Monday, March 5, 2012

'The divided city is a subjugated city'

Last weekend, the book I took to the Dowd YMCA to take my mind off the mindlessness of stationary bicycling was Mindy Thompson Fullilove's "Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.

Fullilove's theme is that urban renewal displaced not just homes and businesses but ripped apart essential community networks, the loss of which created havoc for people, neighborhoods and cities.
As I pedaled, I could see out the windows to the Interstate 277 trench and the bland, dead area beyond, where Charlotte's Second Ward once held the lively, black neighborhood called Brooklyn, erased by urban "renewal" in the 1960s and 1970s.

Only shards remain: the old McCrory Y gym survives behind the United Way building, as does the old Second Ward High School gym. A sliver of storefronts survives on South Brevard. All else was leveled. The trauma urban "renewal" inflicted on Charlotte remains virtually unexamined here outside the recollections of the older black generation. A few efforts have been made to document where houses and buildings used to be and to collect and showcase old photos, but to my knowledge no one has studied the emotional and economic toll: the resentment, anger and grief people experienced from that disruption, and how its ripples affect the city to this day.

And as Fullilove explains, wounds from urban "renewal" damaged more than just the neighborhoods she studied in Roanoke, Va., Pittsburgh and near Newark, N.J. I came across this wonderful passage. It comes after a description of Orange, N.J., and a church singing group that survived urban "renewal" and lives on, although the neighborhood surrounding the church has fallen into decline.

"The inhospitable, damaged city still had gathering places of all kinds. Within that shelter, people made good times. It took enormous effort, but people were willing to do it, to keep the community going, to keep spirits up.

"The problems with events-as-city extend beyond the burden that this places on the event-makers. The most serious problem is that events tend to be created for some and not for others. The Essex Chorale sings for the 'haves,' not out of any wish to exclude, but out of patterns of cultural separation that make going some places possible for some people but not for all.

"The great gift of the city is that of propinquity: anybody can meet anybody on the streets of a great city. Once the streets collapse, or the market is bulldozed, or the parks are fenced, or the beach erodes, people lose the ways and means of public intercourse. The ensuing separations follow social fault lines that divide populations by class, race, religion, age, culture, or whatever else suggests to people what they like. The street is not about 'what I like,' but going to a concert is. In that lies the profound structural difference imposed on social relations by the collapse of the city.

"The 'haves' at Patty's concert, like Patty, have talent, education, wealth, and family support. What they do not have is the 'right to the city,' the freedom to move anywhere and everywhere. They are not, as in the past, restricted by Jim Crow laws. Now, they are restricted by danger and by difference. In this tense atmosphere, the 'haves' must protect what they have, as Patty had to protect her children by driving them to school. This creates a form of isolation – whether it is expressed in the gated, moated housing complex or not – that blocks the creative, generative energy of the city from flowing forth. The divided city is a subjugated city."