Christ as revelation of God. Each one plays its emerging self onto the jungle gym of the world. The bell “finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” Each “acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is.”

Hopkins elsewhere refers to “the inscape” as the act of being what one is. Following his intellectual and spiritual mentor from the middle ages, Duns Scotus, Hopkins believed this to be the way both God and the created world exist “in Christ.” In their incarnate particularity they exist in the same way: in being themselves, they reveal something of all. A tight string sings; In so doing, it reveals not only its string-ness – worthy enough - but something about everything. Everything! Including my unfolding self, including the ever-revealed Christ, interrelated and whole.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad out its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the features of men’s faces.

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Does a neighborhood have an inscape? A self? A body, mind, and soul, as Fr. Benigno Beltran (following Edgar Shein’s organizational theory) suggests about cities? Embodied by streets and structures, informed by stories and slogans, and enlivened by iconic symbols? Once scabbed by window boards and crumbling brick, the skin of my High Street block is now being smoothed and airbrushed. Railway workers have come and gone, as have the Mendozas, leaving their legacies to be remembered or forgotten. A block away Race Street, our neighborhood’s color line in the previous century, recalls KKK crosses – as does Martin Luther King Boulevard a block north. Manual High School, home of the Thunderbolts, represents achievement, pride, failure and shame – for its many students and itself as an institution. It’s being re-opened now, for another go at yet another educational model. Sharing space on Manual’s wide front lawn are the dog park, the hoops court, and the playground – each a story, each a symbol.

How does a neighborhood selve? How does it keep grace? How does it act in God’s eye what in God’s eye it is – Christ?

Most of us in Western cultures are schooled to think about soul and spirit in individual terms. Individuals may possess a soul, rotten or graced, bumping about among other individual souls. Each of our unique personalities, stories, and desires render identity. Like Hopkins I am a nature mystic in the city, an introvert in love with people, and I also enjoy cooking Thai dishes. But in addition to my own unique and particular inscape, I share my story and borrow my desire. Having never heard of a crawdad, as soon as it became the prize of my classmates, oh how I wanted one! And I did not desire alone. We all rushed as one herd, just as we had done for the sand pile. Together at play we delighted, and together we divided. Breathing the same common Green Gables second-grade air, we became together a living being.

Further, many of us schooled in modern Western Christian teaching grasp human spirituality, but together with our secular counterparts we’ve lost any sense of the spirituality of things, places, or systems. Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Melitos (c. 600 BCE) could say the world is “besouled,” and Jesus of Nazareth could imagine stones crying “glory” and “blessed,” but we no longer commonly cultivate such ways of seeing unless we happen to be artists or poets.

And so it is with Christ, presumed to be merely the last name of a man from Nazareth who came and went. How slim our religious imagination has shrunk from the Apostle John, who sees in Christ the Word of creation itself! Or from the Apostle Paul, who sees “Christ in us” and ultimately, “all, and in all.” To behold such Christ would require new eyes – and possibly an entirely new way of being, if in fact “we see things as we are.”

How shall I see my neighborhood? And how shall I BE in my corner of the city, of the cosmos, so that I may see truly? How shall I selve, as my neighborhood selves?

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Hopkins sure was a cheery fellow, wasn’t he, with flaming kingfishers lighting his landscape? Hardly. “I think that my fits of sadness, although they do not affect my judgment, resemble madness,” he wrote a friend. And to another, “Does anything really matter?” Clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder – modern assessments vary. His priestly vocation led him to the grimy slums of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, a few years before Frederick Froebel’s playgrounds showed up. He wrote “Sonnets of Desolation.” Partly due to Hopkins’ professional failures in the academy, virtually none of his poetry was published in his lifetime.

Remarkably, on his death bed, Hopkins’ last words were, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” Maybe in his last hours his brain chemistry finally got right. Or perhaps, he was granted the gift of sight he long cultivated amid the grit of the streets and his own inscaped life, to see Christ at play. Here in this poem in ten thousand places; elsewhere in “The Windhover,” a billion.

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Is Christ whole and glorious, or broken and bleeding?

“Any city however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich. These are at war with one another.” So observed Plato, and it appears cities haven’t changed much. In our part of Denver, the new is at war with the old. For longtime residents, it seems the old is losing. Some things won’t be missed, like evening gunfire in our alleys. Many more treasures are slipping away. The Mendozas are slipping away. Oh my can you see how I miss them? The tamales on our table, the fried rice on theirs, the anguish we shared at coffins and the joy at piñatas in the yard. They travel across town for a visit sometimes, from a neighborhood they can afford now. We sit and remember. Remember the monkey bars out back, turned into a fort with that mattress dragged on top? Nastiest thing ever, as a latrine for squirrels and paradise for our kids. We remember our dreams, that we would grow old together as neighbors on High Street, bouncing each other’s grandkids.

New next-door neighbors Joe and Will enjoy the fruit of the Mendozas’ hands: Virginia’s roses, Humberto’s remodeled bedroom and bath. We enjoy Joe and Will, over the fence. We haven’t cried together, and maybe never will. We loan a tool or two.

In the rush of gentrification, few stop to smell the old roses or wonder who planted them. The Platte River Valley, former home to abandoned warehouses, is hippest of hipster. Everybody wants to be where everybody else wants to be, and High Street happens to be walking distance from the RiNo brewpubs after closing time. Investors claw and lever themselves into position for contracts. Rents rocket higher. Who can pay? Who can play?

Among the old timers, a few bold voices implore fairness. Whose neighborhood is this? Simply because you can pay doesn’t mean you own the place! In the exuberance of discovery and development, it’s not apparent that newcomers even notice the losses or protests at all. White dads and moms push strollers and pull red wagons of kids down their new street, trailed by puppies, as we Deweys did a generation ago. They’re just happy for a little place to call their own. Eagerly, they fill positions in the PTA and neighborhood association.

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Standing over my backyard grill, tongs in hand, I hear at the same time: Mumford & Sons banjos from up the block, mariachi tubas from across the alley, and Nicki Minaj’s hip-hop electronic beats rolling down High Street. I smile. I am happy, so happy. I have loved my life, and the life of this neighborhood.

“The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there,” saw the Hebrew prophet and poet Zechariah, speaking of a ruined city. “I saw Paradise in the dust of the street,” writes poet Denise Levertov in our own time. If the visions of these prophets are to be realized, we must be about the work of justice, so that all may play regardless of pay. We must be about a way of peacemaking in which old and new may kiss. We must fiercely confront power on behalf of the powerless, so that the big boys are not the only hands in the spillway. “Justice is what love looks like,” says Cornell West, and God knows how I love, love, love my neighborhood.

Somewhere along the line, in some fashion together in the sand pile, we will have to learn to see what there is to see.

Christ plays in ten thousand places, by ten thousand names. Christ plays in the hydraulics of the lowrider Cadillacs. Christ plays in the kale growing along the Race Street alley, where Klansmen’s hoods once flashed in the firelight. Christ plays in ebony limbs, in brown eyes and blue, in basketball hoops and volleyball nets.

Christ plays, broken and bleeding, glorious and whole. Christ plays in the noisy bedroom two doors down, amid shouting and lovemaking. Christ plays among the candles, teddy bears, and love notes piled against the bus stop bench marked in blood. Christ plays in the back seat of a squad car, behind the bars.

My neighborhood “selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells.” I dig shell casings and needles from my yard. I reflect on my inner life and outer choices with regret, with resolve, with grace. Embarrassed, I say to my neighbor I’m sorry; I should not have done that; I should have asked. I plant my garden in glacier-carved soil where Cheyenne hunted and mammoths roamed. “Unless a grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). I water. My neighborhood rushes and booms, decays and scabs, sheds and renews. It stretches, strains, and breaks. It mends, justices, keeps grace. Christ selves in my neighborhood, incarnate. Christ saves.

If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, meet me at the monkey bars.

 

Scott Dewey is Director of Centering Way.

This essay is a companion resource for our Seeking the Peace urban exploration retreats. A printer-friendly PDF version is here.