The Bible and Neighborhood Memory

Earlier today Lisa Schweitzer posted a short piece pointing out what she labels as the anti-NIMBY politics of a particular Biblical verse, Isaiah 5:8. You can go over to her place for a range of translations, but for my purposes I like the Hebrew text and translation offered by the essential Sefaria:

ה֗וֹי מַגִּיעֵ֥י בַ֙יִת֙ בְּבַ֔יִת שָׂדֶ֥ה בְשָׂדֶ֖ה יַקְרִ֑יבוּ עַ֚ד אֶ֣פֶס מָק֔וֹם וְהֽוּשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם לְבַדְּכֶ֖ם בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Ah, Those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for

none but you to dwell in the land

The verse is part of an extended analogy involving a vineyard and the iniquity of the people Israel (both, of course, common themes in Biblical literature, and unsurprisingly often found in close juxtaposition), but its point comes quite close to some contemporary concerns. Isaiah’s critique might easily be read as a criticism of the ancient equivalent of large-lot exclusionary zoning. His concern is essentially that the rich will enlarge their own estates–both urban and rural–at the expense of the poor. Or at least that is the understanding of Rashi:

מגיעי בית בבית. מקרבים בתיהם זה אצל זה ומתוך כך גוזלים קרקע העניים החלשים שבין ב’ הבתים וכן שדה בשדה:

Those who add house to house: They bring their houses one next to the other and in the process steal the land of the weak poor who are between the two houses; and thus also field by field. (translation mine)

The prophet’s concern is not idle; see for example the process of enclosure by which  British elites consolidated their control over the countryside. But one senses in the Isaiah passage, even as it is probably most accurately read to reflect pro-housing policies, also the roots of some of today’s most tenacious anti-housing themes: concerns of “overdevelopment” and even, absurd as it might be to retroject this idea 2,600 years into history, gentrification. So, I think, it’s worth looking a little further afield for some other Biblical texts on the topic.

Before we proceed, it is worth a caution that the Biblical corpus (and I refer to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is my area of familiarity; I claim no expertise in the New Testament) is of course composed of a huge variety of different voices, all with their own perspectives. One of my longer-term projects is a more comprehensive look at planning and development in Genesis in particular, and maybe someday the Bible generally. But, as it happens, in the Jewish calendar we just this past Shabbat read one of the many passages that has something to say  about housing policy and politics, Deuteronomy 6:8-11:

וְהָיָ֞ה כִּ֥י יְבִיאֲךָ֣ ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֜רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָ֣תֶת לָ֑ךְ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וְטֹבֹ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־בָנִֽיתָ׃ וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל־טוּב֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

On the one hand, this is the admonishment of a conquering people, about to take possession of the cities and infrastructure built by their vanquished enemies. On the other hand, this passage offers, like President Obama, a reminder that you didn’t build that, that structural forces of time, history, and economics exist. And it’s a reminder that the housing policy debate sorely needs.

To a certain extent, Moses’ admonishment to “remember where you and your neighborhood came from!” is a warning against the development of what Daniel Hertz has called the “immaculate conception theory of neighborhood origins,” the idea that homes and neighborhoods just magically appear and it’s only new development that’s greedy and not community-oriented. I’ve labeled a related, but somewhat different phenomenon by which neighborhood activists claim all credit for a neighborhood’s success, therefore ignoring structural factors and spatial economics, the “Bootstrap theory of urban development”; fundamentally the two concepts share roots in a deep denial of history.  

As Daniel says:

The problem with the immaculate conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that Berger romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.

This, then, is Deuteronomy’s critique (although, admittedly, it is glorifying as much as remembering with regret a violent, colonialist history): to forget the history, the predominant factors, that got your built environment to where it is today is to become deeply corrupted. Indeed, a couple of chapters later Deuteronomy sharpens this point to include an explicit critique of the idea that כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃,  “My power and the strength of my hand have made this glory for me” (Deut. 8:17, my translation). It would not, I think, be out of line to suggest that somewhere in the ancient tangle of texts and morals interacting with each other Isaiah’s admonishment of the wealthy who use housing and fields to squeeze out the vulnerable is explicitly directed at those who had, indeed, forgotten this exact point.  An ancient lesson, perhaps, but what is the Bible if not a timeless text? Neighborhoods: remember where they came from, always.

Illustration source: http://biblicalwatersystem.weebly.com/cisterns.html. Picked because it’s an example of a cistern in a famous Israelite site that, most likely, the Israelites did not build.

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