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Root Shock: How Tearing up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do about It

Root Shock: How Tearing up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do about It

by Mindy Fullilove

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They called it progress. But for the people whose homes and districts were bulldozed, the urban renewal projects that swept America starting in 1949 were nothing short of assault. Vibrant city blocks—places rich in history—were reduced to garbage-strewn vacant lots. When a neighborhood is destroyed its inhabitants suffer “root shock”: a


They called it progress. But for the people whose homes and districts were bulldozed, the urban renewal projects that swept America starting in 1949 were nothing short of assault. Vibrant city blocks—places rich in history—were reduced to garbage-strewn vacant lots. When a neighborhood is destroyed its inhabitants suffer “root shock”: a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem. The ripple effects of root shock have an impact on entire communities that can last for decades.

In this groundbreaking and ultimately hopeful book, Dr. Mindy Fullilove examines root shock through the story of urban renewal and its effect on the African American community. Between 1949 and 1973 this federal program, spearheaded by business and real estate interests, destroyed 1,600 African American neighborhoods in cities across the United States. But urban renewal didn’t just disrupt the black community. The anger it caused led to riots that sent whites fleeing for the suburbs, stripping them of their own sense of place. And it left big gashes in the centers of U.S. cities that are only now slowly being repaired.

Focusing on three very different urban settings—the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the Central Ward in Newark, and the small Virginia city of Roanoke—Dr. Fullilove argues powerfully that the twenty-first century will be one of displacement and of continual demolition and reconstruction. Acknowledging the damage caused by root shock is crucial to coping with its human toll and building a road to recovery.

Astonishing in its revelations, unsparing in its conclusions, Root Shock should be read by anyone who cares about the quality of life in American cities—and the dignity of those who reside there.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This powerfully imaginative work by a leading social psychiatrist offers original ideas that sponsor not just a critique but ways to respond and prevent a major source of social and health problems in our time. A book of real importance.”
—ARTHUR KLEINMAN, Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Anthropology,
Harvard University

Root Shock examines the impact of urban renewal and community dismemberment on Americans—especially African Americans—and challenges us to respond. This could be one of the great books of our time!”
—DAVID SATCHER, M.D., Ph.D., director, National Center for Primary Care at
Morehouse School of Medicine

Root Shock is a superbly written book, with a profoundly urgent message. In many ways the book is a mirror of the lost and lovely neighborhoods Mindy Fullilove brilliantly illuminates: courageous, powerful, and unforgettable. With Root Shock, Fullilove joins the ranks of William Julius Wilson, Melissa Faye Greene, Jonathan Kozol, and Barbara Ehrenreich—social critics who daringly shine a light on the neglected corners of the American Dream.”
—PATRIK HENRY BASS, author of In Our Own Image
and Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963

“An indispensable book that deals with human rights as they refer to the trauma that poor communities experience when the cynicism of social forces displaces them and destroys their communities.”
—HERBERT KOHL, Institute for Social Justice and Education,
author of 36 Children and “I Won’t Learn from You”

“Dr. Mindy Fullilove, one of the finest and most creative psychiatric intellects of our time, has outdone her previous seminal contributions on ‘place’ and ‘displacement’ by introducing us to the notion of ‘root shock.’ This wonderful, relevant, contextual text touts the importance of urbanization and how urban renewal shredded the social fabric that was a key component of mental wellness in African Americans.”
—CARL C. BELL, M.D., F.A.P.A., F.A.C. Psych.
President and CEO, Community Mental Health Council, and professor of psychiatry and public health, University of Illinois

“The eradication of 1,600 African American communities, Fullilove compellingly contends, has done far-reaching damage to the emotional ecosystem of the entire United States.”
—LISE FUNDERBURG, author of Black, White, and Other

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.23(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic. One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hardworking people enjoyed baseball. That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field. It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in Major League Baseball, and there that "Shorty's Sym-Phony Band" tortured the opposition. Words like "raucous" and "zany" are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity and the uniqueness of what went on.

In 1957, Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles. The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of fans. "I felt like a jilted lover," recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life. Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Field, and in particular, to try to take us into its magic. This is the real essence of "nostalgia," an emotion that is in one second bitter, and in another sweet, as the rememberer vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss. Enduring sorrow and untempered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. "I never rooted for them again," says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.

Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site. People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there. And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished. Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray. The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.

But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth-largest city of the United States (were Brooklyn independent of the rest of New York City)?

The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places-buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations-are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter. Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them. When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams. Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food. The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad. Try to find the shortcut you used to take to your best friend's house and it is your feet that will carry you there. The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awaken our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people. We can, indeed, separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care. When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock ensues.

What Is 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 experienced 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. The nervous system attempts to compensate for the imbalance by cutting off circulation to the arms and legs. Suddenly the hands and feet will seem cold and damp, the face pale, and the brow sweaty. This is an emergency state that can

preserve the brain, the heart, and the other essential organs for only a brief period of time. If the fluids are not restored, the person will die. Shock is the fight for survival after a life-threatening blow to the body's internal balance.

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 maximizes the odds that he will survive predators, find food, maintain shelter from the harsh elements, and live in harmony with family and neighbors. This method for navigating the external environment is selected because, based on individual and collective trial-and-error experiences with the mazelike possibilities offered by the surrounding world, it seems to offer the greatest chances for survival. Using this analogy to mazes we can call the chosen pattern of movement "a way to run the maze of life," or, more simply, a "mazeway."

When the mazeway, the external system of protection, is damaged, the person will go into root shock. Just as a burn victim requires immediate replacement of fluids, so, too, the victim of root shock requires the support and direction of emergency workers who can erect shelter, provide food, and ensure safety until the victim has stabilized and can begin to take over these functions again.

Imagine the victim of an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, or a terrorist attack. He suffers from root shock as he looks at the twisted remains of the known universe, searching for the road to the supermarket, which used to be there, but is now a pile of rubble. Imagining such a person-and knowing that these tragedies can happen to any of us-we open our hearts and wallets to the Red Cross and other relief organizations that show up immediately to be the temporary mazeway, the transfusion of an environment to those who are naked to the elements.

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. Noah's ark-and his effort to rebuild the world after the flood-is the true story of a lost world. We keep telling that story because we keep living it, not simply when the floods come, but after they have receded and we try to rebuild.

Carlos Peterson, a resident of the Lower Hill, was deeply affected by the bulldozing of his neighborhood. He related, "I remember being able to look from the third floor and actually see the bulldozers and the destruction of where we once lived. This urban renewal process was preparation for Pittsburgh's Civic Arena. I was young and did not fully understand what was happening. I only knew this process was coming towards us. Coupled with the sense of personal loss of friends and neighborhood, this event had quite an influence on my life." As an adult, he gained a deeper understanding of the process that continued to destroy the neighborhood. It was with a sense of increasing urgency that he sought to document what was happening around him. The photograph shown here depicts the bulldozing in the area of Crawford Street, with the dome of the Civic Arena in the background, and exposed tree roots in the foreground. The disrupted context, exterior to the individual and the group, is the fundamental process that engenders root shock.

Carlos Peterson worked, as well, to depict the emotional impact the environmental devastation had on him. "I decided to express my feeling using drawings and photography. . . . I decided to look at my surroundings from a grassroots level, with the perspective of knowing how such conditions made me feel. My impression was that we were like a bunch of nomads always fleeing, that was the feeling I had.

"When creating my drawings I attempted to look at a building from within, and the structure's exterior. I would go into a vacant structure and photograph how it was, allowing memories of my experience to influence art. I would seek to tie in my impressions of what it would feel like had I been the last resident. Therefore, I would end up with a lot of stretched and distorted images that I thought reflected the economics in a downtrodden neighborhood."

In "Stream of Consciousness," the drawing shown here, the isolated buildings, open grave, and looming cross create a landscape of loss. The artist has placed his profile among the doomed buildings on the horizon. A dressmaker's model and a fallen stop sign are poignant reminders that this world once worked and moved and meant something to the people who lived in it. Thus, Carlos Peterson attempts to reveal the texture and content of the painful emotions that accompany root shock.

"This drawing contains symbolism that characterized my state of mind during the time when the Hill District was at its lowest ebb. My drawings were my therapy through the smothering depression that came with the area's carcass-like landscape. During that time I saw contradiction between religion and nature. Man-made structures and man always succumb to nature no matter how strong man's faith, prayer, or objects. . . . Nature renews itself through death and dying. With this realization, I included my profile near the horizon just beyond the fence, upper right."

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.

Root shock, at the level of the local community, be it neighborhood or something else, ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass. Even if they manage to regroup, they are not sure what to do with one another. People who were near are too far, and people who were far are too near. The elegance of the neighborhood-each person in his social and geographic slot-is destroyed, and even if the neighborhood is rebuilt exactly as it was, it won't work. The restored geography is not enough to repair the many injuries to the mazeway.

Root shock, it is important to recognize, ripples out beyond those who are affected-in the way we like to measure these things. September 11 demonstrated our society's great love for distinguishing an "affected" group that needs help from an "unaffected" group that doesn't. While the "affected" people did need help, many more people were affected than was generally conceded. I was part of a call-in television show that aired just before the first anniversary of the attack. People from Queens or Staten Island called to say, "I feel bad, but nothing happened to me. It's making me feel guilty." I insisted, over and over again, that September 11 had happened to all of us and that the bad feeling was a natural reaction to having one's city attacked by terrorists.

But root shock goes even further than one city, linking a local tragedy to events around the globe. During the 1950s and '60s, a federal program called "urban renewal" destroyed hundreds of African American neighborhoods, many of which were home to jazz, a music that flowed through the communities from home to street to club. The young kids learning to play would linger outside the clubs to hear the music, dreaming of the day they might participate. Major chunks of the jazz world-the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Hill District in Pittsburgh, and the South Side of Chicago, among them-were torn up by urban renewal, and the structure of home-street-club was destroyed. Jazz nearly disappeared in the United States, surviving by dint of becoming an academic subject in high schools and colleges, played in a few austere clubs in New York and other big cities. The fact that the music endured had much to do with Europe and Japan, which offered performance sites where musicians might hone their craft and earn a living. Japan is now the top consumer of jazz CDs and Tokyo a "must stop" on a jazz ensemble's touring schedule.

Tobias von Shöenebeck, a tour guide in Berlin, applied this principle of ripple effects on August 3, 2003, while watching fellow citizens participate in a new fad called "flash mob," which had apparently originated in New York two months earlier. At the Berlin event, the flash mob, called together by email and cell phone, gathered in front of the American embassy to pop bottles of champagne, toast Natasha, and disperse. Von Shöenebeck shook his head, and muttered, "This is just the sort of thing that happens when you forbid New York to smoke." He was referring to the implementation in April 2003 of tough new laws outlawing smoking in New York City bars and restaurants. While few might have made the connection between New York's smoking laws and the fads that catch on in Berlin, it is exactly the kind of idea to which I am referring.

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 to the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as beings 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.

Though a simple principle, it is hard to learn because the effects of root shock immediately get caught up in everything else that's going on in the world. As the message moves around the world, it is possible to think of many other explanations for an initial cause. Imagine how many factors, other than New York City's smoking laws, helped create the Berlin flash mob. The idea that your hurt has an effect on my life requires us to believe in "action at a distance," which makes the average scientist go rigid with skepticism.

Meet the Author

Mindy Fullilove, M.D., a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, has done pioneering research on the effects of AIDS on African-American communities. She is the author of The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place. She lives in Englewood, New Jersey.

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