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Book Reviews

Dispossessed
A Review of Two Books
By Susan Allen

Root Shock by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, New York: Random House , One World/Ballantine Books, 2004

"Je me souviens," reads every Quebec license plate below its government-issue identification numbers and letters. "Je me souviens" — "I remember..."

What is memorialized in those bland blue and white pieces of metal is the forced march of an entire population from its homeland in the former French colony of what is now eastern Canada, in the mid-1700's. Many migrated to the Louisiana bayous, where the proud name "Acadian" survives to this day in its Americanized form as "Cajun."

I am reminded of the Acadian peoples' story of dispossession when I read of its modern parallels in the city planning phenomenon known as "urban renewal."

Dr. Mindy Fullilove's Root Shock captures this mid-20th century version of horror wrought by loss of home, in her documentation of urban renewal in Roanoke, Virginia, Pittsburgh's Hill District and the Central Ward of Newark, New Jersey. Less politely known as "slum clearance," the fashion of demolishing neighborhoods and replacing them with high-rise housing projects began under the impetus of the federal Housing Act of 1949 and its subsequent modifications.

Levelled to the ground were vibrant communities populated with close-knit family and friends, of modest homes packed tightly together but whose doors were always unlocked, of tended gardens, of familiar alleyways and shortcuts, of local shops and beloved churches. And though life was tough, there was music, always music, wafting out the doors of homes, clubs and houses of worship.

"The developers tell us not to be sentimental about where we live," one soon-to-be victim of displacement tells Dr. Fullilove, who reacts with summary outrage to this cavalier dismissal of pain. In a haunting Honore Daumier sketch of a poor woman driven out of her Parisian tenement in the 1800's, Fullilove sees the identical anguish on a Pittsburgh refugee's face in a photograph taken a century later.

Helpless in the face of gargantuan bureaucracies and the city planners who ran them, the local residents of Paris and Pittsburgh scattered and vanished, along with hundreds of thousands of other so-called "slum dwellers." Fullilove's investigation into the magnitude of these housing programs reveals there were 2,500 urban renewal projects in nearly 1,000 U.S. cities. She estimates that 1,600 of those involved minority populations, whose loss of home, coupled with systemic racism and poverty, gave rise to pathologies both personal and civic.

"I am sure that people died as a result of this," says Mary Bishop, who documented the sad saga of Roanoke. Fullilove, a practicing psychiatrist, delves into this "psychology of place" and the psychic impact of having one's roots involuntarily torn out. Her insightful work shows that "a precious resource is created any time people live together in a place," and is uprooted at the larger society's peril.

Along with other tales of personal upheaval, Fullilove relates the story of her sister-in-law, Patricia White Fullilove. She survived loss of her Newark home to urban renewal, going on to become an educated and successful member of her new community. Yet the author goes beyond the happy ending. She asks what Patty's life might have been, had the old neighborhood been there to shelter her, instead of the more hostile surroundings that required her to develop such tremendous coping skills.

Fullilove takes local residents' arguments at their worth, that they are invariably left out of these planning processes. "What is a weakness about us, that we can never win none of those battles that break our hearts to see done," Charles Meadows writes plaintively, poetically, how he and his neighbors could not stop the bulldozers in Roanoke. Through Fullilove's work, he speaks for all powerless people through the ages.

And though we all celebrate what the rich "Cajun" culture has brought to us, this valuable book now makes me wonder what that exile did to each individual man, woman and child forced from home, and what has been lost along the way.

In addition to the written work, a version of Root Shock is available in video format. Documenting in precise detail the destruction of a good part of Newark's black heritage through urban renewal, Fullilove's production team contrasts the photographs of lovingly kept homes and contented families with the scars left by their removal. You'll actually see a doubling of the shock, as people once forced from their frame houses are again stranded when, in the bitterest of ironies, the planners demolish the housing projects that replaced them. Seeing and hearing the people whose lives have been forever affected make real the traumas that are meticulously laid out in Dr. Fullilove's book.

This theme of loss is echoed in an entirely different fashion in the fictional work, Mists of the Couchsacrage: Rescue from State Land, by Alden L. Dumas (1stBooks Library, 2003).

The story of a small plane crashed down in an ice storm in the Adirondack woods of northern New York is on the surface pure macho adventure. Blam, blam! — count up those dead bodies! There's your assorted malevolent characters deep into drug- and gun-running, and the posse of city slickers who don't understand the mysterious Couchsacrage forest or the people who inhabit the surrounding lands. First-time author Alden Dumas adds to the plot a somewhat awkwardly written romance between the aircraft pilot and his passenger, who happens to be the Governor's daughter, which is best read as if it were a movie screenplay written for the day's hunk-and-hottie combination.

But what gives this novel body and soul is the finely drawn characterization of the foggy chill of swampland where the rescuers chase, and are chased by, these real bad guys. Clearly Dumas knows that terrain, as his fictitious characters track both captors and their own memories through the mists of what is not at all a fictional landscape. For the author is a veteran of the hunt in the northwestern Adirondack region he describes so vividly. And haunting this topography is the pain of banishment from hunting camps handed down through the generations, now dismantled and destroyed because of New York State's voracious land acquisition and wilderness plans for the Adirondacks.

This is so rare, to have someone voice this position in so-called "regional" literature, which has been hijacked by writers idly musing on beauty, nature and a wished-for, unpeopled wilderness. Dumas even adds a chilling message to his subtitle: "A novel of the Adirondacks, possibly in the not too distant future." And he dedicates the work "to all early settlers of the Adirondacks, and any descendants who have lost their family's camps and land-use rights due to policies and practices beyond their control."

A juicy read while you're waiting for deer season to start. Better yet, take this book with you to camp and have a serious talk with your companions about the future of your land, your family and your heritage.

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Susan Allen writes the monthly newsletter "Adirondack Park Agency Reporter," which covers the actions and deliberations of that powerful regional land use planning agency.

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