Mar 22, 2009

Urban Transfomations and Root Shock

I had the Best Saturday Ever! I went to Urban Transformations, a conference hosted by my school, and learned about public housing, redlining, gentrification, food security, prison reform, root shock and crime reporting.

I've gotta say that the most interesting thing was the food justice panel, not just because I felt like I had the most to contribute in the post-panel discussion, but because of a little thing that happened - Allentown came up on the slide show. Right there. In front of me. In D.C. No one in the panel was from Allentown and the guy who brought it up had never actually been to Allentown, (he was from Portland, Ore). The whole discussion was about walking-based access to supermarkets in Portland, and showed some research he got from Lehigh County. He is going to send me the source information for his slide on Allentown, I'll post it when I get it.

The second most interesting thing was a concept I had never before heard about: Root Shock. Coined by Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove (she's a psychiatrist, not a scholar - something she made clear to us several times) and it's "a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruction of one's emotional ecosystem." So it relates directly to urban renewal and gentrification and any destruction of urban infrastructure.

I've oscillated a lot on my opinion of gentrification. The main problem with the term is just how loaded it is. It's a political weapon that automatically calls up images of Starbucks plowing over corner grocery markets. Or white people moving in and driving up housing prices that force the previous, minority, population out. Or classism. Or zoning technicalities that are intentionally indecipherable so they confuse local populations into inaction when plans come through to change all the internally-illuminated signs to wooden signs of such-and-so size and put all the shopkeepers out of business. And those are just a few problems with the word.

Many planners and urbanists have skirted the issue by using slightly less political terms, but whatever you call it, it looks the same to residents. Dr. Fullilove made the point that those who are anti-gentrification are considered to be "stuck in the past," which, in a way, they might be, but it's the current issue of racism in processes like redlining that really bring a neighborhood to the point of disinvestment and deindustrialization that make an area a target for gentrification and urban renewal.

Her suggested solution is connection: "the logic of apartheid is deeply rooted in the American conscious, it is imperative to the mental health of all to connect these neighborhoods to the greater fabric of the city." So, instead of removing busses from a particular street, there really should be more busses there that go more places (i.e. not just to the malls) and maybe not any sort of new zoning laws that target low-income shop keepers? I think that's what Dr. Fullilove would suggest.

She was really incredible. A great speaker. I can't do her any justice. She's a great writer, too. Her book is Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It.

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