Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Rod Houser: Community Mennoite Church of Lancaster County

Session: Toward a Research Agenda


You have heard that I’m associated with the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, but I want to clarify that we are not an economic development venture … laughter … although, maybe some of my brothers in the County have been selling their farms at windfall profits for Wal-Marts and other such developments--but that’s not what we do. Perhaps what I have to say can be best described as being anecdotal, along the lines of some of the things that Erik Pages was mentioning earlier.

A couple of years ago I facilitated a three month Sunday morning discussion during our Christian ed hour at our church, on topics related to issues that we face as we become older, and one of those topics related to where we will spend our retirement years and what kind of community will want to participate in. A book we used was From Aging to Saging, a book by Rabbi Zalman. He notes that many folks in their retirement years tend to think of retirement as a time "to get back" from their communities because of all the effort they have put into their communities during their productive years; "now it’s my time to get back." He suggests an alternative model, though, whereby, because of all the things that we have received during our productive years, retirement is a time when we can give back to the community. So we asked the question, what are the characteristics of a community in which we may want to live so that we can do this? Do we want to go to Florida, and spend our remaining years playing shuffle board and golf? Or do we want to succumb to some of the lure of the retirement communities that are popping up as fast as shopping centers in Lancaster County? Or is there some other venue that we want to pursue? And of course we began to take a look at downtown Lancaster. Where else can you live within walking distance to a bus and market, banking institutions, pharmacy, public library, houses of worship, health clubs, coffee houses, pubs, restaurants—Mennonites speaking of going to pubs, and in church meetings, no less!-- …. laughter …. public lecture venues, excellent seminaries, concerts, theatre…And where else can you find opportunities to volunteer your services like you can in downtown Lancaster: after-school programs for disadvantaged children, tutoring in adult literacy, …the list goes on. Then we asked the question: is there a community of younger adults ready to barter services with the members of the retirement community? (And I found what Julie was saying earlier very interesting; and I’m going to find more out about those Citizen-Chips, because that’s something that we could talk about.) We’ll do periodic babysitting if you’ll come take leaves out of our gutters, or take care of our sidewalks when it snows.

At any rate, I talked with a number of friends with similar ideas, and they said let me know when you’re ready to talk about this. So that time came about a month ago. I put out an email to these people, and said "I’m ready to talk, let’s get together and see what kinds of dreams we can put together." And I was surprised that 35 people showed up with another 15 people expressing interest. So we have about 50 people that are now on the listserv, and we are continuing communication with that. We talked about values related to living in downtown Lancaster, we talked about things that might be missing that would be important to us, and we speculated about the possibility of forming some kind of intentional community in downtown Lancaster which might have anything, from a very loose network, to a very structured network of people living in downtown Lancaster-- retirees, younger families, who could barter services, find a quality of life supporting each other in the kinds of things that they like to do. We also asked questions on the conditions of Lancaster townhouses, whether they can be retrofitted to provide for special needs. Some of the beautiful warehouses in Lancaster, are they potential condominiums that could be built specifically to address the needs of these persons?

So, what would we want out of this project: towards A research agenda for the Local Economy Center. This reversal of suburban flight is happening all over. Newsweek recently featured an article "Seniors in the City" where the writer argued that this phenomenon of older folks retiring in the city, which began as a trickle in the 90s, has now grown to a steady stream. A friend of mine sent me an Associated Press article, which appeared Naples, Florida—of all places--saying suburban flight empty nesters flock to cities. Then the AARP magazine has a story about downsizing in DC—my daughter lives in DC, and she tells me that downsizing there means moving from a suburban 3 million dollar house to a 1 million dollar condo in DuPont Circle. The scale is a little off, but it’s the same kind of thing, a lot of people are thinking about, and looking forward to moving into Lancaster to retire. So, our group—we call ourselves "The Downtowners"--is interested in finding out what’s going on in other communities where this moving back to downtown is occurring; what has been published regarding the experiences of persons working in the intentional communities in downtown settings. What housing models are there? Are there economic incentives for experimenting in downtown retirement communities? What about providing healthcare…nursing care, assisted living in a downtown environment?

We are about a month old, and this new organization on the F&M campus just started today. Hopefully, we can grow together.