Intangible Beauty

We sit on bar stools at a reclaimed wood counter in a refurbished grainery. Each cupping hot coffee, my friend and I stare at the large, heavy snowflakes surprising us all in early October. Across the street, an urban lot is being demolished. I no longer remember what had been there. The entire north side is transforming.

The small patch of green across from the shelter where the homeless population gathered between breakfast at Catholic Charities and dinner at the Rescue Mission was transformed last year into a trendy restaurant with the best patio in town. I feel guilty everytime I meet someone there. As if, by purchasing donuts served in metal baskets with gourmet jelly, I’ve committed an injustice.

And now, sitting in the middle of urban renewal, with a cooking school at the end of the reclaimed wood counter I’m perched at, I also feel guilty. My friend is telling me about her clients. The one who lives in the box and is hooked on heroin. The families being displaced by all this development. The young adults who can’t afford to live here even if they make it past foster care and addiction.

This story is playing out across American cities such as Waco, Texas, home to Fixer Upper’s Magnolia Market at the Silos. A recent pilgrimage startled me and my friends with its stark contrast of wealth and poverty at every turn. A man stood on the corner, next to Silos Bakery Co. with his grocery cart piled high, making his way down Webster Avenue toward abandoned warehouses and vacant lots. Meanwhile, I bought a cupcake and a $28 candle.

At its best, urban renewal is an embrace of hope and loss. At its worst, it is neocolonialism.

In my social justice book club, we are grievously reading about Native Americans. Our town is named after the camp which formed to protect settlers from “savages.” Sitting at the window, watching the snow cascade to the bulldozer, it does not escape me that another population has already been pushed off this land. Where did they go? Where did the men and women and youth experiencing homelessness go when their park was usurped?

The problem with urban renewal in an affluent college town like mine is that the displaced disappear. They are pushed into the margins by widening roads, sound walls, and new highways that become the widely traveled veins of the city. We isolate the communities formed by those who waited beneath mature oak trees for their next meal, the families made large by opening doors to distant relatives and evicted neighbors, and long long before all this, the “savages” who wrote their stories in clay and wove them into rugs.

In creating beautiful places, we displace intangible beauty.

A few months ago, my oldest child started his freshman year right here, at our state school. The commencement ceremony began with a Native student welcoming the class and acknowledging the reality that the land grant university sits upon Native land. It was a short, powerful reminder that this remarkable school is intertwined with a remarkable people. The naming of truth somehow transformed guilt into honor.

I am hoping for a similar transformation amid the urban renewal of our town: guilt into honor. Is there a way to sit at reclaimed wood counters and embrace the both/and of hope and loss? By knowing and naming the beautiful places that have always been beautiful, will that somehow honor the displaced?

The night after I heard about the kid sleeping in a box, my friend opened her guest room to a 27-year old hurting kid after three nights of sleeping in his car. Meanwhile, my church hosted four families currently experiencing homelessness as a part of a local ministry. God gave me signs of intangible beauty through the loving care of those committed to making their place one of hospitality.

I am seeing that transforming guilt into honor requires far more than just naming the history of a place. It also requires action. Transformation happens in the doing. It’s the giving, the serving, and the opening of arms that makes places truly beautiful.

Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.