The Generational Effects of Urban Renewal

Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, and author of “Root Shock.”

By Johnnie Grant

Where were you when the flood waters of Katrina devastated New Orleans? Most people can remember. 

Some sat glued to a television set echoing the sentiment, “Somebody DO something — just do something — anything!” The source of this gulf coast catastrophe was a failure to have a reasonable plan in place resulting in a destruction that will affect generations of people to come. “The displacement of people and the effects of urban renewal are just as destructive as Katrina – it’s root shock,” notes Dr. Mindy Fullilove.

“Root shock” is the term Dr. Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, describes as the “loss of home.” She also describes how the dispossession and collective loss suffered as a result of displacement can unseat every person’s existence; the condition is evident everywhere, especially in the African American communities it displaces.

These sentiments were visible when the 2008 Downtown Master Plan
proponents made presentations at various venues around town. Notably
and visibly absent at many of these meeting sessions was the local
African American community. It was (and with no foregone conclusion) a
sentiment echoed throughout the minority community that another round
of Urban Renewal projects was in the making. African Americans “knew”
that somewhere locally, another low-wealth community would experience
the brunt of yet another upheaval.

root_shock_book.jpgBy special invitation, and with some coaxing, African American
community members showed up at the Wilcox Building on South Charlotte
Street for one of these presentations; it was ironic that the meeting
was held in a building on land that once contained homes occupied by
members of the East End community.

As the crowd listened to the proposed master plans, a certain
sense of déjà vu filled the room. Resentment was immediately apparent,
and none of the planners’ promises or assurances seemed remotely
plausible. The resulting mix of emotions, intriguing and awkwardly
disjointed as it seemed, went far beyond the ordinary compilation of
inclusion, leaving only a mindset of noticeably unmet needs. For many
remembered that less than a half-century ago, just as in most African
American communities, doctors, lawyers, educators, pharmacists,
ministers, business owners, and janitors lived among each other. Then
something happened, (along with the dawning of integration) that
contributed to the break up of this homogenous enclave — “Urban

During this period, 2,532 urban renewal projects were
undertaken, two-thirds of which were directed toward African American
neighborhoods – this at a time when blacks were just 12 percent of the
U.S. population. “Negro removal” became the mocking term African
Americans used for urban renewal. Back then, governing metropolitan
districts and cities defined urban renewal as investing dollars to
improve impoverished neighborhoods. And for a while urban renewal
worked — until people from these razed communities saw that the dollars
intended to improve their neighborhoods were, unsurprisingly, being
channeled elsewhere. Most went to build civic centers, renovate
baseball or football stadiums, and upgrade other athletic or sports

Could Urban Renewal Be Considered Ethnic Cleansing?

Fullilove compellingly discusses the social, and not simply
aesthetic, evils of urban renewal. This effort was and still is widely
regarded as “progress,” but it could more properly be described as a
form of ethnic cleansing, according to Fullilove.

Beyond the losses, both financial and psychological, of the
displaced populations, Fullilove emphasized that the uprooting of
communal relationships has a profound impact on the larger society.

“There was a great desire to get African Americans away from
downtown areas. There is a real clash of who wants the land for what,”
said Fullilove. “This is a fundamental clash in all episodes of
displacement. Whoever has the power and money to write the history of
displacement will say that whoever used to have the land used it badly
— and that they [the new owners] will use it well. There is no
narrative of displacement that does not contain this story line,”
concluded Fullilove.