Property Rights Foundation of America®

Speech from Proceedings of the Eighth Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(2004)

ROOT SHOCK

How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and
What We Can Do About It

By Dr. Mindy Fullilove

Thank you and good afternoon.

This is a really fundamental thesis that I think we all share, which is that buildings aren't simply structures that are there. They are there because they serve human purposes. They do essential things. Keeping the rain off us or creating a uniform temperature permits us to do activities and social functions that are essential to the advancement of civilization. And because buildings do these functions for us, because they protect us in this way, as it turns out we come to love them.

Now, I am a psychiatrist and in psychiatry there is a fundamental principle of attachment that we recognize works between people, but it turns out this attachment also works between people and their near environment. We are dependent on our near environment. It takes care of us and therefore we love it.

In the same kind of way, we love our neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are obviously much larger than buildings. They are an assemblage, not only of buildings, but of public squares, public spaces, and they are also the things we do together as neighbors.

These photographs (1) are from a neighborhood in Pittsburgh from the 1950's taken by a very famous African American photographer, Charles Teenie Harris, and they celebrate a ghetto neighborhood called the Hill District, which was undoubtedly one of the most astounding culturally productive neighborhoods in America. It is this neighborhood that August Wilson writes about in his plays. Lena Horn, Art Blakely are just a few of the many great jazz artists that came out of this neighborhood. It is an astounding neighborhood in terms of the gifts of the people who lived there. But it was also partly astounding because of the things that everyday people did in the course of their everyday lives, like having parades. Here they are gathered on the steps of the Carnegie Library getting ready for one of many parades. There are Easter parades, Mason's parades, just people celebrating in their ordinary life. There are lots of trolley stops and buses, plenty of things going on in the streets, men gathering to play checkers; these were mostly immigrants from the south who brought the love of checkers with them. And you can see the guy on the left with a hand move like that. That's the sign of a deadly checkers player.

There is a very active settlement house where kids learned art and swimming, and this settlement house had actually been inherited by African American immigrants from the Jewish immigrants who had lived in this neighborhood earlier, but who had prospered in the way that we like to think people can in America and had moved up to better neighborhoods, and the new immigrants to the city were left to inherit the things that they had built.

And this is a street scene of the kind of active bustling urban America, and this is a map by a young man I have worked with. Actually, this is from Philadelphia just of the things that he as a boy loved in his neighborhood, and, if you look closely, you will see that Mrs. Sloan's house, where he could get the best food. And he has also marked where he can catch turtles and get frogs and flowers and chickens and all the kinds of things that you love in your neighborhood.

So it's this assemblage of things in the neighborhood that makes it rich, makes it supportive, that nourishes us, and this is not about being rich or poor. This is about people living together and all those things that are so fundamental to life, not only in America, but to every country in the world.

The Lower Hill District was marked for urban renewal by a powerful coalition of capitalists in Pittsburgh. Frick, Mellon, Carnegie, all those guys got together and said, that poor black community is a horrible slum and we should bulldoze it. These are the narrow streets in which people were creating this incredibly energetic community. This is what Carnegie, Mellon, and Frick planned for them—to bulldoze this entire area, to cut off the black neighborhood from downtown by putting in highways, and to insert that circle, which is a civic arena, which was intended to be a performance for light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, which was directed entirely at a white audience. So not only were the African Americans to be displaced from their neighborhood, but the land was to be used for the entertainment of a completely different group. It was being completely taken from them, and then this whole space was being used to create a kind of prison marginalization, intense geographic marginalization, of this ghetto community. This is what it looks like post. You can see the vast moat that is created between downtown Pittsburgh and the black community. And this is what it looks like on the map. The parts that are gray are gray because they are the black segregated areas. So you can see that the Lower Hill which was a black segregated area is now not a black segregated area anymore. In fact, there are no people living there at all. And this is how they changed the pattern of the streets.

There is enormous resistance. It has been there continuously. But the tragic thing is that citizens were able to get the government to stop taking land at the point at which you see this billboard, but what happened instead was civic red-lining and private investment red-lining so that the neighborhood was left to rot. So it was abandoned in anther way and this kind of red-lining is a slower way of the government taking people's land. It takes them 40 years to take the land, but it works just as well as the eminent domain thing.

This is the Middle Hill. It was not bulldozed but left to rot and you can see the number of vacant lots, and now developers are coming in and taking this property. In fact, the government wanted to bulldoze all the houses that were standing. They said, well, they are rotten. Of course they are rotten. There has not been any investment for forty years. The people have been driven out. This was yet another way of people losing their homes and losing their land and of destroying the neighborhood.

This is a neighborhood in Ann Arbor that was slated for removal. It was called Carrietown. It happened that a local black minister led a strenuous fight and was able to save this neighborhood. It is one of the few neighborhoods that I know of that was saved, and now it is a fabulous historic district, and, of course, that is true of almost all the neighborhoods in the Hill District, the Lower Hill included, that if we hadn't knocked them down, we would now be celebrating them as our historic places.

This is a memorial that was erected at the corner where you saw that billboard. It is a civil rights monument. It is called "Freedom Corner" and the woman in the front, Thelma Lovette, was one of the matriarchs of the Hill District in 1992 when that picture was taken just to memorialize and to have a connection with this land which is really no longer the African American community. In fact, the city has now renamed it Crawford-Roberts. And you may have noticed that after they take the land they take whatever was the historic name and they give it a new name.

Urban renewal was particularly brutal for African Americans. African Americans used the phrase urban renewal—this is in the fifties and sixties under the Housing Act of 1949—African Americans called this urban renewal Negro removal. You may have heard that term. And it turns out that 63 percent of the people who were displaced by those urban renewal programs, 2500 projects in1,000 U.S. cities, were African American. We can estimate that 1,600 urban renewal projects were directed at African American neighborhoods. This is in a time of terrible segregation when the African Americans couldn't move freely in the rest of the city.

So the losses of neighborhoods like the Hill District, which were striving neighborhoods of immigrants to the city, people trying to achieve the American dream, these losses were horrific.

This is another memorial. This one was erected in Omaha in a street that ran through the African American neighborhood there and is on the site of a jazz club. Among the buildings, as you know, when things are displaced, many small businesses can't relocate. Urban renewal is terrific for small businesses and some of the most fabulous small businesses were jazz clubs. Everybody knows that jazz almost died in the United States of America in the fifties, but what few people know is that in all of these neighborhoods that were bulldozed there were jazz clubs. And nine out of ten of the jazz clubs died. They weren't able to relocate. So part of the death of jazz has to do with the destruction of neighborhoods and the destruction, really, of these important small businesses. The re-establishment of jazz in Columbus Circle, the Lincoln Center opening up jazz, is kind of an irony because it is also an urban renewal area. So having taken it out of its location in the neighborhoods, we now put it in a fancy building where only rich people can go hear it.

This is a vacant lot in the Hill District that people are claiming—a very, very simple park with some gravel and some benches, but it makes the vacant land suddenly a place again active and alive. It is just a symbol of the many ways in which people work, even in neighborhoods that have been red-lined and left to rot. People work to save their neighborhoods. People's dedication and love for their neighborhoods is always great and the thing that I have often heard is, why would they love that neighborhood? It looks terrible. It doesn't matter how terrible somebody's neighborhood looks, they love it because they know where Mrs. Sloan's house is and they know where they can get the best food and where they can catch turtles. We love our neighborhoods because we live in them, and this is people trying to live in the neighborhood that has really been left to become a ghost town. But yet they are trying to make it real. They live there. It is still theirs.

My husband and I worked with citizens in the Hill District to try to understand what had happened, and we created this map which we call "Burn Index" and all the blue Xs are buildings that had been destroyed since city planning had first made this map. So it is symbolic of the red-lining and leaving neighborhoods to crumble.

This is actually Patty Hagan's effort in Brooklyn. When my book came out in June, they gave a party and we had a nice event walking around the neighborhood so that people could see what it was that was being threatened by Ratner's development. He wants to take their neighborhood and put an arena in. How ironic that the same thing that was so horrible for the Hill District would now be so horrible for Brooklyn. So "root shock" goes on.

Part of the issue, and certainly the issue in terms of African Americans and the destruction of African American neighborhoods, is that racism in the United States often allows white people to say it is a slum neighborhood. It is not any good. We should just bulldoze it. That is often the excuse that is used. And often ghetto neighborhoods are geographically off, so that white people don't have to drive through. So they look at them, they peak in, they say oh it is nasty, let's bulldoze it, and then they go away. And so part of the struggle is to really break down the ghettoization—ghettoization is really a geographic separation—to integrate our nation, to make connections. And so this map is a proposal by one of our colleagues who is an urbanist to reconnect, to undo this moat thing that was created in the civic arena so that the neighborhoods can communicate with each other. We believe that what makes a strong city is neighborhoods in tight communication with each other.

This is a project that grew out of that initial proposal, which is linking the Hill District and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods to the rivers of Pittsburgh. It is a very exciting project.

Obviously, in American history this taking of land is part of the founding of the Republic. These are maps of pushing the Native Americans onto the reservations. This was the Trail of Tears. The internment of Japanese was another massive expropriation, putting Japanese into concentration camps and taking their property, and this is a picture of the Japanese, many of whom were American citizens, being herded under armed guard off to the concentration camps.

There are other things that chase us out of our homes. Natural disasters. This is the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which left this city a ghost town, much of the region a ghost town.

As a physician, I am very interested in the links between displacement of people from their homes, especially when you chase them out of their neighborhoods, and health. Our conservative estimate is that one in ten will die early from displacement. It is a very conservative estimate. That is my book and that is the end. Thank you so much for your attention.

Notes:

(1) For photos and more information about some of the references in this speech, please see Dr. Mindy Fullilove's book, Root Shock (New York: Random House, One World/Ballantine Books, 2004). Also available directly from Dr. Fullilove is a videotape, "Urban Renewal is People Removal."

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