If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

Recently, I’ve been blogging about how to “read” your context, to understand your neighborhood and to join God in what is going on there. I’ve been exploring the work of Michael Mata, professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, and his five S’s for studying your place (structures, signs, spatial dynamics, social interaction and spirituality). You can start reading those articles here.

But now I want to add a sixth S.

I think you also need to learn your neighborhood’s story.

The story of a place has a lasting impact on its personality and general culture, its strengths and weaknesses. Without knowing its story we fall prey to the possibility of misjudging a place for what it is not.

Good missionaries will take the time to excavate and retell the history of their city. The study of place informs the way we pray for our neighbors, the way we extend love, and the way we can contend for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.


It’s like falling in love with your place – the more you discover, the more you can love with sincerity and wisdom. This process can lead us to accept what we don’t know, while still choosing to love in the everyday simplicity of what we’ve discovered.

And of course, there is always time to discover more. We must never assume that we’ve reached a complete understanding of our place. The story of our place continues to be written. Its history continues to be uncovered. If we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of thinking we’ve figured out our neighborhood and we know exactly what it will take to save it. Let us be clear here, we can never know all there is to know about our place. Yet the more we discover, the more we can love with sincerity and wisdom.

I live in Manly, on Sydney’s north shore. Our town got its name in an unusual way. The first British governor of Sydney, Arthur Philip rowed across the harbor in 1788, exploring the waterways of the new colony. When he landed on the north shore he was met with some resistance by the indigenous people he found living in the area, so he recorded in his diary, “Their confidence and manly behavior made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place.”

A year later, small pox – brought to Australia by the British colonists – had all but wiped out the Guringai people whom Governor Philip had declared so manly. By the 1830’s, only a few Guringai remained in the area. There’s a bitter irony to living in a town named after the manly Guringai whose constitutions were no match for the bugs brought by the colonists.

But the real history of the town of Manly starts much later, in 1853, when an enterprising young businessman named Henry Gilbert Smith arrived. Until then, the Manly area was inhabited by the dwindling Guringai and a very small population of colonists, eking out a sad living from fishing or farming the clay-like ground of the area. Smith was a P.T. Barnum-like character, a raconteur and showman, who thought that the sheltered beachside cove seven miles across the water from the smog and bustle of Sydney would be a perfect entertainment hub for the colony. He set about purchasing large tracts of land with a vision of Manly becoming “the favorite resort of the Colonists.” He started a ferry service across the harbor, built hotels and donated land for schools and churches. He also built a camera obscura, a maze and a large stone kangaroo to attract visitors (tourists were more easily pleased in those days!).

In June 1855, Smith wrote to his brother in England, “the amusement I derive in making my improvements in Manly is, no doubt, the cause of my greater enjoyment. In fact, I never feel a dull day while there. I am thinking I am doing good in forming a village or watering place for the inhabitants of Sydney.”

Manly became the Las Vegas of 19th Century Sydney. Smith oversaw the development of dance halls, amusement parlors, water slides, and even a New Zealand Maori cultural performance (who can imagine what the manly Guringai people thought of all that!). He installed a large sign over the ferry terminal that greeted every visitor upon arrival: “Manly – Seven Miles from Sydney, and a Thousand Miles from Care.” It reminds me of the sign in Las Vegas airport: “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas”.

The Guringai had been decimated by disease and their traditional tribal lands had been converted into an entertainment precinct for tourists and drunken Sydney residents.

In 2008, it was announced that Manly had the highest incidence of alcohol-fueled violence in the whole state. The local police chief said that Saturday nights in Manly were like a perpetual spring break. He described it as a “war zone”. The story of Manly was coming home to roost.

But more than its history, the town’s structures contributed to the problem too. In the 1970s, the main street had been paved and converted into a pedestrian mall with pubs and bars lining either side of the street. Drunken kids and young adults spilled out of the pubs into a crowded paved space, almost purpose-built to lead to jostling and shoving. Furthermore, the only public transportation hub was located at the west end of the street, which meant these tired, drunk young people were funneled in the same direction toward the taxis, buses, and the ferry. The built environment was virtually designed to foster violence.

The mayor of Manly declared it a disaster and established a campaign to curb late night violence in the main street. She increased policing, installed CCTV cameras, forced publicans to undertake courses in the responsible service of alcohol. Nothing worked. She asked the local high schools to offer classes in the dangers associated with excess drinking. To no effect. She even started hosting family-style activities and concerts in the main street on Saturdays to attract kids and family people to try to dispel the culture of excess drinking, carousing and fighting. No one came. Nothing she tried had any success.

Was it any wonder? Any cursory study of the story of Manly would reveal that the roots of alcohol and excess went all the way back to the very establishment of the town itself. The sands of the beachside community were soaked with blood and booze. Changing it would require far more than a few CCTV cameras and extra police.

God wanted to birth peace on the streets of Manly, and I’m delighted to say the churches did mobilize to respond to this challenge to deliver love and grace and kindness to this dark place. But that’s another story for another time.

The first step was in learning the story of our town in order to understand its sickness and contribute to its healing.


Getting started on learning the story of your neighborhood isn’t that difficult at all. Visit city hall. See if they have an historian or an archivist. Talk to the public librarians, Meet long-term residents. Read history books. Search for online resources. Make it your business to know the actual history of your town.

Questions for Studying Story:

  • What are the stories being told by the long-term residents and business owners?
  • What stories were told to them?
  • What have they seen and what do they predict about the future of that place?
  • When studying historical documents or news reports from as far back available, what significant stories stand out?
  • How did this place get its name?
  • What patterns do you notice as you trace the lasting and changing values of a place?
  • What cycles seem to dominate and obstruct the imagination of a place.
  • What fuels aspiration, fear, drive and despair and what are the prevailing stories of hope that linger there?

If you’re interested in reading more, you can pre-order my new book, co-authored with Christiana Rice, To Alter Your World, here.



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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

  1. Thanks Mike and Christiana for this inspiring introduction. I strongly agree with you that to join in with what God is doing we need to read our context. I’m reminded of Walter Bruegemmans comments in his book The Land, that place is stories space so that to know places is to know their stories. I’ve also found Doreen Masey’s understanding very helpful where she describes place as a ‘convergence of stories so far’. We are exploring these kinds of threads in the Urban Life network based in the UK. We look forward to drawing on and being inspired by your contribution!
    Mike Pears

    1. Thank you, Mike. I’ll pass on your warm words to Christy.

      1. Thank you, for the encouragement, Mike! Sounds like you are doing good and meaningful work there with Urban Life.

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