When faced with urban decay, homelessness, drugs and other crimes, as well as the cultural depression that occurs within a blighted area, some communities take action. The results of that action can be visible, sometimes manifested in cleaner, safer, more optimistic environments. Sin and grace are both visible in the steps taken to “clean up” neighborhoods. It appears, at least to this observer, that the initial effort to resolve the problems, as described above, can eventually turn into efforts to take care of our situations. My observations thus far indicate the existence of a substantial amount of self-interest in revitalization actions taken, as opposed to acting primarily for the larger good of community.

In some cases, it is not particularly easy to distinguish between activism for social good and acting out of self-interest. A specific instance may present a reasonable illustration. With the symptoms of a decaying neighborhood described in the first paragraph comes a downward economic spiral. Because of these symptoms property owners are less likely to expend capital on homes because the value will continue to erode anyway. This results, progressively, into the development of ever-worsening slums and substandard housing that represents an injustice for all residents. Curtailing this depreciation and working to solve the problems that created it in an effort to improve the neighborhood is, therefore, an effort for the larger social good. When, however, the prime focus moves from generally improving the area to increasing property values for existing stakeholders, self-interest takes over and results in actions that may be counter to the larger social good.

“Solving” the social ills that result in the symptoms described implies that everyone benefits. Sometimes, though, “solving” begins to look more like “moving”. Rather than decreasing the occurrence of drug use and sale, activity can be relocated into other neighborhoods. Hanging around some Schenectady areas drug exchanges are easily witnessed, while in others no so much. Rather than decreasing homelessness, it appears that some area may have simply become “off limits” to the homeless. There is evidence of morning and evening pilgrimages of the homeless and visibly poor into and out of certain Schenectady neighborhoods. So, rather than improving the living conditions of the poor in these specific locations, the poor may have just been relocated to equally or more squalid conditions elsewhere. Even the working poor who may own their own homes may have difficulty taking advantage of the increased equity they may realize from this “cleaning up” to finance needed repairs and improvements, thereby necessitating what is, in effect, expulsion.

Many times the primary motivation for any community association’s formation is the decreasing equity and deplorable neighborhood conditions experienced by long-term residents. Despite what seems a large population of recent immigrants in my area of Schenectady, the make-up of the neighborhood association seems to still reflect an overwhelmingly Euro-American presence, indicating that positions of power may still reside with the long-term residents or, at least, those that are similar in background and culture. The overarching concern, therefore, may not be for the good for the larger society. Information has also been given about an apartment owners’ group, and the protocols initiated to control tenant quality, but no mention has been made of a corresponding renters’ group to represent the interests of renters. Likewise, much of the conversation involves a great deal of business and development information, but little that seems to relate to programs for the poor, unemployed or underemployed, migrant and immigrant populations.

All this being said, how do the concepts of sin, grace and hope fit? If viewed from a purely dichotomous perspective, values of sin and grace become very subjective with regard to community “improvement”. Since a great number of people benefit, is it appropriate to label the outcome good, or is the outcome evil because a great many may have been further oppressed? Of course, any answer will be based in large part on self-interest. If allegiances and interests lay with the original residents and those that resemble them, the outcome would be judged good. On the other hand, if the observer’s interests were tied up with marginalized populations over against dominant culture, the outcome could be considered evil.

As is true with virtually all cases of human endeavor, the reality is somewhere in between. While good has been accomplished for many, a considerable number of others have experienced what may be considered evil. These experiences are not mutually exclusive, with the possibility that some people may have experienced both. If property values rise due to the efforts undertaken, at least some will be unable to bear the burden of higher property taxes resulting in economically mandated property sales, albeit at the higher prices appreciation allows, and relocations to more affordable areas where improvements are yet to occur or, worse yet, in neighborhoods that are in the process of decay.

Organizing for social action will almost always have negative effects on some. The organization formed will participate in organizational dynamics in which the survival and maintenance of power for the entity itself, or the interests of those who dominate it, become paramount. Churches, initially organized for overall social value, present, perhaps, the best testament to this occurrence. Hope lies in the continued existence, or the periodic rise, of dissidents and critics. The reformed church tradition of “once reformed and always reforming” becomes a valuable secular ethic. Any social organization formed should initially be reminded of the possibility of also becoming a cause of social problems, and to build in processes by which the minority and dissonant voices can be heard. Absent that allowance, voices will tend to rise anyway as the population within the bounds of the entity continue to change. It is feasible that counter community groups will eventually be raised expressing the concerns of the immigrant and marginalized populations. The reaction of the existing power structure to that new constituency will indicate the extent to which it intends to move more in the direction of evil or good – to analyze, own and compensate for self-interest in its actions or to operate from a position of narcissism and profit.

Authored by Revs Andy Little & Jenna Zirbel. Written by Andy.