Does Being An Urban Pagan Make More Sense?

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Urban Atlanta is still very green.

Higgs boson. Andy Griffith. TomKat. Independence Day. Lots of appropriate topics today. I was discussing the idea that environmentalism puts just as much of a target on the back of Pagans as Witchcraft does, and that the idea that if we relabel what we do we’ll be better accepted is false.

I don’t want to talk about any of that today. I have cities on my mind. Bustling cities with trains and bus lines. Quiet cities gridded out with tree-lined streets. Cities designed for walking. Cities designed for music and art and community.

I’m a country girl at heart. I come from a long line of farmers. My father’s parents moved to a blue-collar neighborhood in Atlanta, and my father grew up there, but he longed for the country, for the mountains. I have always lived among grassy expanses, thick woods, mountain creeks and deep quiet. I love the mountains. I find them comforting. But I’m itching for change.

My 23-year-old car died. Anyone who knows anything about the State of Georgia knows that a car is a basic necessity. Our public transportation is non-existent outside of urban areas. The suburbs of Atlanta are practically designed to be a pedestrian nightmare. Living in the mountains in towns originally designed to serve farmers and gold miners infrequently coming in for supplies, not having a car is generally awful in every way.

One of the contributors to Agora, Adrian Hawkins, reminded me that the Witchcraft traditions we were each initiated into were born in the heart of Atlanta. The magical current we were “baptized in,” so to speak, was an urban current. In fact, most lines and traditions of Witchcraft or occultism in the US were birthed and nurtured in urban environments. There was this idea that urban Paganism was somehow less worthy, and eventually Pagans moved to the suburbs and rural areas. Of course it’s harder to be eco-friendly when you have to rely on a car, shop at Wal*Mart and build rather than re-use buildings which already exist.

I’ve been interested in urban renewal for a long time. Always been a fan of public transportation. But I wanted to stay close to my family and friends. My life has changed a lot though. And now that I don’t have a car I long for public transport and being able to walk to a coffee shop for a moment of social zen.

It seems strange to contemplate these things. My parents moved away from the city to move away from poverty and crime, and yet those things were close on the heels of the suburban exodus. The reasons my parents chose the suburbs and rural towns are the same reasons I find myself looking at the inner city: a better quality of life. With the proliferation of greener-than-thou Pagans who treat urban areas with disdain and insist you have to be really in nature to get it, I find myself desiring to abandon my green hills for the paved, tree-lined avenues of Atlanta. Instead of buying a car and driving to every single errand, it seems greener and more wholesome to walk and take public transport.

That’s what they don’t tell you about the suburbs and country. So often you only see it behind a pane of glass. Being so far from everything, you have to leave earlier to make your destination on time. Which is more time in a car, seeing the great, green world rushing by through a pane of glass. Living in pedestrian friendly areas give me a much greater appreciation for my natural environment. So I find myself deeply considering returning to the city my parents walked away from decades ago. Living in the country makes me a hermit, disconnected, and it’s more expensive to live here than in a lovely, tree-lined, historic Atlanta neighborhood with a vibrant culture, funky architecture and plentiful transport options. The only major trade-offs are living far from the amazing friends I have made here (most of whom I never see because I don’t have a car) and losing the deep beauty of the night sky to light pollution.

The economy has hit everyone pretty hard. Are you considering moving to an urban neighborhood for a better quality of life? Are you considering a car-free lifestyle? Do you find the values of thrift, ecology and community lead you to an urban environment?

Love is the law, love under will.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    Cities are far more “eco-friendly” than suburbs. 

    One of the reasons I have lived in cities my entire adult life is not needing a car. It is easier to share resources in a city, too. I walk and bike a lot, or take transit. My ideal world would be urban arcologies: Urban centers with growing rooftops kept lush by gray-water from laundry. Small farms around the city. Beyond that, wild space that humans, animals, insects, and plants could all enjoy. 

    • Star Foster

       Somehow I always imagine you living in the Bay Area of “The Fifth Sacred Thing” rather than the current one, Thorn! :)

  • Adrian Hawkins

    I find it very intersting that some Moderns Pagan’s think Urban is less holy. If the line “The world is my temple” is true than doesn’t that include the Urban areas as well? What about all those temples in the cities? Don’t get me wrong: I love the wildneress, especially for magic and meditation.

    But being in the heart of city means you are also at the heart of the energy of city itself. Leylines and Feng Shui don’t stop just because you have high rises and condos. :) 

    I am reminded of the lyrics of Jetho Tull’s Jack in the Green.

    “Jack, do you never sleep —
    does the green still run deep in your heart?
    Or will these changing times,
    motorways, powerlines,
    keep us apart?
    Well, I don’t think so —
    I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.”

    • Star Foster

       Someone once pointed out to me that Stone Mountain is essentially a giant hunk of quartz-filled granite, and not only is quartz a crystal humming with energy, but it is one that can be programmed….

      Atlanta is very green. It’s most certainly not barren of either trees or grass…

      • Adrian Hawkins

        My mother went and made a sacred space at Stone Mountain for that very reason Star.  I think stone mountain is a Titan in the RJ Stewart since and is connected to the Blue Ridge Mountains as well. 

        There is a paper my mother wrote on the Sacred sites of Georgia which would be a fun tour to do :) 

    • Ywendragoneye

      Ian’s work was my first exposure to Druidry – his music was and is still an integral part of my path.

  • Michelle Bryant

    Actually yes, we are moving to Atlanta for a better quality of life. On more than one level. Its closer to where Adrian works, thus saving gas. Its closer to where I go to school at GSU, so I can take MARTA. We have contemplated becoming a one car family due to the convenience of public transportation. Its closer to our friends in the burner community who are teaching us to be more self-sufficient, more eco-friendly, and who are generally amazing people that we want to be around. Its closer to the farmer’s markets and whole/natural food stores, so we can eat better and I can get the things that comply with my dietary restrictions. We wanted to be near a pagan-ish area though so we chose East Atlanta Village/ Little 5 Points because of the atmosphere. The people are nice, the stores are epic cool, there is the Lake Claire land trust nearby, and we still have the necessities like Kroger and Target. Being a pagan in the country or suburbs is great, but for us, being pagans in the city makes much more sense right now.  

  • Sophia Catherine

    I’m visiting London this week, and I remember why I loved living here. Despite being 10-mins away from the wild, which I adore and which feeds my Druid-y soul, the sheer current of life in the city wakes me up and excites me. Plus, even a disabled chick can get buses in London. I won’t be driving at all today – I average an hour a day in the car at home. At some point I’ll have to choose between the romantic wild and the life-affirming city. Not yet!

  • LaTrice

    I don’t think beng Pagan and living in an urban environment have to mutually exculsive. As a young adult, I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where I lived for 10 years. During that time, I relied on public transportion or walked where I needed to go.  Spent lots of time in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and at the beach. After the birth of our son, we decided to move to the mid-west (more affordable housing). One of our criteria when looking for a home, was that it needed to be within walking/biking distants of the library, farmers market, downtown area, and lots of green space and parks. We’ve settled in a town just across the river from St. Louis and I’m happy to say that our current location meets all these criteria plus, with almost an acre of land, we’re able to have gardens, a pond, compost area, and chickens (shh. we’re not really suppose to have them, but I bribe my neighbors with fresh eggs 8-).

  • Nicole Youngman

    This is precisely why I’m hell-bent on staying in New Orleans, hurricanes notwithstanding. It IS a better quality of life–IF you can afford the rent, the high summer power bills in these old buildings, and (if need be) stuff for the kids to do (zoo, aquarium, pool, day camp). I’m half a mile from my favorite coffee shop (and the street full of interesting stuff it’s on), about a mile from my son’s school, and my husband can ride his bike to work. I used to be only about 3 miles from work, and could take the streetcar when my schedule permitted, but ironically  I just got a new job that I’ll be starting in a month or so that’s an hour’s drive away–so in order to keep living here, we have to get a second car to allow me to work out-of-town!

    Another thing to keep in mind is how important the *cultural* environment is to our mental health, especially as Pagans, especially in the South. There’s a lot to be said for being surrounded by the creativity that comes with having tons of different kinds of people around. I can be myself here and I don’t have to worry that anyone will find out that my son’s mom has less-than-mainstream religious beliefs. New Orleans isn’t as progressive as San Francisco or New York or Atlanta–we are in Louisiana, after all–but it is a decidedly interesting place with a very old and wonderful soul.

    And there is plenty of nature and wildlife in cities. It’s not wilderness, of course, but there are a surprising number of plants, trees, and critters that have adapted to human-built landscapes and learning about them is all kinds of fun.

    So yeah–if you can manage it, find a one-bedroom or even an efficiency somewhere on a bus line and give it a try. I’ve only been to ATL a few times, but I thought a lot of it was beautiful too!

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    Funny you should mention this, Star, since our new columnist Fritz Muntean (oldtime NROOGD and former editor of The Pomegranate) makes the point in his first column for Witches&Pagans (issue #25 “Element of Air” out in August) that Classical Paganism has ALWAYS been an Urban Religion. (He takes his case back to pre-Christianized Classical Rome.) 

  • PhaedraHPS

    Having lived in cities, suburbs, tiny towns (1500 people) and seriously rural (it was a 20-mile round trip to take out the garbage), you are quite right about the glass barrier between oneself and nature. In a rural environment, one is often limited to the nature in one’s own backyard. Anything else, you gotta drive there. Living in nature is great if you are fit, if you are resourceful, if your way of making a living is portable, and if you can afford the gas.

    Most Pagans *are* urban Pagans, ’cause — just like most people — most of ‘em live in urban areas. I came to my Paganism living spitting distance from Wrigley Field. I went camping for the first time at age 35 (which was actually pretty traumatic, but that’s another story). As a naturalist once told me, urban areas are natural environments for humans. We invented them, we built them, it’s what we do. And there’s plenty of nature in a city. In Chicago, I had racoons invading my garbage cans, possums in the yard, rabbits in the shrubbery– heck, they’ve had coyotes in Central Park. “Nature” is pretty inventive and resilient, as I’m sure anyone who’s seen grass come up through the cracks in the driveway or stumbled over a chunk of sidewalk upturned by tree roots can attest.

    Today I have to reject the charms of bigger urban areas because my income can’t support me there. But I like where I’ve landed. A big reason I’ve chosen the town I live in now is because it is walkable. I was lucky enough to live here years ago without a car, so I know it can be done. We walked to the Fourth of July parade yesterday, and walked to the restaurant, and walked to the festivities in the park. I can walk to the food coop from my apartment, and I could walk to the movies, too. A little farther, but doable. It’s good for me — even if I’m not completely acclimated to the steep hills–I’m a flatland gal! But I also remember that when I lived in the city where I walked everywhere (because it was too much damn trouble to move the car and then have to find another parking place for it) I was in a lot better shape. I didn’t start gaining weight until I moved to the suburbs. It’s a lesson for me.

    You can be wonderfully Pagan in the city. Revel in the nature around you and use the seasonal festivals to remind yourself of that which the cities mute.

    One thing, though, that is dramatically different in the cities and suburbs as compared to the country is the light pollution. A full moon is more viscerally evident in an area without street lights. But that in itself can be a starting point for meditation.

  • Bekah

    I don’t find the idea of “urban” Paganism to be less than any “country” Paganism the same way I don’t think a hermit or anchorite/anchoress should be given the rejection they sometimes get for their living choices either. We’re all kind of urban and country at the same time. Speaking personally, I do find that it’s a whole lot easier to center and feel the elements, Gods, spirits, and Nature when I’m in the country or in nature rather than in the city. I tend to constantly feel and think about Nature and Paganism in numerous aspects. But that is the environment that best suits my needs. Since moving out here onto a couple acres, I’ve lost some (not all, by a long shot) of my arachnophobia due to constantly seeing and being around spiders and other bugs. I’m developing my gardening, planting, and harvesting skills to become closer to the workings of the Earth.  These are things I had no desire for or space to attempt. The change in environment prompted an opportunity for a new burst of thoughts, ideas, and practices. However, I think when we lived closer to the city (well, town, in our last place of residence), when you do see Nature presented among the man made environment, it certainly feels exceptionally sacred in some ways. Each has their own ways of appealing to Paganism. Whether by being submerged in Nature or seeing the sparseness inside cities. Both spark connection, thought, and feeling in different ways. 

  • krisbradley

    I think Pagans tend to be limitlessly adaptable and can create community and sacred places in whatever type of environment they live in.

    Personally, I’m happy as a clam in the NJ suburbs.  I’m 45 minutes away (by mass transit) from NYC,  a five minute walk from the ocean and have both state and federal parks within a short drive for hiking around.  

  • kadiera

    I’ve always been baffled by those who insist that “real” Pagans can’t live in the city. Then again, we now live in an upscale suburb because I grew up in a farm town where it was a 15 minute drive into town to go to school, and 30 miles further to get to the nearest movie theater….and I hated it. Sure, we grew a lot of our own food – but it’s not like our grocery store was really worth shopping at.

    Sure, the city I live in now could stand to be a bit more walkable….and public transportation here in metro Detroit is a joke. But it’s better than nothing, and when it’s not so darn hot, we can bike to the library, the pool, groceries (besides the 5 chain grocers in 3 miles of my house, there’s an organic store, 2 Indian/Pakistani grocers, a Japanese grocer with the best sushi in the area, a Chinese market, and a Mexican market, and a Halal butcher shop), 2 different shopping malls, and just about any kind of food imaginable. There are far more cultural things to do, and more kid-friendly things….and it’s easier to find other Pagans, even if they do all dream of some day moving out to the middle of no where :)

  • Juliebabin82

    Great article. Personally im a country girl and will always be. If i had the money, id buy acreage and live right in the middle of my own little forest. Id live off the land, growing my own food and become as self sufficient as possible while raising my kids. But in my area you have to either be rich or the recipient of a great inheritance to get that kind of land. So, looking like that wont happen for us. Lol. We live in a suburb and i commute.and hour one way to work. It may seem to be the best of both worlds but as gas prices rise, traffic gets worse, etc its.getting harder and def more stressful. Id much rather one end of the spectrum than the middle in this case. Anyway… i see no “problem” with any neo pagan preferring urban life to rural. While i personally would not enjoy an urban environment and would definitely find it hindering spiritually, i dont discredit anyone who may feel differently and i certainly wouldnt.consider them any less worthy of the pagan label. I think the secret either way is to go where your heart is, to surround yourself with people and things that inspire you and bring you peace.

  • Tori

    I grew up in a small town, and a car was necessary to get anywhere. When I was growing up I thought it was terrible that I couldn’t go anywhere unless my parents brought me. I couldn’t have a job without a car, and couldn’t get a car without a job. I couldn’t pass my driving test because my parents didn’t take me driving to practice. When I did pass my test and get my car I moved to college and drove home on weekends. Once again, the car was necessary. I could walk to classes most of the time, but it was a hilly town and took twice as long to walk uphill both ways(not joking). Being the capitol of VT you’d think it was bigger, but it’s the smallest capitol in the USA and even though it was bigger than my hometown of two roads get you anywhere, it was really nice after I got used to it. When I graduated I didn’t move away. I had one job I drove an hour both ways to, left that job for another job that was closer to 30-45 minutes away. We were planning on moving , so I sold my car and quit my job. We ended up  not moving. I couldn’t afford a car, so I was forced to get two jobs within walking distance of our apartment. Even together could they barely paid the bills. I hated it. I never left town unless we (my boyfriend had a car, thank gods) were going to Burlington for something or making our monthly trip to visit my family in NH.

    We are in the middle of our move across the country. We are currently staying a week in a suburb of Kansas City where my boyfriend grew up. It’s the biggest place I’ve ever seen. The roads are mostly 3 lanes, there are two highways intersecting the city to help make traffic faster, and there are more people living here than in the entire state of VT. I am terrified.  I grew up in a town of 3-4000 people. Montpelier is 15-20,000 people. There are millions here. I don’t know if I could ever handle living in a place this big, and it isn’t even as big as some places. And there is still no public transportation.

    We are moving to a small town in Arizona, and we will be commuting about 20 minutes to work. We are going to make the one car thing work as long as we can, but we know eventually I will need some form of motorized transportation of my own. It’s the only bad thing about living away from a city in my opinion. I’m a small town girl and I am hoping to keep it that way.