In a new book, Root Shock, Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove proposes that displacement is the problem that the 21st century must resolve. Her definition of root shock is “the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.”
Dr. Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, tallies the costs of urban renewal in three black communities – including one in Newark, New Jersey –where people were dispossessed not just of their homes but also of the personal networks that radiated throughout their communities.
Although Dr. Fullilove does not discuss the proposed Newark sports arena, she does touch on sports early in her book – the destruction of Ebbets Field after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and the long-lasting pain it produced for many residents. It’s an oft-told story, but Fullilove enlists the tale for her purposes of exploring the connections to “place.” She writes: “Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them.” But does that mean a sports venue will play the same role in every community? She makes no such claim. In another chapter, she describes how a civic arena in Pittsburgh disrupted a black community, the Lower Hill. Today, that arena is home to a professional hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A home team, of course, guarantees nothing. One need only recall the arson that roared through the Bronx in the 1970s, despite the presence of the New York Yankees and their famous stadium in that borough. Nonetheless, Newark’s sports arena appears closer to becoming a reality. Mayor Sharpe James has received approval for the financing that will bring the New Jersey Devils hockey team and indoor soccer to New Jersey’s largest city. The mayor and others who support the arena say it will bring family entertainment to downtown and spur further downtown development that will boost neighborhoods as well. Those who oppose the arena say the public money could be better spent directly in the neighborhoods. As writer Jason Stevenson points out, neither side offers convincing arguments. Instead, the debate reveals the lack of a shared vision about the city’s future, and no framework or process to develop one.
In the Kensington section of North Philadelphia, six single mothers didn’t have much, but they did have vision. They organized the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) and proceeded to “borrow” city and federal property for the homeless – embarrassing officials who suddenly came up with the Section 8 housing voucher that the families need. In a special Organize! column, Ron Feemster describes the work of KWRU, which is nothing less than the reconstruction of an emotional ecosystem by people who have already lost so much, and who extend to each other the courtesies and humane treatment so often denied them by the welfare system. What is also impressive is how KWRU is building a movement for housing rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Feemster writes that KWRU is providing the vision for a domestic human rights movement in the United States. That’s the kind of home team we can all root for.
Also In This Issue
James Goodno ponders the HUD record of former secretary Mel Martinez, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida and who is facing a crowded field in the Republican primary at the end of August. Martinez leaves no clear record of achievement at that beleaguered agency, which has survived all manner of abuse, disregard and de-funding under presidents of both political parties. Martinez’s strongest asset could be his friendship with President George W. Bush. That could be a mixed blessing for Friends of George who may find the relationship a drag on their political fortunes if the war in Iraq continues on its horrific course.
While HUD talks about increasing homeownership, many CBOs actually provide such opportunities to low-income families as an asset-building strategy. But Dean Baker warns that this strategy may backfire during a “housing bubble,” which he asserts we’re in. Is he right?
This is my last issue of Shelterforce. I’ve enjoyed the chance to cover the issues of development, justice and equity that engage our readers. Your work – the successes as well as the setbacks and challenges – shapes the content of this magazine, and makes it the unique publication that it is. That’s why Shelterforce will continue to inform my thinking and writing about housing and communities.