Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Root Shock

The Housing Act of 1949 was designed to address inner-city “blight,” which was loosely defined as any building or neighborhood that had lost its “sparkle,” or, more pragmatically, its profit margin. It was developed post-WW II specifically to initiate “progress” in the cities, and switching from the economy of war to a more productive economy.

Once the blighted land was identified, the areas (neighborhoods) could be seized by the government due to imminent domain and, thanks to federal subsidies, sold to commercial developers at a fraction of what it was worth. And the people who lived there? Well, they were compensated mildly and sent on their way. If you haven’t yet figured it out, the people this most affected were poor black people. By June of 1967, less than twenty years after “Urban Renewal” had become the modus operandi of American cities, over 400,000 low-and-middle income residential units had been demolished to make way for office buildings and cultural institutions, while only 10,760 low-rent housing units had been built to replace them.

This is the very issue that Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D. addresses in her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. She traces the people and neighborhoods, and subsequent destruction and displacement due to urban renewal, in 3 American cities: Pittsburgh; Roanoke, Virginia; and Newark, New Jersey. According to the National Commission on Civil Disorders, a “seminal work on segregation in the United States,” inadequate housing was the number three grievance among people surveyed in 15 cities in the 1960’s, the United States’ most active decade for rioting and civil unrest.

Many factors that you see today that contribute to the sprawl and dismemberment among cities can be attributed to urban renewal. In an attempt to shield the wealthy whites of the city from the poor blacks, housing projects were often physically separated from the rest of the city by massive highways, or sometimes, literally even walls. More often than not, however, whole neighborhoods (sometimes referred to as slums) were simply bulldozed to make way for nicer, “whiter” homes, office parks, arenas, universities, museums, or simply left as empty, vacant land. Blocks were taken out to run highways right through the center of cities. Pittsburgh, for instance, destroyed an entire thriving city-within-a-city called the Lower Hill, right next to downtown to construct the civic arena and three connecting highways, thusly not only driving out all the blacks, but contributing to a crumbling and disconnected infrastructure for the wealthier white people as well. In addition, most of the inclines (Pittsburgh's main mode of public transportation at that time) were all deliberately ripped out to inhibit the passage from the "lower" neighborhoods (the inner city black ones) to the "upper" neighborhoods (the white ones on top of the many hills surrounding Pittsburgh). Thus ensuring that a car culture would inevitably take route, encourage even more "white flight," and thus rip out the beating heart of the city.

While most people would look at these neighborhoods as poor substitutes for a healthy urban environment, in speaking with the residents themselves who were uprooted by this process, Dr. Fullilove finds a heavy emotional toll. They weren’t perfect neighborhoods, to be sure, but the neighborhoods belonged to these people, from the crumbling houses, to the jazz clubs, to the restaurants and markets, they were largely self-contained and black-owned. People spoke of true community, where you knew every single person within a 4-block radius; if someone was sick, their neighbors took care of them; everyone’s children played together, stayed in the neighborhood (where else would they go?) and were watched over (and disciplined) by every adult. If unemployment struck someone, the neighbors and family pitched in to help until the person got back on their feet, and all the businesses catered to the blacks: their family, friends, and neighbors. In other words, it was cohesive, and it was a system that worked, gave people a sense of efficacy and belonging, and provided a valuable social safety net at a time when black people had very little going for them in American society.

Contributing even further to this disconnect was the slow flight of production from cities to the suburbs. Once the people from the inner cities were gone, the factories and blue collar jobs also moved further out, or closed their doors altogether. Thus, the displaced now not only had to abandon their homes and neighborhoods, they lost their jobs. (And forget about all those black-owned businesses ever reopening in new, often more affluent neighborhoods.)

Dr. Fullilove spends considerable time getting to these uprooted people, including a black, gay, HIV-positive, slightly scizophrenic homeless man, who grew up in dire poverty and sexual abuse at the hands of his family, but survived only through the care of his Philadelphia neighborhood and neighbors and community institutions. Dr. Fullilove revisits the site of his old densely crowded neighborhood, which was demolished years ago to make room for empty space and a Hertz rental car facility ("where it Hertz to rent a car," the man jokes).

It is a book of despair, but also of hope, with Dr. Fullilove having spent years and years of her life studying the psychology of displacement and uprooted urbanism. She currently leads community projects, workshops, therapeutic conferences, and meets regularly with city council and other governmental leaders in various cities across America. She offers a specific and goal-oriented program on ways to avoid these further catastrophes and help rebuild and restore the hearts and souls of America's cities: their neighborhoods.

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