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A new world in the New World

26 April 2013

A city in the United States has lessons for the planet, says Bill Countryman

THE popes have a custom of issuing a blessing, Urbi et Orbi - "to the city and the world". In our time, the difference is disappearing. More than half of the world's population live in urban areas; so cities have come to incorporate the whole world in their varied and distinctive ways.

Oakland, California, where I live, is a city of just under half a million people. It is the old workhorse city of the Bay Area, compared with San Francisco's glamour; but, in recent years, as San Francisco has become increasingly a preserve of the rich, or of young aspirers to wealth, Oakland seems, by contrast, to contain more of the diversity - the highs and lows - of the world around.

It is easy to enumerate the lows: poverty; failure in sustaining and educating children; gangs' drug-running and shooting at one another; deep-seated antagonism between the police and portions of the populace; and a city government that has often been more interested in rewarding its partisans than in caring for the city as a whole.

Add to all that the highest homicide rate of any city in the United States, and the canard that, in Oakland: "There is no there there."The poet and native daughter of the city Gertrude Stein wrote this line to convey her sense of loss on returning and finding that her childhood home had been demolished; but later wags turned it into a judgement on the city itself.

The highs are more fragile, but, if there is to be hope for the future of the world, they are more important. The city has a good record in terms of waste management and recycling. More and more young families are moving into old neighbour-hoods, where a surprising percentage of them grow some of their own food, or keep bees and chickens in their modest garden areas. The area near the city centre has become home to a burgeoning population of artists. Creative chefs abound - not all of them in high-end restaurants: some have dedicated themselves to improving school lunches.

Partly, these good things result from the high rents across the Bay, which drive creative people out of San Francisco. But another important ingredient, I think, is that Oakland has no single ethnic or racial group that either constitutes a majority or can impose its will politically. Nor are we divided between two dominant groups, which can only be at loggerheads with each other. It is a situation which favours constructive interactions.

This is not, in itself, a guarantee of progress or harmony. The Occupy Movement here began as a peaceful, multi-ethnic protest, but it was hijacked by violent anarchists, and ended in a confrontation with the police which served only to deepen existing hostilities.

Nevertheless, Oakland has about it a sense of possibility - an opportunity for good leadership to plant the seeds of a new world in the microcosm of the city. The same, I hope, will prove true of another human community with no single dominant ethnic or racial group: the Anglican Communion. 

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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