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

By Mindy Fullilove

One World/Ballantine. 292 pp. $25.95

In the years following the successful conclusion of World War II it was decided, in the cities themselves but most importantly in the U.S. Congress, that the great cities of this country were in desperate need of what soon became known as "urban renewal." A lot of potentially valuable land was wasted, so it was believed, on unprepossessing city neighborhoods inhabited by the poor, the working class and, most specifically, the African American. These neighborhoods were "blighted," according to enlightened urban-policy authorities of the day, and should be razed to make room for more productive development. This, Mindy Fullilove writes, is how it went:

"Once those areas had been defined, the city had the task of developing a 'workable plan.' This had largely to do with figuring out a new use for the area once it was cleared of blight. The workable plan was forwarded to regional urban renewal offices for approval by the federal government. Once the plan was approved, the designated areas could be seized using the government's power of eminent domain. The people and businesses that occupied the site were given a minimal amount of compensation and were sent away. The seized land was then cleared of all buildings and, thanks to federal subsidies, sold to developers at a fraction of the city's costs. The developers then built businesses, educational and cultural institutions, and residences for middle- and upper-income people. In some instances, high-rise public housing projects were built on the cleared land."

All this took place under two federal housing acts, one passed in 1949 and the second in 1954; other, less important modifications were approved at other times. The result was "a program of the U.S. government that had, between 1949 and 1973, bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 American cities" and dispossessed a million people. Fullilove estimates that 1,600 of these neighborhoods -- 64 percent -- were black, inspiring in short order the expression "Urban renewal is Negro removal."

Fullilove, who teaches clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University (and is herself African American), has coined a term for what people undergo when they are forcibly removed from their neighborhoods. She calls it "root shock," and she defines it as "the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one's emotional ecosystem." She writes:

"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. Root shock undermines trust, increases anxiety about letting loved ones out of one's sight, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack. Root shock leaves people chronically cranky, barking a distinctive croaky complaint that their world was abruptly taken away."

All of which is true -- well, "croaky complaint" seems a bit far-fetched -- but there is more to it than that. As the record of the past half-century clearly demonstrates, urban renewal as practiced in this country has mostly been a recipe for urban decay, crime and social tension. Not all of the neighborhoods it destroyed were oases of urban loveliness, but many of them were stable, safe and internally cohesive -- the deservedly celebrated Hill District of Pittsburgh, for example, where the author John Edgar Wideman grew up and about which he has written with deep affection and appreciation.

A couple of aerial photographs in "Root Shock" show what happened to the Hill District: In the first it is clearly visible as a low-rise residential neighborhood just east of downtown Pittsburgh, but in the second it has been ripped away, replaced by the Civic Arena -- built for fans of light opera and ice hockey, the vast majority of them white -- and by vast stretches of land cleared but not redeveloped. Similar before-and-after pictures of Roanoke, that beautiful little city in southwestern Virginia, show how urban renewal completely pulverized it, leaving little of its beauty and lots of interstate highway.

The story of Roanoke has been told in detail by Mary Bishop, a reporter for the Roanoke Times concerned, according to Fullilove, with "the untold stories of vulnerable people." Over "three years and a hundred interviews," Bishop "traced the fate of every house in the area, and was able to create an extraordinary map, detailing what had happened to the homes, businesses and institutions of black Roanoke." Her stories, published in the mid-1990s, covered four decades and produced a devastating portrait of a city engaged in self-destruction.

The precise motives of the city governments of Pittsburgh, Roanoke and all the other cities that climbed aboard the urban-renewal bandwagon probably never will be known. No doubt there was a fair amount of genuine civic-mindedness, but no doubt there was also a fair amount of racial prejudice. Inasmuch as blacks were the chief victims of "renewal" and inasmuch as they were almost never brought into discussions about the cities' plans, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the cities simply didn't want black neighborhoods so close to their central cores.

Never mind that, as is a common theme in the testimony of the many people with whom Fullilove (and Bishop) talked, those neighborhoods were often good places to live -- not the manicured, white-picket-fence neighborhoods of suburbia, to be sure, but settled places with which people strongly identified and where they felt at home. Once the great steamroller of renewal got cranked up, anything that stood in its way was sure to come down. What (if anything) came up in its place was a poor substitute indeed: arenas that opened only for special events, shopping malls, parking garages, highways, high-rise public housing.

This last, as is now commonly if belatedly understood, turned out to be a sorry answer indeed to the problems urban renewal was supposed to solve. As the infamous Cabrini-Green apartments of Chicago so notoriously proved, these developments bred not contentment but crime. The legacy of urban renewal was a catastrophe: "the loss of unskilled jobs, the influx of heroin and other addictive drugs, the slow collapse of the family, and the incursion of AIDS, violence, asthma, and obesity. Each disaster increased the impact of the next, and the spiral of community disintegration began to spin faster and faster. . . . The present state of Black America is in no small measure the result of 'Negro removal.' "

Though Fullilove's focus is on renewal's effect on blacks, as it should be, she also emphasizes that razed, demoralized, crime-haunted cities are a curse on all of us and that forces other than urban renewal -- "highways, planned shrinkage, gentrification, densification, economic restructuring -- all are profoundly important processes that reshape cities." Her proposed solutions have a considerable pie-in-the-sky quality to them, but that doesn't really matter. What counts is throwing light on the problem, and this Fullilove does with authority and passion.