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Wilderness Blog Series

Wilderness Men 2: Frozen Charlotte

Wilderness Blog on February 17th, 2014 6 Comments

Frozen Charlotte

“And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.”

– Jeremiah 33:9

“So shall they put My name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

– Numbers 6:27


Unless you are a nerdy city planner, as I am, you probably are not aware that among cities with a population over one million, Charlotte is quite an exceptional case among cities.  Being the least dense such city in the USA, in terms of people per square kilometer, puts us in pole position as the least dense city in, well, the WORLD!  Betcha didn’t think we were so special.

This is curious because we also happen to be, among cities, one of the best examples you can find of the “Star” form of cities.  In a Star city, most of the settlement density concentrates along long radial corridors that converge at the core.  We in Charlotte are primarily a five-armed Star (very cool, right?).  The five main corridors in our case are North Tryon Street, South Tryon/South Boulevard, Independence Boulevard, Statesville Road and our very own Wilkinson Boulevard.  These corridors converge on our Center City, whose heart is Uptown, the center of the Star. The areas between these corridors, the “Green Wedges”, usually have a very thin and dispersed development pattern.  In our case, leafy neighborhoods, parks, golf courses and country clubs fill up our Wedges, which makes for an incredibly beautiful city with lots of trees, but very low overall net density, even in the central and most built up portions of our city.

Most large Star cities in the US managed to fill up their Green Wedges with lots more stuff than we did (even sprawly Atlanta, one of these). We mainly filled our Wedges with poorly connected and very low density neighborhoods. As well, because Charlotte is so sliced up by our freeways and railroad tracks converging at the center, it is really, really difficult to travel Wedge to Wedge (we all know the Wedge-to-Wedge bottleneck routes well because if you live near them, you know exactly how indispensable they are – think: Hawthorne Lane, Pecan Avenue, Wendover/Eastway, Remount Road, 36th Street, Sugar Creek, Sharon Amity, etc.).  That difficulty in cross-travel actually makes some Wedges (or thinner “pie slices” of the Wedge areas) largely inaccessible.  They draw little attention outside of their residents, and are thus unlikely to attract new development to them.

The Wedge on the Southwest side of the city, between I-77 and the Norfolk-Southern tracks, the West Boulevard Corridor, is a pretty horrendous manifestation of this case.  It is a “forgotten” and very isolated Wedge. This is the area on the other side of the tracks that run behind Warehouse.  Except in the brain of Bill Morgan, it probably has never registered in the minds of most who attend Warehouse that there is a neighborhood behind our tracks. (Its name is Westover Hills… See, even I forgot that and had to look it up on my iPhone just now.)

The problem with these isolated slivers of the city is not really that it is just too difficult to travel to and from them (actually, West Boulevard usually has one of the top 10 performing CATS routes). The real problem is that the development, commerce, and the spillover activity that makes a city a city, doesn’t get to them. For the most part, all this skips them by. This might be good if you live in a well-kept cul-de-sac.  You might actually want some respite from the city and may want less traffic thundering down your street.  But it is not so good if your entire community can’t benefit from the economic spurs that create the growth of the city. Socially, this is not a good situation either because it keeps people isolated from each other, thus limiting shared stakes and keeping the access points to the great resources provided by networks (“social capital”) very low. Reinvestment goes to other areas of the city. As properties deteriorate in these places, concentrations of poverty increase. And this condition – cut-off neighborhoods that become such damaging places to live in that no one has much incentive to develop housing in them – helps keep Charlotte’s population density low all the way to the center. Empty lots stay empty lots. Vacant properties get shuttered.  Neighborhoods lose population.

It just so happens that Charlotte has one more distinction among cities! We are one of the lowest performing U.S. cities in terms of upward social mobility.  Among the top 50 U.S. metros, we are the worst performing in the whole U.S. of A., period. It is tougher for a poor kid in Charlotte to move up to a better situation in life here than in any other large metro in the U.S. – even Detroit!

These two factors that distinguish Charlotte, low net population density and low social mobility, cannot be neatly correlated, since they involve many other factors, but it is interesting to note how Charlotte’s manifestation of the Star city form, which creates harsh, inert barriers between Wedges, may be contributing to both. Lack of physical connection and poor social cohesion at the neighborhood scale are the underlying factors that the Star form contributes.  These push and influence Charlotte in tandem with other social factors to create incredible obstacles for the poor living in our beloved Queen City. She is a beautiful queen, but she seems to keep many of her subjects in a perpetually icy standstill.

I know what you are thinking: what’s all this got to do with Numbers?  Let me refer you first to our reading plan. See that part in the first paragraph where it says that, for some who experience it, the wilderness “is an opportunity to escape busyness and noise”?  And that other part right below that says that “rough terrain” and “poor planning” present constant dangers in the wilderness?  I’m here to address the “poor planning” part.  For some, a cut-off neighborhood is a blessing, a quiet home beneath a sanctuary of trees. This may in fact describe your home right now. For others, it is a slow, lingering malaise of “stuck-ness” (what else can we call it?). What’s a blessing for a time can turn into a miserable obstacle to navigate and become a death-trap of lost bearings.

Funny enough, Charlotte is a city of the wilderness not unlike the traveling city that God Himself planned out for the wandering tribes of Israel.  In terms of low population density and land use strategy, perhaps no city in the world, other than Soviet-era Moscow (which was actively “de-urbanized” to keep its core density low under Stalin), has come closest to resembling the four to twelve armed Star city of tribal camps described in Numbers Chapter 2. But this nomadic city of encampments is a Star city which produces very different results in social cohesion.  This King’s City can teach our Queen City so much…


The brilliance of the encampment plan snuck up on me unexpectedly, even though I conceptually know, of course, that God is an exceptional designer.  This city also happens to be a city of Corridors and Wedges – a pristine example of the Star city form!  Each of the three groups of tribes creates a “Corridor” arm. Between each of the arms are four Green Wedges.  Obviously, these open Wedges would serve as perfect provisional sheepfolds for all their herds and flocks…


Let me explain a few of the ingenious attributes of this “Star” settlement plan:


Continuity with Flexibility (and “Sensing”):

Because of the rough and often mountainous desert terrain, the long arms of the encampments would have necessarily needed to meander to follow the natural contours of the landscape (the straight lines above are just to help us conceptualize the “ideal” shape).  While each group of three tribes would have converged to form the sides of the “square” of the central Levite district, the individual encampments would have been free to branch out as needed as they got out further from the center, potentially creating a “Star” of up to 12 Branch arms of wavy linear encampments (with 12 Green Wedges between them).   However, I think the needs of defense and the appreciation for task-differentiation among tribes, as described below, would have encouraged each group of three tribes to more or less stick near one another in the main cardinal directions as much as possible. The important thing would have been to keep the arms continuous with as little gaps as possible.  Why?  Because what you see represented above is also a message relay system.  At a rapidity you should not underestimate, this city would have been aware of every important development within its horizons.

Question: Wes pointed us to the art of “sensing” God and His acts and blessings tangibly. In what ways can we connect to each other to “sense” His presence?

Diversifying Economy:

The staple economy of this tribal city is shepherding.  As a city planner, I conceptualize the city as a city created to be mobile in order to graze sacrifices – fantastically unique in the history of humanity. The encampments of this spacious city would have stretched out to reach an expansive area of land, several square miles.  Thus, yes, the nomadic city probably has the lowest human net population density of any city that has ever existed, even lower than Charlotte’s, but, obviously, this is needed because these citizens kept large groups of beasts.  They needed all that land!  The Green Wedges are production. The real population to think about is the animal population.  This city allows shepherds to live near their herds and to thus better manage and protect them. A secondary market of tent-making, wool-spinning, leather-working, dove-keeping, donkey transport, wild honey speculating and so on would have developed because of the grazing economy. Note that the four central “camp-locked” tribes would have had great incentive to develop specialized occupations, essentially outsourcing their herd management to others. Obviously, how herds were grazed and managed would have been an item that would have required an enormous scale of inter-tribal cooperation, so I suspect that shepherding developed as a monetized (or commission/percentage-based) profession to ease the exchange, thus allowing greater specialization in the economy to ensue.  By nature of their locations, some tribes, like Gad and Reuben would have gravitated to shepherding, while others, like camp-locked Asher and Issachar, developed trading and political-brokering skills and specialized in secondary tasks – like transport and herd accounting. When you hear of tribal roles and character down the road, keep things like this in mind.

Question: In what ways can we connect to each other to “sense” our roles and talents?


Human Hygiene:

Mosaic Law dictated that people going to the restroom carry a spade to make sure their human waste was buried.  Deuteronomy 23:12 dictates that the place to conduct one’s business had to be outside the camp.  Handy dandy.  This plan actually allows everyone a short walk to make it “outside” the camp. For this reason, I estimate that the encampment corridors would not have gotten wider than ½ mile, allowing no more than a five minute walk from the center to make it to the outside.  Chapter 5, your reading for today, opens up with God commanding Moses to send all the people considered ceremonially unclean out of the camp.  The laws disbarring the unclean from remaining in the camp are spelled out in Leviticus, but God only now commands them to be put out.  This to me shows His mercy for only now that the camps are deployed in this fashion according to His plan would the encampments be situated to allow this to happen humanely.  Don’t get the impression that the unclean have to travel out to the very outer periphery to go at it alone with the hyenas!  They would have been well-protected and in specially designated places surrounded by the flocks, where they would enjoy the protection of alert shepherds who chased away any predatory animals at night. Certainly, they can stay safely in shouting distance from their very families, who would be nearby to help see to their needs.  Leviticus 13 also mentions specially identified “shut out” places to enclose those being examined by priests for skin diseases in quarantine or isolation, almost like hospital wards.  Note that this plan might hint at where these places may have been located in close proximity to priests. You can be “outside of the camp” in many safe places.  By the way, notice how Chapter 5’s opening command makes sense in the progression of things in Numbers?  Don’t think that these matters are placed randomly.  Everything is building on the last part.  The sequence is intentional.  The laws in Chapter 5 and 6 relate to camp conditions, “laws of separation”, necessary for God to “dwell among you”.  It makes sense that the Priestly Blessing appears at the end of Chapter 6, because that blessing puts God’s name on the people.  These laws all relate to how He is raising the people to greatness so that He can dwell in their midst (Numbers 5:3).

Question: God’s presence is often quite intimidating to guys, how do we point one another to sense His mercy?

Military Strategy:

One of my favorite attributes of this plan is its defense strategy.  Remember, these are encampments of armies. To defend this settlement without walls in an open field, it is actually quite a brilliant tactical form.  First, note that the thin dispersal of the population across the landscape is in itself a defense strategy.  This “You-Can’t-Get-Us-All” tactic bears the imprint of the Creator to me, since it is a move counterintuitive to human nature, yet we find it populates His handiwork. But it is in the battle-craft that this plan truly amazes me. Don’t think that this city is vulnerable!  Try to imagine what might happen to someone who makes an advance to attack it from any direction.  I’ll let you infer the battle strategies, the staging and inter-tribal stratagems, that can play out.  It’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and I find myself stopping in my tracks in the most random times of the day with an “Oh!”, nodding at its brilliance when one realization leads to another.  I won’t take that fun away from you by explaining that part. At all…

Question: God’s ways are often different than ours, how do we corporately sustain the strength, sensitivity and patience to discern His tactical brilliance? What practices must be cultivated?

Social Cohesion:

Social cohesion results from empathic understanding, staking your own wealth on your brother’s well-being and honor.  Note how the tribes, feeling sorry for the newly assigned carrying burdens of their Levite brothers, without being prompted, freely offer the Levites wagons and teams of oxen in Chapter 7! God’s encampment plan actually stakes itself on this same kind of brotherly love and cooperation.  In every respect, the plan presents conditions that require a constant negotiation between tribal leaders to rebalance strategically where herds are sent, how burdens are distributed, how battle roles are strategized, among others I’m sure I have still yet to realize. The attributes of the Star form contribute to tribal harmony.  Its sheer physical organization dictates that tribal cooperation must ensue.  No one can remain aloof.  No one can be cut off. All are given distinct benefits that require brotherly support.  The plan has a stunning perspective on human society and teaches us the power of strategies that create mutual benefits. It’s not about “equity”, having the same thing as your brother. It’s not about redistribution.  It’s about brotherhood, which honors distinctions, and about following one God, the true Provider, the Shepherd who scouts out the best path through the desert.

Question: Are we ready to be vulnerable enough for brotherhood?

Last Monday, as we were departing from breakfast, one of our neighbors whom we were hosting at Room in the Inn at Warehouse asked me for a job.  He asked with a tone of dignity and look of utter sincerity in his eyes.  A look that said he had nothing to lose in asking – dignified humility. He knew what he was capable of!  He knew that his circumstances didn’t reflect his capacities! It totally destroyed me.  I had nothing to offer him. I went home that morning and sobbed afterwards, wishing I knew of a plan that could create jobs for the homeless living outside the encampments of Charlotte.

I was prompted to compose this post, peculiar and long as it is, because I was confronted with God’s presence this past week… As I sensed Him in the man’s eyes who asked me for a job.  As I sensed Him in the stasis of the snowfall and then the melting snow, realizing whole communities in our Star city still remained solidly frozen in a kind of perpetual winter.  As I sensed Him as a master planner Who, in a deceptively simple city plan, applied my craft with extraordinary design skill, a skill, out of all the master planning examples of mankind that I’ve studied in my life, unmatched in its sheer command of the multiple dimensions of human societies.  This is how I sensed Him clearly in my peculiar way in the lessons of the book we are reading. I had to relate this insight to you. Sorry the explanation was long, but thanks for reading.

6 Responses to “Wilderness Men 2: Frozen Charlotte”

  1. Bob Palmer says:

    This is superb, amazing, definitely 5-STAR material in my camp! So interesting, things I never would have thought of, relating much of what occurred then to what is happening today. I so appreciate your perspective, gifts and literary abilities to bring so much of this alive for me…so much for me to consider….THANK YOU!

  2. Skip Robinson says:

    Great post Eric!
    I thoroughly enjoyed seeing This through your eyes. Really cool and thanks for sharing it.

  3. Alan Love says:

    This is a great illustration of a Christ centered life. John 1 says that Jesus tabernacled among us. Are we setting up our camps and conducting commerce with Jesus in the middle of everything we do?

  4. Eric Orozco says:

    Alan, great thought. I suspect that when we learn to put Christ in the middle of it, we will weirdly find the deeper fulfillment to our calling that we often miss or yearn for. Seems actually quite odd instead to keep Him out of our daily occupations. For me, it is weird to discover that a text so ancient could speak with that much clarity – to suddenly sense all His fingerprints in your life, and speak, no less to you about what He thinks about the topics you deal with every day,… To sense His active thought and design chops. Like He introduced Himself to me thusly: “Hi Eric! I too am an urban designer. Here, let me show you how I approach this problem…”

  5. Marc Dickmann says:

    Eric, I don’t think I’ll ever read Numbers the same. And I don’t think I’ll ever see our city the same either. The divisions in Charlotte are profound. You’ve given us lots to ponder, and to apply to real life in real time. “Seeking the welfare” of our city in the ways you describe are inspiring.

  6. Simon Le says:

    Eric, this post reads just as fascinating and interesting a year later. I echo Marc’s comments especially as I consider the “what” and “how” regarding the welfare of the people of our city. Many thanks!

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