The book did not translate very successfully onto the silver screen, but Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities certainly had its redeeming qualities. Even sub-par performances by Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith in the film version could not mar the trenchant social commentary of this 1987 bestseller.
My favorite snippet was a piece of advice offered to the main character, Sherman McCoy, by another “master of the universe” (the novel’s shorthand for wizards of Wall Street): “If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate...yourself from those people.”
Given the context, it is not hard to decipher the code language employed by this super-wealthy character. “Those people” probably included low-income residents of the city, members of suspect ethnic groups and social classes whose mere physical presence on subways and sidewalks constituted an affront to the limo-driven, doorman-shielded elites.
Anyone who has lived in a large, urban area recognizes the age-old dynamic. Distinct socioeconomic groups, though sharing a city or even a single zip code, can live in entirely separate worlds. Many of the characters in Wolfe’s novel unabashedly aspired to keep it that way. They would do their best never to mingle with the common rabble on subways or sidewalks.
Vain would be any hopes for an overnight conversion of attitudes, among elites or any other groups. Overcoming petty prejudice and myopia regarding the common good is a slow process that requires a long arc of change, if such expectations ever come to pass at all.
But human attitudes are not the only factors that contribute to distressing practices of segregation. Like all social institutions, cities feature structures—systemic patterns for organizing human activities. Any structure created by humans can be changed by humans. The history of social reform is simply the march of ordinary people advocating changes to improve the lives of all, especially of the excluded and downtrodden.
Can urban planners tweak the physical infrastructure of our cities so that people of diverse backgrounds more easily mix on our sidewalks and parks? Is it possible for city designers and public works officials to create spaces more likely to be shared by members of diverse groups?
Recent travels, extended stays in unfamiliar cities and even a relocation to a new neighborhood in the same metropolitan area have me thinking lately about the shape of our cities and the daily flow of the lives of their inhabitants. New sights, like gated communities and elevated skywalks among downtown office buildings, jogged my memory of the Bonfire characters who struggled so mightily to “insulate.” Even without any formal training in urban planning, I find it easy to conclude that urban living patterns in the United States are failing us on many counts. Public policies are often complicit in allowing willing parties to live in homogeneous cocoons.
Naysayers will surely remind me of the perennial danger of becoming self-righteous about such private matters, as one person is rarely in any position to pass judgment upon others’ choices. And it may indeed be unfair to express summary disapproval of courses of action that simply do not fit one’s preferences for the proper level of social mixing. Maybe a desire for personal security or a predilection for the familiar can justify a preference for social or geographical segregation. Perhaps a strictly secular worldview is capable of defending such a position.
But I do not think that a sincere Christian can in good conscience allow patterns of segregation to go unchallenged. The core social commitments of our religion to universal concern and solidarity impel us to embrace all people, no matter how different they seem to be, in a stance of trust, refusing to dismiss the other as a threat. At the risk of simplification: Whom would Jesus avoid?
What I have always loved about cities is that they place us in situations where many things are beyond our control. Unlike a suburbanite, the city dweller depends in innumerable ways upon the cooperation of many others to get through the day. At its best, an urban routine is a dance with many partners, interesting folk whose diverse qualities can delight and entertain. Anything that prevents mixing on the everyday streetscape stops the music and brings the dance to a halt.