Today I was on the train riding back downtown from a meeting in Rondo, and I was reflecting on a comment by Robin Black at the last Home Fund partners meeting. Robin is a parent with kids a St. Paul Promise Neighborhood school. In describing the value of stable affordable housing in the neighborhood for her family, she said “Everything we need is right here”.

Her comment made me think about a favorite fall poem of mine—The Wild Geese by Wendell Berry.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.

Berry is a champion of agrarian culture and rural communities. He often uses the term “memberships” to describe the dense interconnections between rural people and the land. These communities are as naturally interdependent as a flock of geese in their ritual migration. Can this sense of membership apply to highly mobile urban communities?

I was pondering the idea of urban memberships when a young African American family and an apparent stranger got on at the Western Ave. station. They took their seats and immediately began a familiar conversation something like this:

“You look familiar. My name is _____, but back in the day they called me____.”

“Oh, do you know ______?”

“We used to hang out at _______. Are you related to ____?”

“Yeah, he’s my cousin.”

 

Before long they had established a network of friendships and kinships that extended at least two generations—a membership rooted in the urban environment.

Berry is a critic of the social forces of specialization, mechanization, and consolidation that have eroded rural memberships, and there are certainly plenty of forces that threaten urban memberships as well. In both cases—rural and urban—these external forces often express themselves in the involuntary mobility of residents from places where they have social and cultural attachments. The young family on the train had something to say about this as well.

Their new friend got off the train and the family rode on into downtown. He played with the toddler as she fretted about an impending housing choice. “Well, first we have to make sure that they still have places to rent, and then we’ll see if they take vouchers,” she advised him.

She was identifying what is at present, one of the biggest threats to the “membership” in Frogtown and Rondo. Rental housing vacancy rates across our region are at record low levels. This trend leads to increased rents, higher tenant screening qualifications, and decreased acceptance of rental assistance. People with roots in these communities, who benefit from our public investments in transit, parks, and schools, are being displaced to a shrinking number of places where they can find housing.

Fortunately, Berry and Robin remind us that “what we need is here”.   The solutions that we need are here. There are precedents in our region, like the Train to Work program that created pathways to economic participation in the Phillips neighborhood at a scale that if replicated along the Green Line would mitigate the displacement of unemployed and under-employed families. There are policy interventions, like source of income discrimination ordinances, which could, if we mobilize the political will, help more families find housing within the neighborhoods or to seek out different opportunities in other parts of the regional. We can preserve, develop, and redevelop the housing stock in Frogtown and Rondo to serve the needs of those who call these neighborhoods home.

I pray that we find enough quiet to hear the voices of our neighbors and the clarity of vision to move to action.

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