Root Shock pt 1 — Urban Renewal and Public Health

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FulliloveThis is one of the few books that really tries to come to grips with the deep psychological trauma caused by mass displacement — what it calls Root Shock. It does so through the prism of urban renewal and reminds us of the scale of it. The program ran  from 1949 to 1973, and during this time the U.S. government bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 cities, dispossessing an estimated million people. They were supposed to be slum clearances, they were supposed to create space for new housing. Few of these clearances did, and we are still coming to grips with what was lost. But there is a bitter truth behind the switch from ‘urban’ to ‘Negro’ removal — it is the Black community that lost the most and that continues to be most impacted by it all.

What was it, then, that was lost?

…the collective loss. It was the loss of a massive web of connections–a way of being–that had been destroyed by urban renewal; it was as if thousands of people who seemed to be with me in sunlight, were at some deeper level of their being wandering lost in a dense fog, unable to find one another for the rest of their lives. It was a chorus of voices that rose in my head, with the cry, “We have lost one another.” (4)

I like this understanding of it. I also quite love that despite a clinician trying to deepen our understanding of the psychological impacts, she maintains a larger understanding of just what is happening.

This process taught me a new respect for the story of upheaval. It is hard to hear, because it is a story filled with a  large, multivoiced pain. it is not a pain that should be pigeonholed in a diagnostic category, but rather understood as a communication about human endurance in the face of bitter defeat. (5)

And you know I love the spatial awareness that has to be part of this, because it is a physical loss of building, home, neighbourhood, as much as a loss of connection.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. (10-11)

So how does Fullilove define Root Shock?

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. It has important parallels to the physiological shock experience by a person who, as a result of injury, suddenly loses massive amounts of fluids. Such a blow threatens the whole body’s ability to function…. Just as the body has a system to maintain its internal balance, so, too, the individual has a way to maintain the external balance between himself and the world. This way of moving in the environment…. (11)

It is not something that is experienced right away and then disappears.

The experience of root shock–like the aftermath of a severe burn–does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime. In fact, the injury from root shock may be even more enduring than a burn, as it can affect generations and generations of people.

Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. (14)

This book is interladen with quotes and stories from people Fullilove worked with, she cares like I do to let people speak for themselves about their experience. She quotes Carlos Peterson, on the bulldozing of his neighbourhood:

‘My impression was that we were like a bunch of nomads always fleeing, that was the feeling I had.” (13)

There is Sala Uddin, who remembered urban renewal first with approval — the new homes they were getting, then:

Critiquing his own earlier enthusiasm, he pointed out to me, “We didn’t know what impact the amputation of the lower half of our body would have on the rest of our body until you look back twenty years later, and the rest of your body is really ill because of that amputation.

The sense of fragmentation is a new experience that we can now sense, that we didn’t sense then. We were all in the same location before. Now we are scattered literally to the four corners of the city, and we are not only politically weak, we are not a political entity. We are also culturally weak. And I think that has something to do with the easiness of hurting each other. How easy it is to hurt each other, because we are not that close anymore. We are not family anymore. (175)

Because she is able to listen, she is able to describe the ways that people are connected both to buildings, but also to each other. I love how from multiple angles, the human connections to the earth, to the built environment and to each other always emerge as key to lives well-lived, whether looking at permaculture or public space or psychology:

This lesson of interconnectedness is as hard to learn as differential calculus or quantum mechanics. the principle is simple: we–that is to say, all people–live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us yo the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as being caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages. Because of the interconnectedness of the net, if your place is destroyed today, I will feel it hereafter. (17)

This brings a new look at Jane Jacob‘s street ballet, where

you are observing the degree to which people can adapt to different settings, and not just adapt, but attach, connect. They are connecting not to the negatives or even the positives of the setting, but to their own mastery of the local players and their play. (19)

I am quite intrigued by this idea:

Instead, the geography created by dispersal-in-segregation created a group of islands of black life. “Archipelago” is the official geographic term for a group of islands. Black America is an archipelago state, a many-island nation within the American nation. The Creation of the archipelago nation had two consequences for African Americans. The first is that the ghettos became centers of black life; the second is that the walls of the ghetto, like other symbols of segregation, became objects of hatred. In this ambivalent, love/hate relationship, it was impossible to chose to dwell. Yet people did choose to make life as vibrant and happy as they possibly could. (27)

This feels particularly true of earlier periods when the colour lines were hard and fast and patrolled by white mobs and white gangs and the use of violence. When green books were necessary when travelling to know where to stay, what to eat safe from the oceans of white hatred (too far? Not in terms of the hatred, but maybe in terms of metaphor…) When the ghetto walls were high and strong and each brick legally protected, which is part of the story and the trauma of urban renewal’s root shock. For so long people faced the choice: to fight to improve the ghetto or the fight to leave it. Regardless, she captures something of what the ghetto cost the city as a whole:

Segregation in a city inhibits the free interaction among citizens and invariably leads to a brutality and inequality, which themselves are antithetical to urbanity. When segregation disappears, freedom of movement becomes possible. that does not necessarily mean that people will want to leave the place where they have lived. The ghetto ceases to be a ghetto, it is true, but it does not stop being a neighborhood of history. Postsegregation, the African-American ghetto would have been a sight for imaginative re-creation , much like the ghetto in Rome. (45)

She writes later on:

The divided city is a subjugated city. (164)

The tragedy always was this inisght, again from Jane Jacobs  (as summarised by Fullilove):

A slum would endure if residents left as quickly as they could. A neighborhood could transform itself, if people wanted to stay. It was the investment of time, money  and love that would make the difference. (44)

That was almost never allowed to happen. Instead neighbourhoods were bulldozed — and again there is the comparison to rubble left by war, similar to Dybek, to Gbadamosi:

Indeed, in looking at American urban renewal projects I am reminded more of wide-area bombing–the largely abandoned World War II tactic of bombing major parts of cities as we did in Wurzeburg, Germany and Hiroshima, Japan–than of elegant city design. (70)

It was done in the most destructive way possible:

Even though the basis for compensation was gradually extended, the payments continued to be linked to individual property rights. Collective assets — the social capital created by a long-standing  community–were not considered in the assessment of property values. (79)

There is not enough on why I think, which limits the section thinking through what we can do to stop it. But there is this quote from Reginal Shereef, who studies the effects of urban renewal on African Americans in Roanoke:

“But the reality of urban renewal was that cities wanted to improve their tax base. And that is my interest. I have always looked at the intersections between public policy and economics. And what happened in Roanoke was neighborhoods was torn down so that commercial developers could develop prperties and sell it to private interests…” (98)

Part 2 looks at some of the positive ways to think of community, ways that we can work to preserve and improve our neighourhoods. But I’ll end this with one of the lovelier expressions of what home means to people, this from resident Dolores Rubillo:

“People know, you know where you are–” and, leaning in to me added, “you are safe in the dark.” (127)




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